Learning through love
Our time as grandparents lasts longer than any other stage of our lives, according to new research, so why is there so little help to enable us to fulfill this role? James Welton finds out how best to build a strong relationship with your grandchildren?
With new research by the Future Foundation showing that most of us will be a grandparent for around 35 years of our lives, it pays to build a relationship with your young relatives that lasts. In today's hectic society and among families that are often fractured, this isn't always easy. One in five people in the UK are grandparents, but while there's plenty of advice out there for prospective parents, how to be a good grandparent is something we rarely discuss.
Chief among the hurdles grandparents must face is the increased incidence of divorce or separation. In today's families it is not uncommon for a child to have separated parents, and one or more separated grandparents, and things can easily start to get very complicated. This can mean competition between parents, and surprisingly grandparents, for your grandchildren's affection. But do you really want to get into a war of love with your peers and relatives?
It is always wise to consider that grandchildren are people first, as family and relationship counsellor and Mail on Sunday columnist, Zelda West-Meads, confirms: "If there is a dispute between the grandparents and their children as to when they can see their grandchildren, always meet away from the youngest generation. Choose a time when they are either in bed, or at school. It is very important that the grandchild does not form a bad opinion of either the parents or grandparents. Ensure that there is no tension in the atmosphere when discussing or visiting your grandchildren."
There are approximately 13 million grandparents in the UK, and that number is forecast to grow 25 per cent by 2020 - so the role of the grandparent in the UK as a whole is hugely significant. Zelda believes the advice and wisdom grandparents can offer is not to be underestimated: "Grandparents have a huge amount of wisdom to give to the younger generation, so try and talk to them about what is happening in the world - politics, religion, and so on. Also, listen to your grandchildren; learn about their problems and their view of the world.
"It is surprising how many very young children have been affected by the ghastly bombings in London recently," she continues. "It is amazing to hear five and six year-olds asking what a suicide bomber is. Use this curiosity to influence them, teach them about the world and how to be a better person."
Going your own way
Despite the obvious bond between children and parents, not every grandparent wants to be a large part of their grandkids' lives. With improved healthcare, sizeable income and greater expectation of life in general, many people today are turning their backs on the traditional role of the grandparent.
Pat Howson, a 69-year-old from Lincolnshire with three grandchildren, says she has been a mother and now wants to enjoy her time. "I've raised our children and now my husband and I have retired, we want to enjoy life together. My kids have grown up and can stand on their own feet. I'm happy to make a fuss of my grandchildren when they come to visit, but I don't really want to become cheap child care," she adds. "My family know how we feel and they're okay with it. You have to set rules, or you can end up with problems."
Zelda agrees: "Honesty is paramount in any relationship, and if you, as a grandparent, feel that you are being taken advantage of by acting as a babysitter, then you must set rules. Say that you want to see your grandchildren, but you are not prepared to give up so much time in caring for them. Again, do this between parents and grandparents, and at a time when you can talk away from the grandchildren."
"If you, as a grandparent, feel that you are being taken advantage of by acting as a babysitter, then you must set rules."
For those who crave interaction with their grandchildren, the potential for conflict is huge. For a start, many kids today would prefer to blast the hell out of computer generated aliens than listen to their grandfathers, or help grandma in the kitchen.
Helen Dennis, 58, from Oxford, says: "I'm lucky, because I'm computer literate and I have a PC at home. My grandchild loves to come around, put on a game and play for a few hours, while my daughter and I have a chat."
Helen's experience isn't shared, however. George and Margaret Chambers, both 63, from Edinburgh, find it difficult to entertain their two grandchildren, aged 12 and 14. George says: "They don't seem interested in days out, games or even talking. They often just sit and do homework." Margaret adds: "We'd love to have the grandchildren over for the weekend, but they seem bored. It's very difficult." Zelda advises: "Traditional game playing and talking to grandchildren is so important for a number of reasons, not least of all is to teach the grand child about the world in which they live. Dressing up and role-play, for example, is a great way of interacting with younger kids in a fun way, whilst also teaching them about moral issues.
"Try and communicate with your grandchildren. Walks in the park, for instance, can be very constructive. It is not a good idea, however, to just put on a video, or a game and leave your grandchildren to play on their own. There are a number of computer games on the market which can be played by both children and adults. Interacting is always preferable to merely giving children something to keep them quiet."
The relationship between parents and their children rarely runs smoothly, so why should we expect things to change when your children have their own families? If your relationship with your children and their partner ends in them denying you contact with your grandchildren, particularly after a relationship ends, what do you do?
Zelda says: "Always try and find a solution ? even if the bitterness of a split threatens your role as a grandparent. If you can't agree between yourselves, try mediation. The most important thing to remember is that both the grandparents and the grandchildren have a right to see each other. Again, honesty is the key. Always be honest right from the start. State your argument, but never forget the grandchildren's needs."
The value of childcare by grandparents in the UK is estimated to be £1 billion, and one in five children under 16 are looked after by grandparents during the daytime. These statistics are hardly surprising, since the financial pressure on parents to continue working after they have children is immense. "Grandparents are playing an increasingly important role in the lives of their grandchildren," states Zelda. "However, it is important to strike the right balance between what is best for the grandchild, the parent and the grandparent. Always talk about your feelings, and if there's a problem with the amount of time you are spending looking after a grandchild whilst the parent, or parents, are at work, try and sort it out early on."
The value of maturity
In a recent survey of British Social Attitudes, only one in ten people in the UK thought that grandparents had little to teach grandchildren, so how draw on your knowledge and form a better bond with your grandchildren? Zelda says: "The role of the grandparent is as true today as it was years ago. Spend time getting to know your grandchildren, talk to them, and find out what interests them. You may learn something yourself."
The message is quite clear ? you will probably have greater expectations of your life than your own parents had, but one thing remains constant, the bond between grandparent and grandchild is still essentially one of learning through love.
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