How Are You Like YOUR Grandparents?

When good grandparenting is passed down through generations, grandchildren flourish.

By Emily Abedon

When Texan Donna Arnold became a grandmother two years ago, she could not have been more excited — or more confident about handling her new role. "I learned from the best," says Arnold, 44. "I had my grandparents most of my life, and to me they hung the moon."

Having beloved grandparents as role models when you are growing up is the best shortcut to finding your own style when you become a grandparent. And when the activities and traditions you share with your grandchildren come already field-tested, because they're the same special things your grandparents did with you, then you forge a crucial link between the past and the future that fosters emotional health in young people.

Blasts From the Past

The impressive list of skills Arnold gleaned from her grandparents includes fishing, cooking, and accounting — just a few of the many things she hopes to share over time with her own grandchildren. Right now, however, since both of her grandkids are younger than 3, Arnold focuses on one of her grandmother’s other signature activities: spraying shaving cream all over the kitchen table, and letting the kids rip into it.

"She would squirt it out and we would have a ball," Arnold recalls, adding that her grandparents taught her not just to play hard but to work hard as well. "I want my grandchildren to have what I had — kids being allowed to be kids. And it's also nice for me to kind of relive it a little bit."

Words and Lessons

Alabama native Lynn Letson, who divides her time between Charleston, S.C., and Centennial, Wyo., says the sage advice of her grandmother is always on the tip of her tongue. "Pretty is as pretty does — she said that all the time," recalls Letson, 62, who now offers that and other pithy sentiments, along with steaming cups of hot cocoa, to her 8-year-old granddaughter. "Don't get down in the gutter with them — that's where they want to take you, is another of my favorite expressions from her. It helps me to this day. A simple reminder, really, that we make our own decisions about our actions and our outlook. It's too good not to share."

Old adages, family stories, and meaningful traditions that grandparents pass down with enthusiasm help grandchildren build character and gain perspective, security, and a sense of self that can brace them against some of the confusion of growing up. And if those timeless words sound old-fashioned, well, that's part of their value. Connecting to the ideas of the past helps kids slow down in an era that is increasingly on fast-forward.

"The trends in our culture support innovation and new knowledge," says psychotherapist David Andregg, a Bennington College professor who is writing a book about the importance of cultural transmission from old to young — and the danger of its loss. "But grandparents often have a deep conviction about the stuff that children need to know," Andregg says, "and usually they're right."

Legacy of Love

Elizabeth Owings, 62, an administrative assistant in Greenville, S.C., says she'd be lost without her computer, cell phone, and BlackBerry, but when she spends time with her two granddaughters, ages 3 and 1, she stays unplugged. Owings tries to take the kids back to the kinds of days she spent as a young girl with her grandmother and grandfather, who lived right next door. When they bake cookies together, dragging their fingers along the bottom of the mixing bowl for dollops of batter, the children enjoy mouthfuls of an irresistible sweetness that has been handed down through generations.

When Owings recently asked for a half-day off so she could pick up and watch her grandchildren, her boss agreed and then asked her for advice on what to do with his own granddaughters. "He didn't have grandparents in his life growing up," Owings says, "and he knew I’d learned a few things from spending so much time with mine."

Owings gave her employer a simple, timeless recipe. "Just be there," she told him. "It matters very little what you do. Roll around on the floor with them! Pay attention to whatever they are becoming passionate about. And just give them that unconditional love, which they give back to you in such a wonderfully overwhelming way."

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