If you think of the archetypal grandparent figure from the past, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s someone with a wise old wizened face, who’s loving but slightly starchy and remote (there’s probably a rocking chair in the picture somewhere).
Nothing could be further from the modern grandparent, who feels younger and more actively involved in their grandchildren’s lives than ever before. Half of the UK’s 14 million grandparents are under 65. And two-thirds of grandparents now provide childcare help for their working children, saving them £15.7 billion a year.
Grandparents are also generous with financial support, helping with grandchildren’s education, savings and treats.
With this increased involvement comes an even closer bond. Grandparents often tell us they were surprised by the intensity of the love they felt when their grandchildren were born: almost like reliving the love they’d felt for their own children but without the stress and worry (and sleepless nights).
Of course, there are other challenges. What should you do when you don’t agree with your children about how they’re bringing up their own children? How do you keep the bond close if you live 300 miles away? Should you really offer your childcare services?
Whether you’re a new grandparent, a nearly-grandparent or a seasoned hand in need of a few tips and tricks, read on to find out how to be the very best grandparent ever.
Ages and stages
Each phase of childhood has its magical moments. Here’s how to make the most out of each and every one of them.
Fathers usually get two weeks paternity leave now, so don’t feel resentful if you’re not needed in the early days: your time will come.
Ask your child what they would like as a present: today’s parents research every baby purchase meticulously, and there’s nothing worse than the wrong buggy.
If you’re going to stay, ask what they’d like you to do. Brownie points for offering to stock the freezer, make cake/dinner or do the ironing, in addition to baby-worshipping, of course!
Even if you disagree with their decisions on feeding/sleeping/routines, it’s their turn to make mistakes. Smile and praise them (through gritted teeth…).
The better equipped your home is, the more likely your children and grandchildren will be to visit regularly: think cot, plastic dinnerware/cutlery, bath mat, toys and potty.
Best presents: A lie-in for the parents/a classic book set/Fisher Price retro toys.
Worst presents: Christening gown/giant (or indeed any) teddies/soft toys.
Enter their world. Grandparents have time to slow down to a toddler’s pace: admiring every leaf on a walk or pouring endless cups of imaginary tea.
If you’re looking after your grandchild, insist on quiet-time activities such as jigsaws or reading so you can recharge your batteries, and so can they; a toddler expends the equivalent energy every day to an adult running a marathon.
When you’re out, make sure you have a pocket full of random distractions for crisis moments: plastic figures, a balloon, a packet of rice cakes/biscuits.
Accept the parents’ rules on naps/food/TV even if you disagree, and resist the temptation to quietly disregard them: you’ll lose trust. Abdicate the lead to your children by saying, ‘How do you usually do this?’ ‘What’s your preference?’.
Cover the garden pond; move precious ornaments to head height or hide; tie kitchen and medicine cupboard handles together with string/duct tape; tape down trailing flexes.
Do have a ‘my house, my rules’ policy: even young children can understand that you can’t bounce on the beds/leave the table mid-meal at Grandma’s, even if you can at home.
Have a toy box at your house, but don’t throw away toys they’ve grown out of: for some reason, the fact that they are at Granny and Grandad’s house makes them fun for longer.
Defer to the parents when grandchildren ask, can I have another biscuit? Can we do finger painting? ‘If Mummy/Daddy think it’s ok, then yes.’
Save bits and bobs from the recycling boxes for junk modelling: free fun when the grandchildren visit.
Consult your children on patterns before taking up your knitting needles: you do want to see your grandchild wearing the finished piece!
If something’s wrong they’ll probably open up to you more than their parents as long as you don’t do the ‘angry/disappointed parent’. Listen, and promise a sympathetic ear and your trust.
Life for teens is very stressful now: parents and schools heap on pressure. Time with grandparents can be a rest, and they can act younger than their age without embarrassment.
Don’t be afraid to tell them you love them. Teenagers might think they’re too cool but they’re secretly listening out for praise and affection.
Forge cousin relationships. Grandparents are the linchpin of the wider family.
If your garden is big enough and you look after your grandchildren a lot, a trampoline can be a godsend: expensive but loved by all ages – even teens.
The big issues
Being a grandparent can create some sticky moments – and not just toddlers’ jammy fingers on your sofa. Here’s how to negotiate the minefield with skill and charm.
