African grandfather playing chess with his grandsonThe grandparents in your life may live nearby or across the country. They may love babies . . . or love babies but still refuse to change diapers. No matter the situation, we can nurture grandparent-grandbaby relationships in the early years and beyond. Consider these helpful strategies for developing lifelong bonds between generations.

  • Use technology to build relationships across distances. Video chatting, through applications like Skype or FaceTime, is a great way to help young children begin to connect with grandparents and other family members who live far away. Babies and toddlers come to recognize the voices and faces of the people on the screen—which can jumpstart their relationships and help ease shyness during the first in-person visits. What’s more, the American Academy of Pediatrics has said that video-chatting is an exception from “screen-time” limits, according to their new media use recommendations for children.
  • Set up grandparents and grandchildren for successful visits. Try to schedule the visit during the morning, a time when most babies are awake, alert, and ready to play. Pull out some of your child’s favorite toys and books. If your child is a little slow-to-warm up, begin playing together as a group and slowly phase yourself out as your baby becomes more comfortable. For toddlers, try to ensure that the environment is as child-safe as possible so grandparents can focus on fun, rather than “no touching” or “be careful.”
  • If needed, help grandparents understand your child’s needs. Grandparents may have forgotten that babies only interact for short periods of time or that toddlers see a bookshelf and think, “Ladder!” One technique that can be helpful is to use the “baby’s voice” to share a suggestion. That way it’s not you telling grandparents what to do, it’s the baby: “Grammy, I love to climb at the playground and this bookshelf looks like steps. Maybe if you roll a car to me or start a story, that will help to distract me. Or maybe we can play in the other room?” 
  • Find an activity or interest that grandparent and grandchild can share. My mother-in-law loves being a grandma, but she wasn’t much for sitting on the floor and playing. We discovered that community art-and-music classes for toddlers provide the perfect structured (and short) outings. Later, she found that taking my preschoolers to the movies was another great activity—the kids were engaged and they could share a fun afternoon together. (And my husband and I got 2 hours alone, a double win!)
  • Give them time to find their way. Grandparents will have their own approaches to caregiving that may be different from ours. While it’s tempting to coach from the sidelines (“Hey, Mom, the baby likes it better when you hold her over your shoulder…”), sometimes it’s best to let the relationship evolve in its own way. Babies and young children can handle different approaches to care when they feel safe and loved. (More here on sharing the care.) Because of distance, my kids only saw my parents a few times a year, but when we visited, they got to sleep with Grammy and Grampy. While co-sleeping wasn’t a choice I had made at home, letting this become a special part of their time with my parents has given them lasting and cherished memories of whispered stories and nighttime cuddles.
  • Finally, be patient. Sometimes these relationships don’t form right away. My dad, while he loved my kids, wasn’t particularly involved with them as young children. Now that my son is 12, though, the two of them are thick as thieves. On our last visit, my father taught Ben how to chop firewood. (I know! I was worried too! But everyone finished with all fingers intact!) Together, they kept the woodstove going in the house. My son felt proud to be trusted with such important tasks (especially ones that involved an ax), and my father was thrilled to have a partner for work he usually did alone.

The relationship between grandchild and grandparent can be a special, distinct, and incredibly powerful connection in a child’s life. Supporting this developing bond, beginning in the early years, plants the seed for many years of shared memories—what a wonderful way to give children both “roots and wings.”

About Rebecca Parlakian, ZERO TO THREE

ZERO TO THREE is a national nonprofit that provides parents, professionals and policymakers the knowledge and know-how to nurture early development. ZERO TO THREE's mission is to ensure that all babies and toddlers have a strong start in life.

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