By Leonard Burton, Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 2.5 million grandparents in America have taken on the responsibility of raising their grandchildren. My wife and I joined the trend recently when we assumed custody of our seven-year-old grandson. With our two adult daughters long gone from the house, we knew that Jeremiah's arrival would bring many changes to our home, our relationship and our lives in general.
It certainly hasn't been easy. But despite the new—sometimes chaotic—routine, or how tired my wife and I may feel at the end of those longest days, I wouldn't change a thing. Having spent more than 20 years working with young people in the child welfare system, I know how important permanent, stable relationships are in a young child's life—especially family relationships. And "grandfamilies" are no different. If, like me, you're adjusting to your new dual role as parent and grandparent, here are some tips to keep in mind:
Don't sweat the small stuff. Because I'm taking on parenthood for the second time in my life, I have a renewed perspective (and even a better sense of humor!)—and I've come to really appreciate this well-known mantra. This dawned on me recently when Jeremiah decided he wanted to stay up late watching movies on a Friday night, and forgo his Saturday morning karate class. Instead of making a big deal about it and saying no, my response was: "Sure, you can stay up late, if you attend your Saturday morning lesson." Although his mom and aunt would complain, "Daddy, when we were that age, you would have told us to go to bed and get ready for class in the morning!" I shrugged it off. As a grandparent, it's important to seize on the teachable moments of developmentally appropriate decision-making opportunities.
Maintain a schedule. Taking the time to map out, and stick to, a consistent schedule will benefit both you and your grandchild. Structure and stability are important, especially when a child has lacked both in his or her young life. Develop a schedule that your entire household can rely on each and every day so everyone knows when it's time for homework, time for play, and most importantly—when your grandchild can expect that quality time with you.
Teach your grandchild(ren) to how to self-regulate. Discipline is important, but it can be hard to strike the right balance. I have seen this as a parent and a grandparent, helping a child learn how to acknowledge a mistake, but not live that mistake. My wife and I found a process that works well in this regard: when my grandson does something wrong, we sit down with him to talk about what happened. We make sure to acknowledge the mistake, but we also make it clear that he should move past the mistake. This way, we're helping Jeremiah learn how to monitor, assess, and adjust his behavior at an early age.
For true "quality time," 10 minutes is all it takes. A little quality time goes a long way. Instead of letting yourself be distracted by household chores or the next item on your "to do" list, commit yourself to a few completely undistracted minutes of quality time with your grandchild(ren) each day. Whether it's sitting down for a meal together or spending 10 minutes talking about what happened at school that day, without the distraction of smartphones or TV sets, giving him or her your undivided attention will make a world of difference.
Model responsibility early. There is nothing my grandson enjoys more than helping out around the house—especially when we can do it together. It all started when I was on the road for work and, having watched me take out the garbage several times, Jeremiah told my wife, "G-Ma! I got this!" and proudly wheeled out the can. Now we make it a bonding experience. Jeremiah wears his own gloves, uses the same tools as I do, and follows me around to "help." I give him jobs in the yard and around the house that have a distinct start and end point so he can see the fruits of his labors—like taking out the garbage. While all of these things seem simply like fun to him, he's also learning the importance of contributing to the household and taking care and pride in his work. Those skills will certainly serve him throughout his life.
With more and more grandparents taking on parenting roles these days, it's important to remember just how critical a role we play in preparing our grandchildren for success in school, work, and life. I salute my fellow dads and granddads for taking on this important role. Investing in our grandchildren's futures and seeing those investments pay off is the best gift we could ask for.
Leonard Burton is a father, grandfather, minister, and Chief Operating Officer of the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative.