Last spring, my granddaughter had a half-day of preschool on Fridays, so her mother and I tried to find a weekend when I could drive her from Brooklyn to New Jersey for a sleepover at Bubbe’s house. (It’s Yiddish for grandma.)
The problem: She had started playing T-ball, with games early Saturday mornings.
My daughter would have allowed her to skip a game. T-ball for 4-year-olds is a low-stakes proposition: The kids whack at a ball atop a cone until they hit it, while outfielders largely ignore the proceedings and nobody keeps score.
But Bartola (a family nickname, in tribute to former Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon) loved showing up in her uniform, wearing eye black like her big-league hero, Aaron Judge of the Yankees. I didn’t want her to sacrifice a Saturday.
I hadn’t expected to confront this dilemma for years to come, but here it was already: As kids grow older, developing more interests and busier schedules, grandparents face competition — from sports teams, music lessons, homework, friends. We have to work to maintain our relationships.
Ros Reece, an artist in Portland, Ore., wondered what happened to that little boy who loved long walks with his grandmother. “It always turned into a major adventure,” she told me wistfully, remembering time spent with one of her grandsons. “There was always a bird or a turtle to see in the woods. The park had slides and swings. He had his first taste of ice cream.”
Now? “He’s 14,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Go for a walk? Why?’”
Yet research by Rachel Dunifon, dean of the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, shows we can stay connected. Analyzing federal surveys from 1997 through 2007, her team found that half of children under 5 spent time with a grandparent in a typical week; more surprisingly, so did 35 percent of elementary school kids and 20 percent of teenagers.
In fact, teens (leaving aside those who lived with their grandparents) averaged six hours a week in a grandparent’s presence. Though one might expect some changes in the years since, “I don’t think the pattern has shifted,” Dr. Dunifon said. “It shows what an important role grandparents play in children’s lives.”
As much as it can complicate our routines (geographically distant grandparents have even greater challenges), we can’t really bemoan that growing grandchildren have more going on than they once did. Unless it’s overdone, that’s a healthy development.
“These activities can build self-confidence, a sense of competence, and they can connect them with other kids,” said Deborah Jacobvitz, a child psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “The world broadens.”
I’ll encounter even more complicated schedules ahead, and fuller calendars mean we have to adapt, in creative ways, if we want to stay close. Happily, grandparents I interviewed offered some road-tested strategies to keep connections alive.
Try to make room for one-on-one time.
Family visits, in person or on Zoom, are often group events for Dent and Mary Lynch, who live in Churchton, Md. But Dent, known to his grandkids as “Duck,” also spends time with them individually, even if that means just a short drive for ice cream or a visit to a guitar store; Mary takes them back-to-school shopping.
“They like the attention,” Dent explained. “They tell you about their day, or about school, without their brothers and sisters sharing the spotlight.”
Dr. Jacobvitz approves. “In a group, children can recede or not feel involved,” she said. “One-on-one gives grandparents a chance to really listen, and it makes children feel important.”
Strive for some extended time together.
Amy Thomas began inviting her two nearby grandchildren to her house in Berkeley, Calif., for what she dubbed “Mamie’s Day Camp” when they were 7 and 10, sometimes joined by her two nieces. Camp ran five days a week for two weeks.
“I saved boxes to make box cities in the backyard,” Ms. Thomas recalled. “I had lots of art stuff. We’d bake bread. It was pure fun, and my kids were pathetically grateful for any child care they got.”
(She temporarily suspended camp to protect her 91-year-old mother, who lives with her, from Covid-19 exposure, but hopes it can return next summer.)
Even spending a week at Grandma’s house can help strengthen relationships in ways harder to achieve during flyby visits, and compensates somewhat for distance.
Use the very technology that can drive you crazy.
By fifth or sixth grade, many children have cellphones, and younger kids may send messages via tablet or computer; they no longer require parents as facilitators or mediators.
So at least once a week, Betsy Buchalter Adler and her husband text their 14-year-old grandson, who lives hours from their home in Pacific Grove, Calif. “With a phone call, he has to respond,” she explained. “With a text, we’re not interrupting.” They keep their banter light and jokey, sometimes including memes and photos; he replies when he wants to.
“We want him to know we have his back, and texting is the least intrusive way to show him that,” Ms. Adler said.
Other grandparents mentioned using WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, FaceTime and Skype to stay in touch.
One caution: Parents set the rules for children’s devices, and we need to respect those. “We want parents to feel comfortable with the role grandparents play, and not feel second-guessed,” Dr. Dunifon advised.
Celebrate the events and interests that matter to them.
If the grandkids are not available to come to you, that doesn’t mean you can’t spend time together. The Lynches show up at games, recitals, concerts — whatever their grandchildren get involved in. They applaud, express their pride and take the kids out for a meal or treat afterward.
Entering children’s worlds works particularly well with shared interests. Ms. Reece confessed that her attempt to learn the video game Minecraft, a favorite of her 11-year-old grandson in St. Petersburg, Fla., utterly failed. But he loves taking pictures and sends her those he’s particularly proud of; they both follow a favorite photographer on Instagram. When they’re together, ordinary walks become photo excursions. The framed photos she sent as a Christmas gift now hang in his room.
Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford University Graduate School of Education, cautions grandparents not to be “evaluative,” however. Kids get enough of that. We’re not the ones checking their grades, keeping track of their soccer stats or praising them when they succeed.
“You’re the cheerleader, there to cheer them on no matter what,” Dr. Pope said. “You’re not the scorekeeper.”
The best gifts for older kids may be green.
“Giving a kid money allows them to use it any way they want, and it feels very adult to them,” Dr. Pope said. Her father regularly slips her children $20 for “pizza money.” We’ve been trained to regard money as an impersonal gift, but even small sums acknowledge older grandkids’ growing independence.
So Elsa Rosales, who lives in Boerne, Texas, takes her teenage granddaughters Christmas shopping. She sets a budget, and “they have to keep count of how much they have spent and how much they still have,” she said in an email. The youngest, 13, appreciates the opportunity to work for pay; lawn-mowing or yardwork also means spending time with her grandfather.
Maintaining these relationships is worth the effort. “Children who have close relationships with their grandparents thrive,” Dr. Jacobvitz said. “Grandparents can foster resilience in tough times. They’re not transitory, like a teacher you have for a year.”
As for T-ball, once the season ended, Bartola and I had our overnight visit. We had a fine time, and her parents got to sleep in.
But we may have run into a hurdle. Having watched “Raya and the Last Dragon,” with its kick-ass animated heroine, maybe 130 times, now she wants to learn karate. On Saturday mornings.
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