A Few Thoughts on Grandparenting

A Lala is born

A Lala (Grandma) Is Born. Welcoming My First Grandchild, Cadence James. September 30, 2006.

[Got a minute? Take a survey before May 31 to be entered in a drawing for a $75 Amazon gift card! And sleep better tonight knowing you helped an author conduct research for her next book. Thank you! Love, Sheila]

Prior to the birth of my first grandchild, I hadn’t thought much about what it meant to be a grandmother. I hadn’t thought much about what kind of relationship my grandson and I would have. I mean, we all know what grandmas do, right? We bake cookies and provide soft laps and applaud loudly at school plays. I hadn’t considered how his arrival would influence my relationship with his mother, my daughter. Thanks to a lifetime’s experience as a child, grandchild, and mom, I knew the drill: She would bring him to our home. I would cook ridiculously large meals. We would sit at the table for a long, long time, discussing the endless ephemera that tie a family together.


Discussing the Endless Ephemera, ca. 1970. Clockwise from Top: Uncle Hugh, Me, Grandma Downs, ‘Pa Downs, My Sister (back to camera), Great-Uncle Don, My Mother. 

Not quite a year later, I married Rich, and the grandlittle count jumped from one to five: My new husband came with four grandchildren. Since then, our children have given birth to four more babies, bringing the count up to nine.

The miracle of blended families has blessed me with many grandchildren. It’s also shown me how differently people can approach a role like  “father” or “mother” or  “stepparent” or “grandma.”  Grandparenting alongside other grandparents has shown me, time and time again, that my understandings of what gets done in the normal course of family life is as idiosyncratic as, well, as prayer. Set two people down and ask them to pray to the same God about the same thing–I bet you’ll hear two remarkably different prayers.

Grandchildren hold the promise of richly blessing the final decades of our lives, but it isn’t always sweet and straightforward. Do you know someone who has been banished from his grandchildren’s lives? How about someone who never spent time with her own grandparents? It happens.

And it’s tragic. Families are intended to mitigate loneliness, not inflict it.

I’m thinking that successful grandparenting doesn’t just happen. It calls for a sensitive understanding of family relationships and a genuine desire to be a force for good in the lives of your children and their children.

It calls for making room for other families’ traditions and expectations. Lots of room.

Can we talk about that? Here? I’m so eager to hear of your experiences (as grandchild, child/parent, or grandparent) and see what we can learn together.

I’ll go first.

A few years ago, one of our grandchildren committed a significant breach of the rules at his school. And as it happened, he executed the serious infraction just a week or two before his birthday. His mom told us: “He forfeits his birthday this year. No presents!” 

As the grandparent, what would you have done? As the parent, what would you have done? In the next post, I’ll share what we did, and why–and the invaluable lesson we learned in the process. (Hint: it has to do with knowing why a certain course is selected.)

My hope is that we can make this little corner of the interwebs a safe place to talk about family relationships across generations. The constitution and landscape of “family” is more varied and permeable than ever before, and these circumstances influence our role as child, parent, or grandparent. These situations also free us to stake out a relationship and build it into a uniquely beautiful communion.

So how about you? What’s on your mind?

rabbit conga

God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners with singing;
but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.

Psalm 68:6 (NIV)


  1. As you know, our situation is a little different since we have had our oldest grand girl so much–making us kind of a substitute parent. It makes for some interesting times–and sometimes a little drama, especially when my daughter and I don’t agree on how to handle situations. It also raises all kinds of stuff in me–from inadequacy to exhaustion to regret and resentment. And gratefulness for the ability to be so close and so involved.

    Honestly, I don’t feel like I’ve had a “normal” grandmother experience. But is there any?

    I’ll be looking forward to this series!

  2. And P.S. – as a parent, I can see myself making that statement–but not being able to follow through myself. It reminds me of a Little House on the Prairie episode where Ma announces a punishment after Mary started a fire in the barn by studying my lantern light so late. She almost immediately regretted it, and their pastor told her she had to stick to it.

    I remember threatening to cancel a birthday party once, but then relenting because I didn’t want to disappoint the guests. But I think a better lesson would have been for my daughter to learn that our choices can affect others in all kinds of ways.