You may be keen to pass on all the childcare knowledge you gained when your children were little, but this is usually a mistake. Advice has changed, and your children and their partners (who will have read lots of books) will be hypersensitive to comments that might imply criticism.
And even if they’ve asked for your advice, they might not be ready to hear it! So, best to sugarcoat it with a self-deprecating ‘I know everything’s changed, but this is what I did’, and an empathetic ‘I remember struggling with that. What about trying…?’
Feeding: Exclusive breastfeeding ‘on demand’ is advised for the first six months, which can seem to grandparents like feeding a baby every time it whimpers. Routines tend to come later than they did for earlier generations.
Sleeping: Parents are advised to have babies in a Moses basket or cot in their room with them for the first six months. Babies are now put to sleep on their back, with feet at the end of the cot, never on their front or side.
Potty training: happens later than it used to (probably thanks to the ease of disposable nappies). Don’t expect your grandchild to be potty trained before 2½, even 3-3½ for some boys.
Discipline: Smacking is the biggest no-no; the ‘naughty step’ or ‘time out’ has taken over.
Food/table manners: ‘Healthy’ grazing is in (raisins, yogurts, rice cakes, bananas); three meals a day sitting at the table is out.
Should you move to live near your grandchildren?
It can seem like a brilliant idea, especially when your first grandchild comes along and steals your heart. But here are some questions to mull over before making the leap:
1. Is it wise to move away from your web of contacts, friends, doctor’s surgery and community built up over the years?
2. What would you do if your child had to move away after a couple of years?
3. If you’re under pressure from your child to move, would you be expected to provide childcare on tap (and would you be happy with that)?
4. How often would you visit? Would you call first? Let yourself in with a key?
5. If you’ve got multiple grandchildren, would you be accused of favouritism if you chose to live near one family and not another? How would you decide which?
What grandparents say and what their children hear
Parents are very sensitive to any implied criticism. So be wary of saying things such as:
Of course, you were dry at night by 18 months (You’ve failed at potty training).
A tube of Smarties after lunch won’t hurt (You’re too strict about food).
There was no such thing as paternity leave in my day (You have it easy).
Your father never got up in the night – he had to work (Women have it so easy now).
You’re feeding her again? (This feeding on demand is ridiculous).
It doesn’t do them any harm to let them cry (You’re being far too soft).
I always thought Sarah was a nice name (I hate the wacky name you’ve chosen).
Granny as nanny
With the high cost of childcare, plus research showing that toddlers in group care can end up being more aggressive, it’s no wonder there are nine million grandparents being ‘granny nannies’. But should you volunteer?
The rewards are high: you’ll form a close bond with your grandchildren, which will be very fulfilling. But it does change your role from supplier of fun and treats to official carer.
Think carefully about the details. What’s the maximum number of days you would provide care for? Would this curtail your ability to go on last-minute holidays/trips (and would you mind?). Would you expect payment, or at least a token sum for your time? Would you still be happy to do it when more grandchildren arrived? Would it make your other children jealous?
It’s important to be forthright with your children about what you’re willing to do, advises Dr Miriam Stoppard: don’t over-commit, then regret it and feel put-upon.
Accept that the parents are in charge of rule-making (even if you think they’re wrong), so check that you can live with their rules before committing.
Don’t let niggles fester: monthly meetings can air problems.
Sometimes grandparents are in the perfect position to help build up a nest egg for their grandchildren’s future. What’s the best way to go about this?
A savings account If they have one in their name, this is the simplest way to give them regular money. Children have a tax-free allowance of £11,500 and they can earn any amount of interest from money grandparents put in (they get only £100 of interest tax free if their parents give them money).
Junior ISA Parents have to open one of these, but you can put in up to £4,128 a year, which can be invested in cash, shares or both. Your grandchildren can access the money when they turn 18, but you don’t have a say over how it’s used.
Stakeholder pension Your children will love you for having the foresight to suggest starting a pension for your grandchildren. They start it, then you can pay in up to £2,880 a year, which is topped up by the government to £3,600. The child gets to control the fund at 18, and can access the money from 55.
Premium bonds An old favourite, the minimum investment is £100 and there’s a 30,000-to-one chance of winning a prize each month.
Watch out for gifts Don’t forget the seven-year inheritance tax rule – you have to live for seven years after giving a gift worth over £250 to a person (apart from wedding presents), although you have an annual allowance of £3,000 that you can give away in total.
