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Being there for kids is grand


© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 28, 2001

Grandparenting is a tricky business today. No matter what age my grandchildren are, they seem to think they have all the answers. And I listen. I have an advantage and feel very fortunate because they live nearby, and so I've been a part of their lives over the years. I also believe that wise grandparents try to keep their thoughts to themselves, try not to look too shocked and hope and pray, "This, too, shall pass."

No matter what age they are, they are a lot of fun and keep you tuned in to what the current generation is all about.

Summer is the perfect opportunity to get to really know your grandchildren and to plan time together, in town or long-distance. Time can be spent sharing a vacation, a hobby, an experience or celebrating a family reunion. It can be conversation over the phone. The goal is to cement your relationship with your grandchildren and to have fun.

Two friends of mine, Oscar and Georgia Fournier, said: "Our one daughter and her family live in Germany as Army personnel, and for the past three years we've had to keep in contact by phone and e-mail. There's a lot of love that goes over those lines!"

In my case, I invited two of my grandchildren, Becky and Eric, who are young teenagers, to work with me on some projects in the office for a few hours two days a week. We also have the experience of exercising together, organizing all of the family pictures, and we planned a trip to Austin, Texas, to visit my son, Greg, and his family. Certainly, this has taken plenty of planning on my part, but the rewards are great.

Grandparenting has received much attention in recent years because of the increasing number of grandparents providing day care or raising their grandchildren. More than 3-million children are cared for by grandparents. In more than a third of the nation's households, the grandparent has become the primary caregiver, and many of them are also caring for frail older family members.

Grandparents always have been and are an increasingly vital link in the family and society. The grandparent/child link is necessary for a healthy family and community. Many children do not have grandparents or have grandparents who live out of state. They can benefit from having an older person in their life.

Grandparents need to be stimulated by grandchildren, and children need to be able to appreciate the history of their grandparents and other elders by being exposed to their gifts, knowledge, experience and wisdom. At the same time, older adults need to be able to extend understanding, supportive respect and a renewed appreciation of our young people. This connection provides a necessary intergenerational investment.

It fascinated me that Becky is so skillful at the computer and a wonderful instructor, studying and inserting a new program and working with me to implement it.

Eric is a natural organizer. He cleaned out the file room, categorized and arranged old files and file cabinets.

Both were interested and eager to learn and were a complement to the work that needed to be accomplished. We had fun and I felt privileged and blessed to be with them.

Grandparents and grandchildren can relate to one another in ways that parents and children can't always do. This special relationship can be more relaxed than that of parent-child. Grandparents don't have to play the role of the "heavy," which is often why the relationship can be so enjoyable and satisfying to both generations.

Spending time together and learning from each another is enough. You may be the only person who can take the time to affirm and be there for a young person. People of all ages need to feel totally accepted for who they are, know they can be themselves and know they are needed.

When I first took Becky and Eric to exercise, I could tell they felt a little out of place. Only after my trainer, a handsome, well-built young man paid me a compliment and asked them if they knew that they had a cool grandmother, did they relax and relate to me differently. I felt accepted in a whole new light, and we opened new avenues of communication.

It is said that parenting is the only profession that leaves you out of a job when you're finally good at it. Grandparenting gives you a second chance. Wisdom can't be taught; it comes slowly with age. It's up to us to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to us while keeping in mind that we are not the parents. We have a host of possibilities as grandparents, so enjoying our roles and understanding that they carry different responsibilities and benefits from parenting relieves us to teach by supportive, affirming example.

Grandparents can provide unconditional love and affection. In many cases, they also can provide a sense of stability and security for children who may have difficulty coping with unwanted changes in their lives.

As grandparents, we can offer so much. Family history and tradition, as well as other important links to the past, are just a few of the positive experiences we can give our grandchildren.

I had two large boxes of family pictures that we sorted because I wanted to take many of them out to my son in Texas. I didn't realize it would turn into a large, humorous project. Becky and Eric had a great time seeing family members, from great-great-grandparents to baby and school pictures of their mother and my other children, plus their own pictures as they were growing up.

Through such activities, children can acquire a sense of their roots and develop a sense of connectedness, plus acquire the awareness that each generation holds a special place in the ongoing chain of life.

Children imitate what they see and hear. Being the example is often the most effective way to build a connection of love and care. We can serve as role models, family historians, guides and mentors. We can also talk about our feelings, with stories about when we were young and had to wear glasses, braces or weren't any good at sports. By using good listening skills and showing your interest, you open the doors for positive sharing.

I've learned more about this generation than I expected: everything from the music, choices that confront even young teenagers, decisions that had to be made, clothes, hair, school, books, television shows, computers, feelings on certain topics, spirituality, embarrassing moments and the opposite sex.

Sometimes, a caring question can spark a discussion on deep feelings that need to come into the open. Just the fact that you're asking a question such as "What's happening?" can indicate you have the time and heart to be interested.

It's important that grandparents be fun, relevant people who can convey hope, respect, service toward others and who do wonderful, everyday things. Always remember, it's not what we've made in life, it's what we've made out of life. You're the visible sign; value your example.

Remember, caregivers make the present moment count.

- Ethel Sharp is executive director of Aging Matters Inc., a nonprofit network for family caregivers and elder care. You can write to her c/o Seniority, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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