Frances Killpatrick didn't have the opportunity to spend much time with her grandmothers when she was growing up, and she wanted to make sure she didn't miss out on her own grandmothering role.
So, from the time her first grandchild was born 18 years ago, Killpatrick and her husband, Jim, would make the weekly drive from Virginia to Maryland to spend time with, first Matthew, who was later joined by siblings Megan and Joseph. Over the years, Killpatrick's grandmothering duties progressed from changing diapers to chauffering to attending numerous extracurricular activities. Now Matthew is leaving for college, Megan is a high school senior, and Joseph is a busy student-athlete, and Killpatrick knows her grandparenting duties will evolve yet again.
"It was the most wonderful time when they were young," says Killpatrick. "It still is, though they're practically grown up and don't need me in the same way they once did.
"It's different now," Killpatrick continues, "but I'm so grateful that we are close enough to do things together, and so thankful for my son and daughter-in-law to include me (and my husband,when he was still with us)."
Killpatrick is one of the new breed of grandparents, not content to sit on the sidelines, but willing and eager to be an important part of their grandchildren's lives.
And that's a very good thing for both generations, say the experts. "At its best, the relationship between grandparent and grandchild is glorious," says Judah Ronch, PhD, Dean of The Erickson School, Management of Aging Services, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Grandparents don't have the burden of being the ones who are primarily raising the children, which gives grandchildren a unique way of approaching them."
According to Cornell University professor Karl Pillemer, PhD, Director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is second only to the parent-child relationship when it comes to emotional importance, and is beneficial to both generations. Dr. Pillemer's research finds that 90 percent of adults feel that their grandparents influenced their values and behavior.
For Illinois grandmother of six Mira Hymen Temkin, today's grandparents see their involvement in their grandchildren's lives as much richer than the relationship they had with their own grandparents. "It's a way of creating a lasting legacy," she says. "While we still read them nursery rhymes and tell them stories, we're just as often talking to them about the importance of doing good in the world."
"My commitment to my grandchildren is something I take very seriously as I share Jewish holidays and Jewish traditions, instilling in them a sense of meaning and heritage," Temkim continues. "I'm done raising my kids, now it's on to the next generation!"
Today's grandchildren are fortunate in that more of them have grandparents today than ever before. As the life expectancy has grown, so have the number of grandparents. In 1900, less than half of American adolescents had at least two living grandparents. Today there are about 80 million American grandparents, which is more than a third of the adult population.
"Grandparents these days are more involved and attuned to their grandchildren," says Baltimore primary care physician Marc I. Leavey, MD. "More are active online, and are familiar with their grandchildren's activities. Years ago, it seems that grandparents were often distant, receiving their grandchildren as visitors or guests. Now, they are more often an integral part of their lives."
Leavey, the proud grandfather of nine, says that just as he fondly remembers interacting with his own grandparents, he feels that the experiences he shares with his grandchildren on a regular basis are vital to helping develop their personality and their understanding of others.
Here are some words of wisdom for keeping the grandparent and grandchildren relationship great.
1. Be available, whether that's spending time in person, staying in touch via social media, or calling/skyping/emailing/texting.
2. Be loving, caring, and nurturing.
3. Be patient, listen and understand, and pay attention.
4. Bring joy into your grandchildren's lives.
5. Maintain positive relationships with your children and their spouses--your grandchildren's parents.
Dr. Leavey adds these final thoughts. "Meet the child at his or her level," he says. "You are the adult, with experience and understanding; the child has limitations with both of those. Listen to what your grandchild says, wants, and asks, and try to keep the conversation going."
"And don't be afraid of technology," he adds. "I can chat with my out-of-state grandchildren with computer video and audio, as well as on the phone." (Writing an old-fashioned letter once in a while is a nice touch too, says Dr. Leavey).
Finally, he says, don't be afraid of making a mistake, and show your trust and confidence in your grandchildren as they age. "Don't baby them, don't talk down to them, and appreciate them for who they are ... your legacy."
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