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The Sixty Minute Grandparent:

Becoming the Best Grandparent You Can Be

Rob Parsons

I have three grandchildren: Harry, 3, Lily Iris, 2, and Evie Grace, 11 months. Two more are on the way. Being a modern grandparent is totally different to how you imagine it will be. We may see ourselves as encyclopedias on feeding, sleeping, teething and tantrums. This is our chance to hand it all down. But parents now get information from so many sources. They’re bombarded with advice: from healthcare professionals, the internet, self-help books, friends, colleagues. They don’t want you looking over their shoulder for the next 18 years, saying: “Could do better.” My book, The Sixty Minute Grandparent, aims to help you be the best grandparent you can be, in just one hour.

You may think that this time round you get all the fun and none of the worry. People say: “You get to give them back.” But in the 21st century, try telling that to the thousands of grandparents who provide free childcare. Grandparents provide more than 40 per cent of childcare for parents who work or study, and more than 70 per cent of childcare the rest of the time. I recommend four words as a starting point if asked to look after your grandchildren on a regular basis: it’s not your responsibility.

It sounds harsh, but this is not an arrangement to enter into lightly — though many grandparents do. Providing childcare has big implications. Some grandparents love it; others struggle, feel taken for granted or do it out of guilt. Three questions worth considering first. “Is it necessary?” It’s a reasonable question; don’t feel guilty. The second question is: “Can we start small?” A rota with the other grandparents, or a compromise with professional carers. Third: “Can we review it in six months?” Build in an opportunity to see how it’s going.

At the other end of the scale are those who rarely see their grandchildren because they live too far away. Long-distance grandparenting is another feature of modern life. It’s hard, but it’s still possible to build strong relationships. Consistency and traditions are key. “My grandad always rings on a Monday night.” “My nan sends me a card every Friday.” Technology has made it easier — Skype, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, interactive games on the internet — but children still love getting things through the post as well. Send letters, postcards, little surprises.

I heard some wonderful tips from long-distance grandparents. One is writing an episodic story of a grandfather corresponding with his grandson via e-mail: he writes one paragraph and sends it over, his grandson writes the next. Another grandmother said that when she calls, she makes sure the grandchildren know it’s to speak to them, not to spend hours talking to the parents, with the grandchildren tagged on the end.

Try not to be hurt when grandchildren don’t want to come to the phone or are distracted by a computer game. You can’t demand love and affection. Keep offering it up, put stuff in the emotional bank and, later on, it may come back to you.

For grandparents who lose contact with grandchildren after family breakdown, it can be harder still. In the UK, grandparents don’t have automatic visitation rights, but there’s still the option of asking the court to grant a contact order. To be successful, you have to prove that it would have a positive influence on the child and that excluding you from their life will harm them in some way. The other route is discussion with the parent who has custody — and here, the quality of your relationship before the split could count for a lot. If you’ve never taken sides, if you’ve been loving, welcoming and even-handed, you’re less likely to be caught in the crossfire. If contact isn’t possible, keep doing what you can. Send birthday cards, presents, good-luck cards before exams, even if none is acknowledged and many returned. You’re in it for the long haul, and there will come a time when your grandchildren can make their own decisions about what kind of grandparent you are. I met a couple who heard nothing in response to the cards they sent their grandson until one afternoon, 11 years later, now a young man, he knocked on their door.

Family breakdown, and remarriage, can also bring bonus grandchildren. Grandparents often worry they don’t love their newly acquired step-grandchildren in the way they love their other grandchildren. You can’t make yourself fall in love, but you can make a firm decision to “do” love, to show love in action, get to every school concert, remember every birthday, treat them and praise them equally. It could be that the step-grandchildren are wary themselves, especially if they are older when they join the family. They may be uninterested, rude, uncooperative. Don’t focus on your feelings, but try to understand theirs. They may be feeling let down, or disloyal to their other grandparents. Don’t rush them. It can take years — decades — to develop a grandparenting relationship. You may need to lower your sights, and simply try to be their friend instead.

But there are some aspects of grandparenting that haven’t changed. We’re the holders of memories, the links to the past. For seven or eight years at least, grandchildren will want to hear about “the olden days”. Tell them about your first school, first day at work, first kiss.

What children need from grandparents, what they treasure, is the knowledge that there’s somebody who is always pleased to see them, speak to them or Skype them; who thinks they’re wonderful, no matter what. We’re more necessary than ever.

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