A savings account in their name is the simplest way to give grandchildren regular money.
What shall we do today?
Whether you’re granny-as-nanny or just having your grandchildren over for the day, here are some suggestions for activities to inspire you.
Children love to name what’s around them. Set off on an expedition to find and name three birds, three flowers and three trees. If you have a smartphone try the bird identifier at rspb.org.uk, flowers and plants at botannicalkeys.co.uk (the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) and the tree name trail at forestry.gov.uk. Or go armed with a book! Bring back twigs/leaves/moss to make pictures or a miniature garden.
Create a raised bed or trough for grandchildren to grow whatever they want: radishes and lettuce yield the fastest results, but carrots may actually get eaten. Older ones can try a blueberry plant or pumpkin for Halloween carving, and everyone can enjoy a sunflower- growing competition.
In the winter, aim to learn a new star constellation every time they see you. Use a book (try DK’s Planisphere and Starfinder) or a smartphone app such as SkyView, Star Chart or Star Walk, which give you information on constellations when you point your phone at the sky.
Create a snail garden by putting soil in an old seed tray. Add a flower-pot on its side (for shade), twigs for climbing, food (cucumber, lettuce) and snails. Spray with water every couple of days and it’s done. In the summer, make a butterfly feeder by placing over-ripe food on a paper plate suspended by twine from a tree branch.
Recreate the Mentos and Coca-Cola rocket experiment as seen in hundreds of YouTube videos – they can travel 30ft so will impress even teens. eepybird.com has full instructions, plus other cool science experiments.
A treasure hunt with attitude: register at geocaching.com. Enter your postcode and you’ll get a list of places nearby where other geocachers have hidden tiny packages for you to find; some have log books to sign. You’ll need a smartphone with GPS, so good for teens.
Make a go-kart. A great weekend or ongoing project with older children – once you’ve found some fixed axle wheels. Full instructions in The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden (HarperCollins).
Find a plant with your grandchild’s name in it – there are thousands of rose hybrids so it should be easy. Let them help you plant it in your garden. They’ll always remember it.
Many children travel everywhere by car, so taking them on the bus or train is a guaranteed adventure. End up at a park and it’s a cheap afternoon out.
Obviously, never call a walk a walk – because they’re BORING. Say, ‘We’re going blackberry picking/animal tracking’.
Your grandchildren may be masters of all things tech, but they probably won’t know many card games: try Old Maid and Go Fish for the youngest, James Bond for fast, furious fun, and whist, rummy or 21 for older ones. Teenagers will thank you for teaching them poker, although their parents may not. If you can’t remember the rules, Usborne’s Card Games to Play is a useful book.
Get them cooking. There’s something for all ages here: no-cook traybakes for the littlest; cakes and banana bread for middle-sized ones. Jamieoliver.com is a great source of online recipes, or show them how to make old family favourites. Let older ones take charge of a whole meal – planning, costing, cooking.
Teach them ‘old-fashioned’ crafts their parents probably won’t have the time/talent for, such as sewing, knitting, crochet or woodwork.
Start an art box: the more random the contents the better – buttons, feathers, old magazines, smooth pebbles, contents of the recycling box, cardboard tubes, fabric scraps and beads. Add washable felt-tip pens, scissors, glue and paper, and hours of fun beckon. Making your own play dough is a winner – find a recipe at bbcgoodfood.com.
Ask older children to design a thank-you card for you to use. Get them to sign it, then scan it, upload it to your computer and print off as many as you want to send to friends.
Buy DVDs of the children’s TV programmes their parents used to enjoy, and watch them together. How about Mr Benn, Bagpuss, Henry’s Cat or Roobarb and Custard?
Many teenagers become fascinated by the family tree, and your memories will be a great starting point. Then go online for further investigation: there are hundreds of sites (some subscription). Search Births, Marriages and Deaths registers free at freebmd.org.uk, and censuses at freecen.org.uk. Good tips on family-tree.co.uk.
Cool science experiments. In a baking tray, create a volcano in a plastic bottle by half-filling it with vinegar, then add a squirt of washing-up liquid and a drop of red food colouring. Stir, then add a tsp of bicarbonate of soda wrapped in a tissue and stand back. More experiments in 100 Science Experiments (Usborne).