  3. Being a grandparent has been one of the hardest growth processes we have taken on. Our first grand daughter was a preemie, weighing only 2 pounds 11 ounces. As I sat in the NICU room with bells and buzzers going off, I prayed. I prayed hard for me as a grandma that my role would be one of encouragement and strength. Love always… ALWAYS along with teachable moments they would remember, and matters of the heart moments.
    We have six grand children now. Each are different and each are dealt with in a different way. In that number six we have twins who are identical. All miracles. All amazing. Looking forward to this series. Thank you for opening the door for discussion.

    • You’re welcome, Sharon. Thank you for sharing about your experiences. It’s so hard when they have health challenges. I’m looking forward to your contributions as we move on through this discussion.

  4. Sheila, all your buddies were promoting your new series on FB and I couldn’t resist. I am glad I didn’t. I love the sensitivity in which you are approaching this subject as a grandparent for four years as of yesterday. My oldest granddaughter of two turned 4. I was the last on the Christmas itinerary. But I wanted to be the one to make room, not only for my children to live life in their new extended families but to let life continue to happen with all of their grandparents…my parents and my children’s other grandparents and great-parents. Yes, there has to be a lot of room created to wiggle around in.

    My daughter is the mother to my grands. She and I have learned to dance over the past few years. We don’t always do it well. I tend to get out of rhythm and step on her toes. But we keep dancing and I keep learning to be the one who is remembering when I danced in her shoes. I love that my grands are near though I only see them once or twice a week. I count it a joy, a privilege and a blessed opportunity to leave with them what my grandmother’s left to me.

    • Dea, I’m so glad you came by! I love that image of you and your daughter learning to dance. I’m looking forward to your contributions to our discussion.

  5. I’m going to love this conversation. You are so right about the diversity of grandparenting experiences and perspectives. The only grandparent I knew was a grandmother who, for the most part, remained distant – both physicially and emotionally – from me. My own children only knew one set of grandparents – my parents. The younger boys were in highschool, but Emily was only 8 by the time both of them had died. As a grandmother, I, too, have a unique situation. Our oldest boy is my brother’s son, who we raised from the time he was 8. The day he was married, Emily was only 4 months old, so when he and his wife began having babies early in their marriage, I had grandbabies while still raising my own little ones. It was also complicated, because Mike, our nephew, began reconciling with his birth parents – his children’s “real” grandparents. So…..Mike’s two girls (adults now) have several sets of grandparents – with step-grandparents and us. And with some of the 6 grandlittles our younger boys have given us, there are also stepgrandparents in their lives. There’s no shortage of love – I’ll tell you that much! I don’t want to take over your blog in my response here, but I’m all about intentional grandparenting. It’s why I’m writing a series of books entitled, “Letters from Mimi’s Backyard.” I look forward to these ongoing conversations, Shelia. BTW, a few years ago my dear friend Joyce and I began reading/discussing a book called “Extreme Grandparenting.” ( http://www.amazon.com/Extreme-Grandparenting-Tim-Kimmel/dp/1589974603 ) Just this morning I had tea with Joyce and we talked about how we need to return to that study.

    • Patricia,
      It’s amazing, isn’t it, how every family has some “asterisk” somewhere? Like raising a nephew as a son? I love the unique perspective that you bring to the table, and I’m so glad you’re here. I will take a look at the book you mentioned. Cheers to you and Joyce!

  6. I look forward to your next post. Love the topic especially since our daughter is expecting!

    • Sandy, how exciting!!! Thanks for coming by. I’m looking forward to your comments from the perspective of expectant grandma. (Is that right? This baby will be your first grandlittle?)

  7. I love the idea of being more intentional about my future role as a grandparent just as I have been intentional in my parenting (or tried to be). I wonder how it will be, grandparenting one child’s kids from another child’s kids? I’d like to know more about that.

    My in-laws live overseas. I wish they lived closer…I’d love to have their influence on my kids.

    • Ann, those are two interesting ideas you raise: differences between your children and the far-far-away grandparents. I can’t wait to hear more.

  8. I adored my grandmother (I only knew one; the others died when I was young). And her house, small as it was, served as a gathering place for the extended family where adults carried on long conversations with lots of stories and Grandma let me play with old hats and dresses in the attic. Or with some old stamps and stamp pads. I learned to entertain myself for long, long stretches.

