Being a grandparent is a pretty sweet gig, traditionally. While many grandparents step in as the child-care provider or a third parent in the house, many get to enjoy all the perks of hanging out with little kids without all the work they once did as full-time parents. They’re often not the primary parent, they get to drop off the hyped-up kid at the end of the day, and they get to enjoy the status of being a special surprise. Studies that target the effects of a grandparent’s presence on their grandchildren show that they provide crucial help in childhood development. But how can grandparents maximize their effect on their grandchildren? One way is to be sure to say the right things. Here, according to several experts on the matter, are 10 things all grandparents need to tell their grandchildren.
“We Love You”
This seems obvious, but a lot of the time, grandkids just need to hear a simple three world from their grandparents, says clinical psychologist Dr. Sherrie Campbell. “They need to hear they are loved, supported and deeply appreciated by their grandparents,” she says. This support is crucial to helping kids feel they have a strong connection to their family, and that they always have someone they can talk to, especially if they feel like they can’t talk to mom and dad.
“I Agree With Your Parents”
Although this feels more like tough love than anything else, young kids need to know that their parents and their grandparents are a united front. That way, the kids don’t go to grandma and grandpa to get to do things that mom and dad don’t let them do, and grandma and grandpa aren’t in the awkward position of being the “good guys” to the parents’ “bad guys.”
“Kids need their grandparents to be on the same side as their parents, rather than being on the opposite side and confusing the kids about who is right,” says Campbell. “Grandparents are wisdom givers and need to bring a maturity and composure to the relationship they have with their grandchildren.”
“You Can Always Talk to Us About Anything”
Although kids should always know, per above, that authorities in the family are a united front, grandma and grandpa need to let their grandkids know that they are always there to be a sounding board — even when the problem involves mom and dad. “They can be role models and sounding boards for kids when they are frustrated or in need of nurturing,” says Campbell. Does this mean that grandma and grandpa should always side with them? No. But they need to make it clear that they are there when they need them.
“You Have a Right to Feel the Way You Feel”
Grandparents are in a unique position to help their grandkids feel free to express their emotions, especially because the kids’ feelings are likely not about their relationship and have to do with friendships, their parents, or other concerns. Given their serious wisdom in life, grandparents should help their kids talk about their feelings. “They can reinforce positive messages, help their grandchildren identify their feelings, and put them into words,” says family and individual therapist Anne Reiner, LMFT.
“We’ve Made Mistakes”
Decades and decades of wisdom don’t happen without mistakes, heartbreak, or hurt, says Reiner. Good grandparents laugh at their mistakes in front of their grandkids — mistakes that can be as small as forgetting to lock the apartment door on the way out or as big as hurting someone’s feelings. Grandparents who own up to these mistakes (and, when applicable, laugh at them) help their kids recognize that even the most well-adjusted, happy adults make mistakes.
“Let Me Tell You About When I Was a Kid…”
It’s very important for grandparents to share their own life history with their grandkids, per Reiner. This includes the big stories (how grandma met grandpa) that provide kids with a sense of narrative to their lives, as well as the little ones. “If a grandchild is going on their first date, grandparents should tell them about their own first date,” says Reiner. Laugh about the date if it was a disaster, or talk about how, in the grand scheme of things, it was just a blip on the radar. Helping kids have a sense of perspective, and a sense of narrative, will help them become resilient young adults.
“We Are So Proud of You”
Grandparents should always express pride in their grandkids, says Reiner. It’s important to do so when they see their grandkids enjoying hobbies or engaging in a passion outside of school, or when they’ve aced a math test. But grandparents should also tell their grandkids that they are proud of them in the absence of success. “My 7-year-old granddaughter calls herself an ‘engineer’ and she delights in showing me how to put together gears to make them all connect and spin,” says Reiner. “When she shows me her engineering, I put an arm around her and tell her how smart she is and how much I’m proud of her.”
“That’s So Interesting!”
It’s important, per Reiner, for grandparents to actively praise their grandkids’ interests, and to ask specific questions about them. “Talk to them about the great things that you see them doing and that they are learning,” says Reiner. This interest — and the conversation that will inevitably follow it — she says, will help kids have a strong sense of self-esteem and also help them feel that their interests are a part of what makes them special.
“I Am So Happy to Be Your Grandparent”
This phrase seems simple, but a grandparenting relationship is more of a choice than most other familial bonds, says Reiner. “It’s important [to let kids know that] in a way, we’ve chosen to be their grandparent and we take that role very seriously. Having them be part of the family and taking care of them is so important,” says Reiner. The simple phrase, “I am happy to be your grandparent,” will not only help kids feel loved and valued, but also help them understand that their strong familial bonds are a choice — not an obligation.
“I Want a Hug. But Only if You Want to Give Me One.”
As important as it is to say you love your grandkids, it’s also deeply important to show that love in the form of physical affection when wanted. Reiner says to always accompany an “I love you” with a “Can I have a hug?” If a grandkid says no, respect that, or if they offer to blow kisses — as Reiner’s 18-month-old grandson likes to do — make that your show of affection, instead. Respect for boundaries starts at an early age.