First, a quick quiz. Which of the statements below is more likely to belong to a grandparent than to a parent?
- “Of course, you can have another bowl of chocolate chip ice cream. You’re a growing boy.”
- “Here’s 20 bucks. Buy yourself something fun.”
- “We’re going right by the clothing store. We’ll just pop in, and you can pick out a couple of new outfits.”
- “Oh, well, a ticket’s not the end of the world. Next time, just keep an eye on the speedometer.”
- “Let’s stop by the candy store on the way home.”
If you checked off five for five for grandparents, you win the prize.
For most of us, grandparenting means enjoying the pleasures of children, with few of the parental responsibilities. We’re not the ones getting up to feed a baby at 3 a.m. or sweating bullets waiting for a teenage daughter to arrive home from the prom. No—we’re the ones who arrive with treats in our suitcases, who get away with corny jokes because of our status and age, and who take the time to listen to a 6-year-old’s tedious recounting of her nighttime dreams.
And because we possess the leisure time to hang out with the young, in some ways we can recapture the wonder and joy of our own childhood while correcting mistakes we made as parents. Let’s examine these gifts as they appear, in chronological order.
In his witty and insightful essay “A Defence of Baby Worship,” G.K. Chesterton offers an observation that at once strikes many of us as absolutely true: “The most unfathomable schools and sages have never attained to the gravity which dwells in the eyes of a baby of three months old. It is the gravity of astonishment at the universe, and astonishment at the universe is not mysticism, but a transcendent common sense.”
The church I attend on Sunday mornings is jammed full of children, many of them babies, and at least once a month an infant resting his head on the shoulder of his mother or father locks eyes with me. In that gaze are the elements so perfectly described by Chesterton: gravity and astonishment. And if we carefully follow the writer’s words, we understand this astonishment really is a transcendent common sense that should belong to us all. Properly considered, the universe should leave us with our mouths agape with incredulity. That infant’s eyes repudiate our indifference to the miraculous planet on which we live, a blindness inflicted by the days, months, and years of the anxieties and wounds we have suffered.
This unblinking gaze is one of a child’s first gifts to a grandparent.
Toddler to Teen
These are the action-packed years, both for the kids and the grandparents. The 3-year-old who runs everywhere requires the eye of a hawk and the stamina of a camel to keep up with him. The third grader wants Grandma to shuffle cards and play board games for hours on end. The 11-year-old requires an entire household staff, all wrapped up in a grandparent: a chauffeur, a storyteller, a tutor in math, and an instructor in the fine arts of gardening or pitching a baseball.
These are the golden years when grandparents have the opportunity to return to their own days as parents and earlier, as children. They read their preschooler “The Cat in the Hat,” which their parents read to them and which they read to their children. They patiently listen, as did their own parents and as they did, to a fourth grader reciting the times tables. Grandpa shows the kids how to hook a fishing line just as his grandfather taught him. Grandma, who makes the best chocolate chip cookies of all time, teaches her secrets to her granddaughter, and in doing so is transported 50 years back in time to her own grandmother’s classroom, a kitchen.
“Nobody can do for little children what grandparents do,” writer Alex Haley said. “Grandparents sort of sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.”
This is the stardust phase of grandparenting.
The Tough Time
For many young people, the ages from 13 to 20, and sometimes older, are dicey. These are the years when adulthood and childhood begin to merge, or just as often, collide. As the young people sort themselves out, trying to find their way, often stumbling, their grandparents may feel much like the teen’s parents, ignored or even belittled. The 17-year-old, who just years earlier climbed into Grandma’s lap and asked for a story, now sits alone and silent on the sofa, alone and isolated as she texts her friends.
The teen years are when we grandparents need more patience than ever. Most of the time, just like the parents, we don’t know what we’re doing. We’ll get some things right, some wrong. Our advice will be ignored. We’re answered with a roll of the eyes when we ask whether they’re dating, and a shrug when we wonder how school is going. If we need some help coping with these changes, we might think back on our own time as teenagers and recall that we behaved in much the same way.
But we won’t fail—not if we stand fast in our love for them. Sooner or later, if those grandkids know we’re always there for them, they’ll come back to us, maybe a bit beaten up by life, but wanting us again.
The waiting and perseverance are hard, but then again, no one said grandparenting was all stardust.
Best of All
It was the third week of June.
From the second-floor deck of the beach house, sipping a late-morning coffee, I watched the scene below me. Triggered by some impulse of the imagination, three of my adolescent grandsons were digging an enormous hole in the sand. Four of their older siblings, all teenage girls sleek with sunshine and water, were bobbing in the surf or plunging under the bigger waves. Their legs moving like scissors, the littlest ones ran back and forth from the ocean’s edge to the umbrellas and canopy shading their parents, three of whom were my grown children.
For 15 minutes or so, all sorts of thoughts tumbled in my head. Though we were missing one family of six that morning, right before my eyes was the legacy of my marriage to Kris. A wonderful mother and wife, she died the year before her oldest grandchild was born, a young man just now graduated from high school. I hoped, as I so often do, that by the mysteries of death and eternity, she could see all these parents and children and that she took joy in them and might bless them with a smile.
Illuminated by the sun and framed by the sea and sand, these children seemed to me just then angels made of flesh and bone, creatures I had never imagined just 20 years earlier. Some were of my blood, some were adopted, but all were my grandchildren, and like grandparents everywhere, I would have laid down my life for any one of them. God willing, all will outlive me, but they will carry me in their memories for as long as they breathed, and I prayed those memories were good and worthy and even useful.
At the time, I considered that quarter hour the best I spent during my week at the beach.
Looking back, I know now that it was one of the best quarter hours I’ve ever spent in my life.