Dear WholeFamily Counselor,
I am happy to say that I have three grandchildren; a granddaughter who is twelve, a grandson who is ten and one who is three. But I feel the wonderful things people always told me about being a grandparent might be a little exaggerated. I do enjoy watching them grow up. I'm curious about who they will become as human beings. But I can't claim that I have created a special relationship with them. They don't seem to feel particularly connected to my husband and myself, even though my children push them to be nice to us. The oldest ones are into their own friends, and the baby clings to his parents. I am disappointed, and even a little hurt. How can we connect to them?
Dear Disappointed Grandparents,
People have fundamental assumptions that to develop a relationship you need to talk. This isn't a useful assumption. It leads to grandparents "interviewing" grandchildren, even when they see that the grandchildren don't respond well.
There are other ways of relating that are significant. If one thinks about a special relationship with a young child, it isn't based on verbal interchange, but on being together, and having fun together, or just doing things side by side.
There is value in just being present while the child does other things, playing with the grandchild, or helping grandchildren do things that are suitable to their age. The expectation of sharing information, of having the grandchild tell you things, may put pressure on the grandparent, which in turn puts pressure on the grandchild, and prevents a relaxed and pleasant interchange.
Activities With Younger Children
If possible, you want to spend time with each child in a way that's pleasant to them, and it has to be pleasant for you. If it isn't pleasant for you, it won't work. You won't be able to maintain it. For example, you can play with blocks with the three-year-old and even knock down the blocks afterwards, or do easy puzzles together. Paddy-cake, paddy-cake is something small children like, and it also involves clapping and a physical connection.
Another activity that both grandchildren and grandparents enjoy is reading stories together. Children also enjoy having the grandparent create a story. It can be based on the child's life. The same character appears in story after story, and certain elements repeat themselves. It can be about a birthday party, a trip, or a fun time.
Activities With Older Children
As far as older children are concerned, you can find things to do that are of interest to all of you. Sports, going to a basketball game, watching a baseball game on TV together is a pleasure for most. The pre-teen and the teen-age grandchild is a particular challenge, because children of this age are usually focused on their peer group. They have little interest in spending time with adults. One suggestion might be that instead of bringing a gift for a birthday, go together to select a present. Your grandchild can invite a friend. You can also take the grandchild out to eat. These are the building blocks of a relationship.
By spending time with your grandchildren in whatever way you choose, you have the opportunity to transmit values, indirectly as well as directly. Your behavior serves as a model, your home radiates a certain atmosphere, the way you relate to all the people with whom you come in contact, ranging from members of the family to the waitress in the restaurant, guides your grandchildren toward acceptable behavior.
Relationships go through stages and if things aren't satisfying at any particular time, it's worthwhile realizing that each stage is part of a long-term relationship, and it will change and develop little by little.