Even when you don't say a word, you're teaching lessons to your grandchildren. So think twice before tossing a candy wrapper out the car window or gesturing at the driver in front of you. "Everything you do reflects your values, and kids pick up on it," says Dr. Scott Haltzman, professor of psychiatry at Brown University and author of The Secrets of Happy Families (Jossey-Bass). Even when you think they're not paying attention, kids are watching — and listening. So be careful out there.
Display Healthy Habits
Grandparents who reach for fresh fruit and oatmeal instead of coffee and a doughnut are planting seeds for a lifetime of healthy eating, says Maureen Schuster, a licensed social worker in Atlanta who specializes in older-adult services. Staying physically active sends a message, too. "Playing a game of catch or taking a nature walk shows children that even though you are older, you are still vital and fun," she says. As for smoking or drinking in front of the kids, Schuster recommends this rule of thumb: "If it's something you don't believe your grandchild should do, don't do it yourself."
Share the Love
Grandparents are in a unique position as role models, Haltzman says: "They typically discipline less than parents or teachers, and are full of unconditional love. They can give grandchildren so many positive messages about family and loved ones." Betty Ann Krischan, 59, of Buffalo, frequently takes her 6-year-old grandson, Josh, to visit his 88-year-old great-grandmother. "He's learned a great deal about sympathy and caring as he watches my sisters and I care for our ailing mom," Krischan says. "I'm totally honest about some of the things that are happening to her — why she doesn't remember how to do things, why we don't leave her alone, and why it's important for us to help her."
Bet on Books
One of the most influential acts you can perform in front of a small child? Turning off the TV and picking up a book. "Whether it's sports or American Idol, television tends to draw our attention away from everything else — and sometimes we don't even notice it's on," Haltzman says. "By reading, doing crossword puzzles, and using five-dollar words — even if kids don't understand them — you're showing that books are important and language has power." Fostering a love of reading will help boost your grandchildren's confidence, and maybe even raise their grades.
[poll]Take Them to Work
To give her grandson a taste of the grownup world, Krischan occasionally lets Josh visit her office. "It's helped him to learn patience," she says. "For instance, he has to be quiet when Grandma is working, talking on the phone, or meeting with people." If you're retired, show your grandchildren the benefits of giving back to the community by letting them see you do volunteer work. "Kids pick up on whatever signals you're giving off," Haltzman says. "It's up to you whether you give off a Mr. Rogers vibe — or a Scrooge one."
Tame Your Tone
Think about how you treat other people every day. Do you snap at a waitress who forgets your salad dressing, or chew out the cashier who doesn't ring up the discounted price of an outfit? Kids notice rudeness — even in small exchanges. "If you want your grandchild to be generous, thoughtful, and gracious, demonstrate those traits," Haltzman says. "Show patience, and the message your grandchildren take away is: 'Here's someone I admire handling a tough situation with a sense of humor.'"
Similarly, watch what you say about other people, especially your grandchildren's parents, whenever the kids are in hearing distance. "Grandchildren tend to blend into the background," Haltzman says. "We think they're not listening, but they hear everything. And if you're talking negatively about your son-in-law, or the neighbor you don't like, kids will pick up on it. Being negative just generates more negativity." And that's one thing grandchildren don't need to learn from you.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.