With the eyes of the world focused on the new royal baby, there’s much chatter about what William and Katherine will name the future king, how they’ll rear him and, interestingly, the roles of both sets of grandparents.
It’s normal for in-laws to feel a little competitive with the “other” side: Imagine trying to outdo the Windsors! But being a terrific grandparent is not, ultimately, about the bestowing of material gifts (though a castle and a fleet of Rolls-Royces and servants at your beck and call isn’t too shabby).
What I’ve learned from participating in the lives of my own darling grandsons, 2 and 5, is that the coolest things aren’t things. The best way to enrich the lives of grandchildren is by doing activities together and teaching, sharing, inspiring, supporting and loving them no matter what. These are the gifts that will last a lifetime.
A Grandparent’s Special Qualifications
There are (at least) three reasons why grandparents are uniquely competent at enhancing a child’s life: We have an unconditional love for them, we are motivated to support and supplement the values instilled by their parents and many of us have more time on our hands than the parents do.
So the next time you’re thinking about showering your grandchildren with short-lived (yet probably expensive) playthings, consider making a gift of your time, wisdom and experiences.
(MORE: 7 Ways to Be a Cool Grandparent)
9 Gifts of Enrichment
Through exposure and encouragement, your grandchild can develop an appreciation of and grounding in the following important areas.
1. Art Foster appreciation for a variety of mediums by introducing your grandchild to different artistic expressions and events. You could, obviously, go to museums and galleries, but more fun and lively are street fairs, live performances, artist-in-residence programs and hands-on classes at schools, museums or private centers. Inculcate an awareness of art in everyday life too — the majesty of architecture, the beauty of mosaic tiles and natural art, like trees, clouds and flowers.
“The magic lies not just in what you do, but how you do it,” says Debi Pfitzenmaier, editor of SA Busy Kids, which highlights activities and events for children in San Antonio. “Share the love of learning, the excitement. Be curious. Be engaged.” And don’t be discouraged. “Teaching children to appreciate art is like getting them to try different kinds of food. They may taste something and cringe, but you never know how those experiences will shape their future.”
2. Travel Spark a youngster’s curiosity about the world near and far with a subscription to National Geographic; rent or buy DVDs, like Arthur’s Travel Adventures; and thumb through picture books on exotic foreign places and cultures.
Older grandchildren benefit from actual travel, so make a shared trip an annual tradition. “It doesn’t need to be far or expensive — but you should involve the grandchild in the planning,” says retired HR executive and blogger Judy Von Feldt, who travels frequently with her two grandchildren. “We go to places they are interested in learning about. We don’t just go where we think they should visit, because then it would be our trip and not theirs.” And anytime you’re on a trip without the grandkids, send them fun postcards.
3. Compassion Animals offer an easy lesson for kids. Visiting various zoos — from open-range to petting — and animal shelters provides endless opportunities to discuss and practice humane care for our four-legged friends. Volunteering together at such places can foster a visceral understanding of compassion in action.
Don’t forget to engender kindness to humans. Community-service projects encourage children to meet and interact with people from different cultural, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s easy to see the positive and uplifting aspects of other cultures when exposed to their lives and community events. This is how people learn tolerance.
(MORE: Avoid the Grandparent Trap)
4. Civic-mindedness Grandchildren first learn the importance of participating in local and global initiatives by witnessing adults in their life doing so. Find age-appropriate options that interest the child. That could mean petitioning city officials to support a new playground or launching a recycling program in the school cafeteria.
One idea that works locally and globally (not to mention on a personal level) is creating hygiene kits. Fill plastic Ziploc bags with a small bottle of shampoo, a bar of soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and comb and donate them to local shelters and crisis centers or to organizations, like Convoy of Hope.
5. Healthy food “The earlier you make children aware of real food, the better their chances of establishing lifelong healthy habits,” says Wanda Patsche, a grandmother, farmer and blogger at Minnesota Farm Living.
Visiting farmer’s markets and cooking together are great starting points. Keep the tasks simple and always supervise kids in the kitchen. You can also tour working farms so your grandchildren meet real farmers and learn where their food comes from. Patsche says growing a garden together is a “great opportunity to spend time with grandchildren and talk to them about food and its relationship to health.”
(MORE: Why Cooking With Your Grandkids Matters)
If a personal garden isn’t realistic, go apple or berry picking. Or see if your neighborhood has a community garden. Read about growing edibles in containers in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Small-Space Gardening. For really little ones, you could plant an indoor herb garden — start with basil, oregano and thyme to flavor homemade pizzas or mint for lemonade.
6. Self-love Actions speak louder than words when teaching a child to feel good about herself and to respect her unique traits and talents. Show interest in a grandchild’s abilities by turning compliments into conversations. In addition to praising the drawing she made you, ask why she chose that particular color or medium. After you tell her how much you enjoyed her performance in the school play, ask what her favorite moments were.
7. Critical thinking Children can never have too much encouragement in this department, considering all that goes into it — analyzing and evaluating information, looking below the surface, predicting outcomes and more. Simple critical-thinking activities include looking for patterns in buildings (windows, roof lines, doorways) and sorting and classifying things, like blocks by color or foods by when or how we eat them.
Megan Schmidt, an early-childhood educator in Phoenix, says grandparents have an opportunity to teach this skill specifically because of the age gap and differences in generations. “The more exposed a child is to a grandparent’s history and stories of the way things used to be, the more creatively they can think about things in their own life,” Schmidt says. “Anytime you tell a story, ask the child, ‘Why do you think this happened?’ or 'What do you think happened next?'"
Along similar lines, you could expand their capabilities by teaching them a skill or craft that you're good at, like sewing, woodworking or even how to read a map. They can apply the critical thinking to the problem-solving that comes up along the way.
8. Responsibility Our job as grandparents and parents is to prepare children for adulthood, says Ruth Nemzoff, author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children. “Everything from putting their toys away to playing with other children offers them a chance to notice the effects of behavior on other people,” Nemzoff says.
A good way to empower children from an early age is to start giving them (appropriate) tasks that they alone are responsible for. “Just about any activity has a component that a child can do,” she says. “Have him mix the eggs, fold the laundry, find items in the grocery store — and make a game of it when possible. Table setting can be ‘playing waitress’; unloading the car can be more fun if you call it ‘playing delivery boy or girl.’”
9. Mind-body health This sounds like a tall order, but it’s the foundation for everything else — and is best learned through positive role modeling. Begin by evaluating your own lifestyle then working to eliminate unhealthy habits. Start discussing "good health" when they’re young. Encourage smart food choices — eating a rainbow of colors during meals, meaning fruits and vegetables, not Skittles — and regular physical activity (i.e., not gametime on electronic devices). Jump rope, take walks and do things to your mutual competence levels. Feed their minds and moods in laugh-a-thons like those practiced by certified Laughter Clubs and sharing music or videos that elicit everything from giggles to goosebumps.
Another lesson to teach early on is the value of sleep and alternating play time with rest time. After a full day engaging with your grandchildren, you're sure to appreciate it too!
Freelance writer Lisa Carpenter runs the website Grandma’s Briefs.