You have a joyous opportunity to support the next generation. Be yourself, be firm but fair, and bond through tradition
For most of us who have children, it is highly likely that the day will come when a grandchild arrives. I well remember when my first newborn granddaughter was put into my arms and I felt my heart turn over.
When it does happen, you might feel unready for grandparenthood; you might have been longing for the day to come; or you might have some inbetween or complicated feelings. However, it is almost guaranteed that you will feel an atavistic urge to connect deeply with this new person and with your new generational role.
Grandparents have an important role
Anthropologists and evolutionary theorists who have studied family relationships throughout history identify grandparents as playing an important part in helping parents ensure the physical survival of their children. While not a popular subject for research, studies of modern societies too show how the involvement of grandparents can help their grandchildren’s resilience and overall healthy development.
Researchers at Melbourne University recently took a different approach and demonstrated the cognitive benefits to grandparents of minding a grandchild for one day per week. It seems that enhancing the grandchild-grandparent connection leads to gains on both sides.
Circumstances force some grandparents into being surrogate parents, and you who are such heroes will need more than this Guide to manage your dual roles. But even outside of such extremes, most of us grandparents have opportunities to forge a unique place in our grandchildren’s lives.
This was easier to do when families were less likely to be scattered around the world, a situation that’s been exacerbated by COVID-19-related travel restrictions. If your grandchildren are far away, you will want to see them whenever possible, and I encourage you to follow this Guide as best you can, using both old-fashioned and modern means of communication.
Aim to be ‘good enough’
The British paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott conceived the concept of the ‘good enough mother’, and it can apply equally to grandparenting. Based on his descriptions, this mother was actually pretty damn good, especially in ways most important to her children’s psychological development but, crucially, she did not try to be perfect, and she did not agonise too much when she wasn’t.
I always found comfort in telling myself that if the children were hugged, well-fed, relatively clean, and happily occupied, then a dusty shelf, toys on the floor or an unguarded word did not matter.
In the suggestions that follow, I draw on my own experiences as a grandmother, greatgrandmother and former school psychologist, as well as recent research. Remember, just as with your own children, your ways of connecting with grandchildren will alter as they grow and develop. What should remain constant is following the principles of being a ‘good enough’ grandparent.
This Guide aims to help grandparents establish and maintain a strong bond with their grandchildren. It is a very broad goal, and its achievement will require focusing on many different aspects of your relationships – usually several at the same time! Let us turn now to look at some of these aspects, or sub-goals, in turn. By naming, describing and exemplifying them, I hope to allow you to be clear about what you want to achieve, and to use what best fits your and your grandchildren’s lives.
Keep on good terms with your grandchildren’s parents
From the first contact with the new arrival in the family, it is vital to keep on the best possible terms with your grandchild’s parents (both your own child and their partner). The more the parents see you as being on their side, ready to help and unlikely to criticise, the better chance you have of keeping close to your grandchild. Praising this amazing baby/child/teenager will (mostly) be easy, but remember that praising her parents is equally important.
Think back to yourself as a young mother or father: who made you feel confident, and what did they say? Specific praise is always the most effective, so something such as ‘Look at how she is sharing her berries, you’re doing a great job’ will work well.
There are three important things to acknowledge frequently in this context. Firstly, that each baby is unique – if you had more than one child yourself, you know that well. Secondly, that the world is now very different from your early parenting days. Thirdly, that parenting can be exhausting.