Build up a box of granny and grandpa’s toys: a mixture of old favourite attic discoveries and charity shop finds. Include wooden blocks, cars and a transporter to put them in, plastic kitchen/tea set, something that stacks, something that posts, plus books.
When things go wrong
Being a grandparent can throw up some tricky problems, dilemmas and awkward family dynamics. Any of these ring a bell?
My daughter has accused me of having a favourite grandchild
A first grandchild often enjoys an exalted position (as a beneficiary of undiluted grandparent love), as can the children of the child to whom you feel closest. Be quick to recognise and banish favouritism because sibling rivalry creates nasty family undercurrents. Consciously spend more time and work harder with a grandchild you don’t feel as close to (find an activity you can enjoy together) and keep all presents scrupulously fair.
As a paternal grandmother I’m constantly losing out to my daughter-in-law’s mother
As author Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall points out, the maternal grandmother is always Number One Granny, especially early on because of the mother-daughter bond. Be patient and find your own unique selling point: look for gaps only you can fill with your grandchild. Keep relentlessly positive and proactive, not bitter. Keep in touch by email, Skype and post.
How do I get a clearly troubled teen to talk?
By not being their parent you have an in-built advantage, so don’t be tempted to be parent-y: no criticising or lecturing. Make it clear you are there as a listening ear, and truly listen. Keep suggestions for action short. Try sharing (brief) stories of similar situations (anything involving their parents they’ll find fascinating). Try not to criticise their parents and promise to keep confidences unless you feel they are in danger.
I suspect something’s wrong with my grandson. Should I say anything?
Don’t rush in: there’s a huge range of ‘normal’ you may not even realise if your own children developed quickly. Do your homework first: research the condition on the internet; ring a medical/charity helpline to get more information. If and when you broach the subject, stay supportive: ‘I know you’ve got a lot on your plate at the moment, but I’m a bit concerned about…’
I’m worried I’m too old to keep up with these lively children
Having grandchildren is the perfect motivator to get in shape. Walking, gardening, dancing and yoga/Pilates/t’ai chi are fantastic for suppleness and aerobic fitness. Even if you’re fit, it can be hard to keep up when you’re older, so perhaps keep visits shortish and build in quiet activities: jigsaws, reading, board games. Make sure Grandpa takes his turn.
It’s difficult to see my grandchildren now my son is divorced
You could try direct contact with your ex-daughter-in-law, explaining how much the bond means to you. Perhaps offer to babysit or take the children to give her a day/night off. Fight to keep the relationship alive with letters, emails, daily or weekly video calls and regular tiny presents until your grandchildren are old enough to make up their own minds.
How to be a good long-distance grandparent
Make Skype (video-calling from your computer, tablet or smartphone) your friend: you can see and hear your grandchildren – and it’s free. FaceTime is similar, but for Apple devices.
If they’re shy, get their parent to hold the tablet so you can ‘watch’ them draw a picture or play cars, and they can talk you through it.
Continuity is important, so set a pre-arranged time every week to call. That way, you’ll speak to them more frequently.
Children still love old-fashioned post: aim to send a card or tiny present (stickers, pens, hairclips) every so often.
Plant seeds or bulbs when your grandchildren visit, then email or post pictures to update them on progress.
Meet your grandchildren (and children) on Facebook or Instagram. You can set up a group where only members can see content. For three-way chats, use Google +. Your teenage grandchildren will show you how...
Buy two copies of a picture book – one for your grandchild, one for you. Then you can read them a bedtime story even if you’re hundreds of miles away, via FaceTime or Skype.
Find out more
There’s wealth of information out there to help, inspire and inform grandparents. Here are a few of our favourite books and websites.
The Good Granny Guide by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall
The Good Granny Companion by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall for games and activities
The New Granny’s Survival Guide, Gransnet
The Grandpas’ Book by John Gribble/The Grannies’ Book by Alison Maloney
Websites & advice lines
Grandparentsplus.org.uk, 0300 123 7015 Champions grandparent carers and those who have lost contact.
Gransnet.com Forum for swapping advice and tips
Familylives.org.uk, 0808 800 2222 Charity for wider family advice
nspcc.org.uk, 0808 800 5000 If you have concerns about a child
Grandparentsapart.co.uk Scottish charity for grandparents denied contact
Proudgrandparents.co.uk General advice and forums