I’m about to fly cross-country with my wife so we can meet our new granddaughter, and I’ve got goosebumps. As a first-time grandparent in retirement, I want to do a grand job for our son Will’s baby and be helpful for Will and his wife.
But my grandparents died before I was 7, so I’m a little low on role models.
So, to get pointers to share with other first-timers and retirees who’ll one day join the ranks of America’s 70 million grandparents, I turned to experts for advice. I especially wanted to hear their insights for long-distance grandparents and grandparents whose relationships with their grandkid’s parents are fraught.
“Almost anyone who is a grandparent will tell you this is one of the most important roles they’ll ever play and yet they do nothing to prepare for it,” said DeeDee Moore, creator of the Morethangrand.com platform for grandparents. “That’s a conundrum I haven’t quite figured out yet.”
Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, says the “grandparent advantage” is the ability to recycle human knowledge, understanding, culture and experience to benefit future generations and maintain strong, healthy families and communities.
One thing the experts I spoke with agreed on: Grandparenting is a great way to find meaning and purpose in retirement.
In the 2023 “Resilient Choices and The New Retirement” survey from Edward Jones and AgeWave, grandmothers and grandfathers said becoming a grandparent was their most fulfilling windfall.
“It is so beautiful when those who are reaching retirement decide they want to take the remaining years and reinvest it in the generations that come after them, specifically in the family unit,” said Aaron Larsen, founder of GrandparentsAcademy.com, which is holding recorded webinars with 20 experts during Grandparent Week Sept. 10- 16. “That relationship can not only change the grandchildrens’ lives forever, but can be an increasingly powerful and potent source of fulfillment for grandparents.”
His advice: “If you have the opportunity to rethink what your next chapter looks like in retirement, place the relationship you can have with your grandchildren at the top of that list. I believe it can change the world.”
Moore recommended ensuring you’re adopting the right perspective.
“Don’t look at this as ‘I’m getting a grandbaby,’” she said. “Your family’s expanding. Your role is expanding. Your relationship with your child is going to change.” And, she added, “that’s a really hard shift for a lot of people to no longer be the one who’s pulling the strings.”
Don Akchin, a grandfather of four who wrote “What Are Grandfathers Supposed to Do?” for his newsletter, TheEndGame.com, on Substack and Medium, shared this advice about you and your grandchildren: “Understand that you’re not the center of their world. You’re an auxiliary. But you can be a very important part of their world.”
Research has shown that being an involved grandparent is good for your health, too. It can help you live longer, keep your brain sharp and also help you and your grandchild stave off depression.
In a 2018 AARP grandparenting survey, grandparents said having grandchildren had a positive impact on their mental health and also made them more sociable and more physically active.
Here’s how to do it (and also what not to do):
1. Bone up on what’s changed since you first raised your child.
It’s a lot!
The two biggest differences compared with the 1980s and ‘90s: child safety rules and parenting styles.
Much of what we were taught about keeping our babies safe has gone out the window, but many grandparents don’t know it. “All of that baby equipment you saved and thought you were going to someday use for your grandchild? Just get rid of it,” said Moore.
A study from the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies meeting found a huge percentage of grandparents weren’t up to speed about safety for baby sleep, food and accidents. For instance, about a quarter didn’t know that to prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), babies should sleep on their backs, not stomachs or sides.
Drop-side cribs were outlawed by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Bumpers, pillows, toys and loose blankets are no-nos for cribs now, too. Baby walkers are considered dangerous these days. Also, kids must be rear-facing in car seats until they’re at least 2, to help protect them in a crash. (The websites The Bump and Mom365.com have other great safety tips for new grandparents.)
In her excellent New Grandparent Essentials online guide ($49), Moore explains that today’s parents often adopt a style known as gentle parenting, also called peaceful parenting, or conscious parenting or unconditional parenting.
They’re about fostering the qualities the parent wants in their child through compassion and consistent boundaries. When a child is angry, frustrated or acting out, Moore writes, the parents model tolerance and flexibility, “teaching them how to be well-adjusted humans.”
2. Try to talk to the grandchild’s parents about the way they envision your grandparenting.
You may discover they have different ideas than you do. You’ll want to abide by them. “Make sure you’re communicating with parents about how they see your role,” said Moore. “Not having agreement can really lead to some tension in the family.”
Larsen agrees. “It’s really important for new grandparents to focus on the relationship with the parents first and understand their expectations for how to support them, as much as they’re overjoyed to spend time with the grandbaby,” he said.
Be sure everyone’s on the same page about the parents’ parenting philosophy as well as how often and when they’d like you to see the baby (in person or virtually).
Kerry Byrne, creator of TheLongDistanceGrandparent.com, recommends asking: “What can we do to make things easier?”
You might not realize you’re often calling or FaceTiming at a difficult time of day for their family.
“You might be calling exactly at the time that everything is in chaos. My dad used to call at the worst time of night, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him,” said Byrne.
