Grandpa and Grandma Walton, played by Will Geer and Ellen Corby, lived in a rambling farmhouse among three generations of their very functional family, where they served as fonts of love, wisdom and humor for their brood of grandchildren.
That was only television. In real life, grandparents usually aren’t idyllic sources of unfailing love, wisdom and humor. And most families are to some extent dysfunctional.
One theme from The Waltons remains true, though: Grandparents really do play a big role in shaping their grandchildren’s lives, for good or ill.
They always have. Almost 2,000 years ago, Paul attributed his protégé Timothy’s faith partly to the example of Timothy’s grandmother, Lois.
Given these two facts–that grandparents are imperfect, and that they help shape their grandchildren’s lives–Christian grandparents ought to ask: How can we learn to influence our grandchildren for good?
Three experts, all grandparents themselves, recently addressed that question.
Grandparenting is getting more complex
The challenges of grandparenting can be as comparatively minor as a technological gap. Grandparents may find themselves frustrated when they try to talk with a teenager who has an iPod’s headphones stuck in her ears, who communicates mainly through text messages or Facebook wall-to-walls.
“Technology available to kids is (so) advanced, it’s difficult for many grandparents to keep up with this part of their world,” says Steve Bly, 64, of Winchester, Idaho, the co-author with his wife, Janet, of How to Be a Good Grandparent and The Power of a Godly Grandparent.
But far more troubling social shifts now affect grandparents, too. Increased mobility means they’re frequently separated from their grandchildren by hundreds of miles.
Meanwhile, other families have simply disintegrated, creating a contradictory trend: millions of grandparents are raising their grandchildren, without help from the kids’ parents. Many of these same grandparents work outside the home as well.
Some 2.4 million U.S. grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren’s most basic needs, such as food, clothing and shelter, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2006. Of these grandparents, 1.4 million are employed in the workforce.
Whatever their situation, grandparents should consider the following suggestions.
Remember your children are the real parents
In most cases, grandparents still play a secondary role.
“Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes (grandparents make) is the blurring of roles between parent and grandparent, or intruding in the parenting process with their own values and ways of doing things,” says Cavin T. Harper, 60, of Colorado Springs, Colo. Harper is the founder of the Christian Grandparenting Network.
A grandparent should try to be a benign presence, not a toxic one. Don’t offer advice unless you’re asked.
Janet Bly, 63, Steve’s wife, says grandparents should practice “affirming and encouraging” their adult children, but also try “backing away and releasing the parents in prayer when they disagree with their choices. Meddling can be a big problem.”
“Sit down with your adult children and ask them how you can best contribute in a positive and healthy way to their needs and concerns about parenting,” Harper suggests. “It is good to talk about boundaries on both sides.”
Grandparents often assume that strong relationships with their grandchildren will develop naturally. That’s not always the case. Grandparents must take the initiative.
“One thing’s for sure,” says Steve Bly, “grandparents must give concentrated time and effort to their relationships with their grandchildren. It won’t happen automatically anymore. Some creative means of interaction must be considered.”
Don’t play favorites
Children catch on quickly if a grandparent prefers another grandchild.
“It’s important to understand the differences in personality, talents, interests and needs-what each child needs especially from you,” Janet Bly says. “The key is for each grandchild to feel that they’re loved and treasured, just as they are.”
Take time to have fun
Janet Bly remembers a day her granddaughter Miranda, then 4, came to visit. Janet was busy with a long “to do” list of her own.
But Miranda wanted to hike to a bridge a mile from Janet and Steve’s house. Reluctantly, Janet gave in. Along the way, they stopped to look at what Janet calls “critter prints.” They gazed at the lake the bridge spanned. Janet was ready to head home.
As Janet tells it, Miranda said, “‘But Grandma, look at all the trails on the other side. I’ve never been on all those before.’
“Miranda led as she plowed down narrow, winding paths, over boulders, and around fallen timbers,” Janet says. “Then she stopped. ‘Look, an F-stick!’ She picked up a small limb with two horizontal bends. A few steps later she reached for another stick, insisting that it was an ‘I.’ ‘Grandma,’ she exclaimed, ‘this forest has letters in it. Let’s find all the words and make a story!'”
Janet found her own sense of wonder suddenly reawakened.
Moral: The to-do list can wait. Take that walk.
Quietly counteract our culture’s negative influences
Don’t overlook opportunities to talk with your grandchildren about your trust in God.
Harper started the Christian Grandparenting Network largely because he wanted to help other grandparents pass on their spiritual insights.
“My personal motivation is my concern about an entire generation growing up neither knowing the Lord nor the amazing things he has done for us,” he says.
Let the Bible teach you
Steve Bly says grandparents should follow Matthew 6:33: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (KJV).
“That’s the key for any believer,” he says, “but especially for grandparents as they hassle the … stresses of dealing with the younger generation. Keeping their own faith walk where it needs to be right now, in the midst of what’s going on in their present circumstances, is of key importance.”
Janet recommends Ephesians 4:32 (NIV): “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
That verse, she says, is good “for any relationships and all the seasons of life and the various kinds of challenges we encounter in them.”
If you’re a grandparent, this suggestion is self-explanatory.
• www.christiangrandparenting.net. The home site of Harper’s Christian Grandparenting Network.
• www.supernanny.com. Has a good section on how to avoid being an interfering grandparent.
• www.cyberparent.com. Includes articles on topics such as how to discipline a grandchild without raising your voice.
• www.seniorjournal.com. Offers articles on numerous grandparenting issues.