    • That’s an important skill, isn’t it? One of our grands complains, occasionally, of being bored. I remind him that keeping himself entertained is his responsibility (along with a few suggestions–he’s only eight!).

      I was blessed to have all four of my grandparents until I was 21. We never lived more than a two-hour drive away, so I got to spend a lot of time with them. They enriched my life in so many ways . . . It’s been 13 years since the last of them was called home, but I still think of each of them every day.

      • Wow. My one grandmother has been gone since 1987.

        • Ann, I’m sorry. (And I made an error in my comment–the last of my grands died in 1991, which would be 24 years, not 13 years.)

          Did other age-appropriate people play a grandparenting role in your life? Neighbors, someone at church?

  9. Sheila – I love this. We also have a blended family. Our grandchildren number 11/12 right now. It has been a tremendous blessing and lesson in respect and grace and letting go and trusting God. There are victories and there are tragedies. There are relationships that are healthy and some that are strained, some separated by over 2,000 miles and some non-existent in the trip across the river. One thing is for sure. I just never could have anticipated that my life would be what it is today, the number of children and grandchildren (we don’t use “step” around here), the relationships that have flourished and the ones that have floundered. The one thing I am certain of 16 years into grandparenting is that children are a blessing from the Lord and I have been blessed beyond my wildest imagination. I miss my own grandma like a piece of my own heart went out when she passed. Nothing can take her place. I pray that my legacy and my gift to my grandchildren is not just one of joy and sincerity, but one of knowing that there is a God who loves them more than they can ever imagine in their wildest dreams. I pray the Lord will bridge the gap and overcome my deficits as I embrace these blessings. I am looking forward to following along with you on this special topic. Thank you Sheila.

    • Kelly, thank you for sharing so generously about your own life circumstances. We don’t use the “s-word” (step) here, either–we do say “bonus children” and “bonus mom/dad,” but we do not distinguish with the grands.

      I’m sure a linguist would make much of that, hmm? I hope you’ll continue to participate, Kelly. I’m sure we can all learn from your experiences.

  10. Sheila – I’ve been gone this entire day and haven’t yet shared this wonderful post with its invitation to a rich conversation. You’ve struck the mother lode here, I think! We started grandparenting realtively early – in our 40s – and our eldest ones are now young adults. Next month will mark the age turn for both eldest and youngest – 24 and 5. It has all been joy! My own grandparents (well, 3 of them) lived until I was 18, 25 and 54! And our kids had all 4 grandparents until they were all in their 30s – just my mom remains now. So grandparents are a hugely important part of our family story. Our parents were very involved – more so than my own grandparents were – and we all have so many rich memories of vacations taken with Dick’s family, trips to my folks beach condo and large family gatherings with both sides. I find that I pray for them each quite a lot, especially the older two boys who have been through a lot in their short lives, losing their dad and now pretty much walking away from their faith heritage. I also try to be available for conversation, whenever they’re open, and count it a privilege when we can connect. I’ll be very interested in this conversation! And now, I’ll do my part and share this loveliness.

    • Diana, thanks for dipping into the well of your own experiences. You had a grandparent until you were 54? That is amazing! I love the depth of heritage you describe. Such a gift.

      And I’m so grateful you’re part of this conversation. Thanks.

  11. I’m very new at grandmothering. I had a great gift that not many people have any more: My brother and I grew up with our parents and one grandmother in the same house. She (and, until he went to college, my youngest uncle) lived downstairs and we lived upstairs. Separate kitchens and living rooms and bathrooms. But we probably ate supper with her a couple times a week, at her table. There were certain shows we might watch with her (I, for reasons I can’t fathom now, liked to watch Lawrence Welk’s show with her). She and I had a tradition of watching the Miss America pageant together and eating Fritos. There was no need for a babysitter because she was there. I think I was pretty big before I understood that not everyone lived with three generations like that, and I’m grateful for it.
    Dad’s mom died when he was a teenager, so Grandma Brown was my stepgrandma, but that made no difference when I was a kid. She was the only Grandma Brown I knew. They lived on a small farm and I loved visiting there. It felt a little like the Waltons; the house had a coal furnace and she had an old wringer-washer and a pump in the kitchen.
    They were very different but I felt distinctly loved by each of them.

