By Shannon Keating, Assistant Editor
September 4, 2012 – I’m a college senior, the oldest in my family of five, and I am lucky enough to have something number of friends do not: a deep and lasting relationship with my grandparents.
Retirement is a new stage of life. Your new lifestyle might be an opportunity to spend more time with your grandchildren, or, particularly if you move far away, it could be a challenge for the relationship. Either way, it is up to you to seize the opportunity if you want a stronger connection with your grandchildren (or niece/nephew/godchild), whether they are toddlers or twenty-year-olds like me.
Not to say that there aren’t barriers aplenty. In addition to new distance and lifestyle changes, grandchildren and their grandparents were raised in different eras and have different perspectives about the world and life. But who’s to say these factors need to be obstacles at all, instead of exciting and interesting opportunities for learning and bonding?
As a self-proclaimed Professional Grandkid (one of 37 on my dad’s side), I have compiled a list of suggestions based on my own experiences and those of my friends and family for staying involved in your grandkids’ lives after making the long-awaited change in your own. I offer them as suggestions; you probably have some other ideas that will work as well.
Embrace Skype. Especially if you live far away, skype can be a wonderful, easy and free way to stay in touch. It’s incredibly user-friendly and comes with a variety of different packages if you want something fancier than the free service. My aunt and uncle have been living in South Africa for the past few years and just had their first child; my grandma begins each and every day skyping them from across the world and waving at her brand new grandbaby, who gurgles back at her. Even though little August doesn’t know it yet, he’s had his grandmother in his life every day even though she’s a 21-hour plane ride away. Skype is also great for younger kids, who get a kick out of using a webcam, and for teenagers, who spend so much time slumped over their computers and laptops it’s easy to see whenever they’re online and just pop in to say hi. Face-to-face interaction is a wonder.
Tell stories, especially of your own childhood. My grandparents thought we all weren’t interested in their stories until we asked them to tell them. Not only do we love to hear about how much the world and simple elements of daily living have radically changed, it’s an amazing experience for kids to be able to imagine grandparents in their youth, when they were “just like them.” How was your own childhood similar, and how was it different? What were you like as a kid, as a teenager, as a young person going out into the world for the first time? (And don’t forget, everyone loves a good love story.) Becoming a relatable figure, in addition to a loving and supportive one, can add profound closeness to your relationship with your grandchildren.
Establish traditions. One of my grandfathers lives in New York City, and when my younger cousin goes into the city to visit him, they always go to the same diner down the road from his apartment, where all the waiters know them and their orders. It gives them a small town feel in a big city, and it’s something they do just the two of them. Even though my cousin lives an hour away, a small little tradition like this would be just as effective, if not more so, for grandparents who only have a chance to visit every once and awhile.
That said, also switch up your routines. While small traditions are effective, comfortable and memorable, you do not want to have cookie-cutter visits that make trips – you to them or them to you – stale and predictable. If possible, go to them for one trip and have them come to you on the next. Hunt around in your area for kid-friendly excursions so they aren’t stuck sitting by the pool every day: paint ball, go-karts, hikes, zoos. Be a little adventurous, but don’t forget to also leave some time for lazy movie days. Find time to just hang out, take a hike or bike ride.
Create. If you like to paint, draw, do ceramics, build model planes, make jewelry – anything and everything – share it with your grandchildren, especially starting when they’re young. It will give you a common interest, ways to fill the hours, and little remnants of your latest trip to decorate kitchens, cubbies and dorm rooms. I still have a little porcelain statuette of a unicorn I painted with my grandmother when I was 8 or 9; I am looking right at it as I type, a reminder of all the time we spent together doing something we both loved.
Travel. A friend of mine’s grandparents have taken every grandkid on a special trip when each one turned fourteen. It established a tradition over which an entire family could bond, but gave a personal, intimate experience for every child based upon her individual interests and curiosities. While finances could factor in here quite a bit, even if you can’t afford a trip to Barcelona, Paris and the Caribbean, there are small, local journeys upon which you could embark, or less expensive options, like camping.
Get involved. My grandpa, since he retired just an hour away from us, heads over to our house almost every weekend. His particular cause is our sports, and has been an invaluable coach, driver, supporter and fan at everything from t-ball to varsity soccer games. This definitely isn’t easy or even possible for everyone, but in the age of technology there is almost always a second best: in the case of sports, plenty of schools now track times, records, accomplishments and even live streams of events online so you can keep up with participation remotely and send a couple supportive e-mails, for example. Also look out for things like their online art portfolios or event calendars, and check in with their daily newspaper on the web to see what’s happening in their neck of the woods.
Know that the standoffish teenager phases will pass. Looking back at my teen years, it’s a testament to my grandfather’s good humor, patience and love that he didn’t stop being there for me every day even though I was a grumpy, grouchy high schooler with acne and insecurities who just wanted to be left alone a lot of the time. Now, I am nothing but grateful that I always had my grandpa by my side despite my typically poor attitude. For the past few years as I’ve gone off to college, I can look forward to his visits to my rugby matches, his impeccable sense of New York City when my friends and I get lost there and need to call for directions, and most of all bacon egg and cheeses with him in our family’s favorite diner whenever I have a spare minute to come back home.
There’s a huge amount of things that grandparents and grandchildren alike can do to stick together and stay close no matter the distances that may separate them after retirement. These are just a few of mine.
Comments: How do you keep in touch with your own grandkids? Please share your experiences in the Comments section below.