3. Don’t offer parenting advice.
That’s the worst thing you can do,” said Akchin. “You can make suggestions. You can say, ‘Have you thought about…?’ You can say: ‘I’ve heard other people say…’”
Said Moore: “Parents are operating with a whole lot more information than we did. There’s so much research!”
4. If you have a strained relationship with your grandchild’s parent, work on mending it.
A better bond between you two will help let you have the relationship you hope with your grandchild.
“You may need a professional to work through the issues because it’s almost impossible to be a part of your grandchild’s life if you’re not part of your son or daughter’s life,” said Moore.
She also recommends estranged parents read the book “Fault Lines.” Larsen teaches the online class “Online Reconciliation Strategies for Alienated Grandparents” ($147) as well as coaching and a private online support group for them.
5. If you’ll be a long-distance grandparent, you may be sad about being unable to pop in regularly, so work at making in-person visits and phone or video calls count.
Byrne calls long-distance grandparents’ FOMO “grandgrief” because, she said, “there’s this huge amount of sadness associated with not becoming a grandparent in the way you had always envisioned.” For some grandparents, she noted, visiting can be “a real financial hardship because flights are expensive and not everyone can rent an Airbnb.”
Experts suggest visiting your grandchild every three months or so for at least five days at a time, assuming your child is agreeable and you can afford it.
Moore recalled that when she visited soon after the baby started walking, at first, “she wanted nothing to do with me — she had no clue who I was.” But by day four, the baby started warming up a little. And by day five, “she was just running to me and sitting in my lap.”
A visit shorter than five days would have meant “missing out on that whole experience with her,” said Moore. “That was the turning point. Future visits were fine.”
Try to call or FaceTime regularly to compensate for times when you can’t be there physically. Children as young as 18 months can develop a familiarity with somebody over FaceTime, Moore noted.
“Work with the parents to find a time that’s mutually convenient to FaceTime at least once a week,” advised Moore. You can even start with Peekaboo games when your grandbaby is six months or so.
As the child gets older, Byrne recommends, be sure to offer “affectionate communication.” That means becoming emotionally close with your grandchild by saying things like: “I love you. I miss you. I’m proud of you. You are unique to me.” (You can also do this through text or letters, she noted.)
Try to become a grand detective, too, Byrne added, sussing out what your grandchild’s interested in and talking about that during FaceTime calls.
6. As your grandchild gets older, try not to get preachy — but do get creative.
“One mistake first-time grandparents make is trying to be too didactic,” said Akchin. “Trying too hard to instill lessons.”
Your grandchild likely won’t want to hear about how tough things were when you were a child either. But they probably will want to hear what their parent — your son or daughter — was like growing up, Akchin noted.
The older your grandchild gets, the busier they and their parents will get, too. So, be prepared for less one-on-one time and, if you’re local, more chauffeuring.
As your grandbaby becomes a young child and then a teenager, the experts told me, try to offer a more personal touch to grandparenting. You could send a letter every birthday or even more often, said Byrne. You could also volunteer together, Larsen suggested.
Or go on a vacation together and make memories to last a lifetime (something I’m really looking forward to doing.) The Road Scholar group has a whole group of grandparent/grandchild itineraries.
7. Finally, a word for first-time grandfathers: Take an active role in grandparenting if you can.
Sadly, society seems to put the grandparenting emphasis on grandmas. In fact, there’s even something called the Grandmother Hypothesis (now discredited), saying that grandmothers are one reason humans are living longer.
Experts I interviewed agreed that most grandparenting research, articles and resources focus on grandmas. Akchin calls the grandfather “the forgotten man.”
Ohio State University professor James Bates, who has made grandfathering a focus of his work, wrote that “simply being a grandfather does not take much effort,” but what he calls “character work” is an important dimension of grandfather work. That’s “the effort, energy, time, and resources grandfathers put forth to care for, serve, meet the developmental needs of, and maintain relationships with their descendants.”
He found that research shows a grandfather’s character work “is associated with his grandchild’s outgoingness, friendliness, trustworthiness, composure and flexibility, family ideals and values, work ethic, and beliefs about mortality.”
Put in the character work, Bates believes, you may impact many areas of your grandchild’s growth and development. Better still, grandfathers engaged in character work have reported fewer feelings of sadness, depression, loneliness and anxiety, increasing their happiness, hopefulness about the future, and life enjoyment.
Wouldn’t you want all that for your grandchild and you? I do.
Resources for new grandparents
Beyond the websites and newsletters, I’ve mentioned, you may also want to read “Grandparenting on Purpose” by M. Winston Egan & Linda Egan. There are also hospital-based grandparenting classes, many virtual, around the country.
If you’re a grandfather or will be, Akchin suggests the podcast “Cool Grandpa” hosted by Greg Payne and the “Good Grandpa” blog by Ted Page. Grandfathers in New York state might want to join the mentoring group created just for them by Jim Isenberg and Frank Williams: Grandpas United.