    • When I was a child the family across-the-street-and-over-one included Grandma Grace. What a blessing! I have fantasies of a “family compound” with a gigantic great room/communal kitchen and separate cottages for each nuclear family.

      I really track with your comment about feeling distinctly loved by each of your grandparents. I had all 4 of mine until I was 21 (and old enough to appreciate their differences). Now, nearly a quarter century after the last of them was called home, I am still dredging new insights from my memories.

      I didn’t expect that.

      Sweet congratulations on your promotion to Grandma. You’ll be a grand grandma. 😉

  12. I’ve noticed that people who had a lot of contact with their grandparents become better grandparents themselves. It’s not only that they’ve seen it modeled, but they’ve also–usually unknowingly–watched their parents perform that dance between different grandparents.

    • I’m glad you’re here, Megan! That’s such a good point, Megan, about watching our parents perform the “dance” with our grandparents.

  13. Sheila, grandparenting is such a special relationship. Thanks for starting this conversation.
    I only remember my mother’s father who had been a widower since 1943, though my mom told many stories about her own mother. Luckily both of my dad’s parents lived until I was into my thirties, so I had grown to appreciate them as I watched them relate to my own children.
    Someone made a comment about their grandchildren being born to their daughter. Since we have no sons, I guess that’s all I’ll ever know! Our two granddaughters, six and a half, and nearly two, live in our community and I am so blessed to be able to share life with them. Though their mommy and I went through a tough patch before she got married, she has been so open and loving in sharing her precious little ones with us.
    Recently, I have been prompted to be more intentional about sharing about spiritual things. The little one has been open to the spirit even at her baptism, quietly but attentively following each movement and word. (She was six months old.)
    This will be a wonderful place to listen, learn and share. I can tell already from the comments!

    • Sheila,
      I’m so glad you’re here. I’d love to hear more about how your mother kept her mother’s memory alive for you.

  14. I have a different kind of story. I was raised in a large extended family, almost the whole caboodle of us in one town – 4 grandparents, 10 sets of uncles and aunts and 33 first cousins! I saw lots of most of them, including my grandparents. Then I left the cult that I had been brought up on, and abruptly lost my entire family, save for 2 aunts and a great-aunt. My husband grew up with no extended family (his parents emigrated from Scotland to New Zealand before he was born). My children have almost no contact at all with my family, and minimal contact with my husband’s. My MIL is 83, and is a Christmas-and-birthday kind of grandma. Having experienced life in an extended family, I am heartbroken that my children have no idea of what that is like, and never will. They have no adults apart from my husband and I who are interested in them, and I ache for someone to care enough to be a surrogate uncle/aunty/grandparent to them, but so far that hasn’t happened. I come from a place of grandparent lack.

    • Donna,
      Thank you for sharing your story. I can feel the pain in your words. Sometimes the hardest grieving is for a wanted relationship that never came to be.

      I hope you’ll continue to share your experiences. I have no doubt that you’re ministering to other families with your sharing.

  15. As your co-grandparent you and I both agree that respecting the parents wishes is important. There is so much more I could say, but I will just say this. I feel blessed to share the roll of grandparent with you, Rich and Jim. We all have found a way to work together to facilitate each families desires and schedules as well as to celebrate things together whenever possible. The ability and desire to do that is not something all blended families can do. I’m glad we have decided to work together!

  16. A very timely subject…there aren’t many resources to help us learn how to be grandparents. Judging by the number of comments I would say that many people are seeking some practical wisdom.

    I have four grandchildren plus one “adopted” grandson. I live with my oldest granddaughter and help care for her three children, with a fourth great grandchild expected in August. I am the crafter who teaches sewing and cutting and pasting and painting. I play cards and games (not video), make costumes and masks and take long walks to show them interesting things in nature.

    I am fortunate that I don’t have any conflicts with my granddaughter and her husband. At one time I did have some differences with my daughter about her teenage daughter. I try to help out whenever I can, endeavor to stifle the impulse to give unsolicited advice and offer encouragement at all time. My number one goal is to strengthen families so that the children can flourish.

    • Linda, thanks for your thoughts! I’m grateful for your perspective as a household member.

      I’m eager to hear about good things, too–not only the conflicts. Though I do hope to be of help to those with conflicts. (Which is probably all of us, or most of us, at some point.) I hope you’ll stop by tomorrow for the next installment.

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