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Grandparents Can Be More Than Just a Baby-sitter

Providing a role model for grandchildren is just as important

By US Consumer Product Safety Commission | September 4, 2012

The contributions grandparents make to their families are extraordinary. Some, like baby-sitting or giving them safe cribs or strollers, are tangible. 
Others, like providing a role model for grandchildren, are intangible but just as powerful and real.

Take Your Role Seriously: You Have a Lot to Give

With babies and toddlers, you can be an additional source of love and care. For school-age children, you can teach family values and history. You can inspire older children and adolescents to want to grow up to be like you. To do that, you have to be a consistent presence in their lives. If you can, offer to babysit regularly or when needed. That allows you to lavish all your special attention on your grandchildren. At the same time, you'll win the eternal gratitude of your children, who need downtime.

In between visits, fill in the gaps with a weekly phone call to the child at a pre-arranged time. Encourage each child to share a "news" item with you, something only he or she can reveal. That way a phone call becomes an event that everyone looks forward to.

Videotapes are another wonderful way of keeping up with your grandchildren's everyday experiences and milestones. Of course, exchange emails and ask for packages of drawings and schoolwork. They give you insight into how they're developing and what interests them. Your positive feedback and praise helps to build self-esteem they'll need to get along in the world. Read a story or conjure up a fantasy for them on videotape. Let them hear it at bedtime. That way they'll remember you between visits.

For those of us who live too far away or are unable to babysit, there are lots of other ways to stay close. Arrange for regular visits with your grandchildren and have them visit you. See each grandchild separately if you can. Making rituals out of meeting with your grandchildren, having things that you do only with them, makes them feel unique. Besides, taking them to the zoo or to a special restaurant is fun for you, too.

But as caretakers of our grandchildren, even for an afternoon, we need to be careful. Most serious injuries on playgrounds come from falls onto hard surfaces. In fact, grass is one of the worst surfaces because it can become hard packed dirt.

Checking for playground surfacing that "gives" is extremely important. Wood chips, mulch, sand, pea gravel and rubber matting are all good choices. After all, you want your time together to be full of fun, not tears.

The constant contact with your grandchildren teaches you how to really listen to them, to understand what they mean to say, not just the words they use. When we take our grandchildren's words seriously and respect their opinions, they do let us know what's going on. That strengthens the growing bonds between you and your grandchild.

Making It Work

Even with all the advantages of an extended family, the course of those relationships doesn't always run smooth. Parents and grandparents are bound to disagree over childrearing choices. The trick is in knowing how to cool the friction before the fire gets out of hand.

What most young parents need from their own parents is sympathetic support, not advice and criticism. While it's sometimes painful to watch your children go through the trial and error of parenthood, it's part of their learning curve. It's best to let them know you're there for them, that you're willing and eager to listen and that you'd be glad to offer the wisdom of your own experience if and when they want it. A regular "date" with them to let your child unload is a sure way of keeping in touch.

Occasionally, our children or grandchildren will do something we feel so strongly about, we'll want to intervene right then and there. Resist temptation. It only undermines the parents in front of the children and sets up tensions. The time to talk about the problem is calmly and reasonably and privately. Even if you ultimately disagree, it inspires trust when you accept their parenting decisions. Remind your children of their own childhood crises and how they handled them.

Grandparents must respect their children as the parents. Grandparents are notorious for overindulging their young charges, and parents often worry that this will undercut their own childrearing efforts. However, Grandma and Grandpa's treats, no matter how frequent, are just one more sign to children that they are cherished. Grandparents can be tolerant, loving and supportive, without having to discipline and instruct the way parents must. They can afford to see all the good things in a child and ignore the bad. That's a wonderful mirror into which a child can look.

Children always know that their parents' insistence on proper nutrition and a sensible bedtime is good and loving in the most profound sense. So when it comes to major issues, grandparents should always abide by the limits set by the parents to avoid confusion and bad feeling on all sides.

One of the great gifts we have is our ability to influence young children. Removed from the power struggles of the immediate family a grandparent isn't likely to meet with as much resistance as a parent would in suggesting a child do some homework or set the table. It is one way grandparents help parents by reinforcing the values they want to instill.

Let your children know that you made more than your share of mistakes when they were little, and that, just as they do now, you had to learn how to take good care of them.

We're there with the power of example. Try not to force your beliefs. Rather, in a loving and conversational way, set a good example. For instance, my grandchildren see me in my job giving back to society. They've got the idea that's a good thing from watching what I do and how much I care about child safety. They've become safety ambassadors, very interested in safety for themselves and for their friends. It's your very presence that affects them. You're a grandparent figure. If you're informal, loving, friendly and casual, and you set a good example, it's the best way to encourage learning, values and connection that go beyond your family to the community and society at large.

First Things First: Safety!

Making your home safe for your grandchildren is an ongoing project that changes with each stage of his or her development. What works for a newborn isn't going to be enough for a crawling, alert 8-month-old, and certainly not for an inquisitive toddler. Daunting as it seems now, I can assure you, it'll seem less so as you grow along with your grandchild. It's an effort that will make you, your grandchildren and their parents feel relaxed and secure.

Maintain an "emergency procedure" that allows you to quickly contact your grandchild's doctor, hospital emergency room and poison control center. Keep these phone numbers by every phone in the house when your grandchild is visiting.

One way that will help you see potential hazards to your grandchildren is to get down on your hands and knees and see a room from their perspective.

Never underestimate your grandchild's ability to climb, explore or move furniture to reach something high up. Follow the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's Grandchild Safety Checklist to ensure your home will be safe for your grandchild.

It's important to keep in close touch with your children and respect the way they raise their own children. While you have considerably more experience in child-rearing, there are still things your children can teach you. For example, when I was a young mother, I thought I was keeping my daughters safe by putting them to sleep on their stomachs. Well, parents today are putting infants to sleep on their backs-which has dramatically reduced the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). We've also learned that putting babies to sleep on top of comforters or pillows, no matter how beautiful, may be associated with infant suffocation.Even that special old crib you've kept for your long-awaited grandchild may be dangerous because it doesn't meet current safety standards.

As grandparents, then, it's important for us to be attuned to changes in child-rearing and safety practices.

Based on the brochure A Grandparents' Guide For Family Nurturing & Safety by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.