The Present of Grandparents' Presence

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Two generations ago, families were less mobile than they are today. Jobs supported long-term work commitments, and generations of families lived nearby. As an older father, I recall those days.

Today, when older parents and adult offspring live far apart, young children experience much less contact with grandparents. As a result of the separation, parents face a challenge: fostering an attachment between young children and grandparents.

Parents, facing this new challenge, often ask, "How do I make grandparents a part of our family's life, when they live so far away?" As a father and a psychologist, I recommend four basic strategies:

Frequent Phone Calls: In the face of life's demands, calling our parents can be low priority. A weekly call home needs to be scheduled - in our home we call on Sunday night. Think of these calls as more than conversations; they are opportunities for grandparents and grandchildren to build connections.

Nicknames: In families, nicknames become part of the secret language that binds us together. But, when grandparents live far away, creating nicknames requires more work. We can do that by asking our parents about special historical names from their pasts. Such nicknames create a special connection between grandparents and our children.

Sleepovers: Many parents worry that leaving the children with grandparents creates an imposition, but in reality these sleepovers provide an opportunity for attachments to form in unique ways. When parents are present, we interfere with the grandparent-grandchild dynamic. But sleepovers allow grandparents to act more naturally and grandchildren to respond more genuinely - children weave our parents' home into the fabric of their everyday world (and we parents get a much-needed break, too).

Grandma and Grandpa's Stuff: We need to find somewhere in our home to place family treasures, including space for grandparents' "stuff." Wherever that place is in our home, we should include things from our parents' home. We can also display crafts and cards made by our children for their grandparents. The connections from the time spent with grandparents will transfer to their "stuff," helping our children maintain a connection to their grandparents. The "stuff" creates a concrete symbol of this emotional bond.

Grandparents mean as much today as ever to children. A friend of mine reminded me that grandparents can give unconditional love, even if our own experience with our parents has baggage attached to it. The challenge of sustaining closeness across the miles is worth taking on: It gives our children the gifts of an extended family, a bridge to their history and a unique kind of love that lasts more than a lifetime.

Psychologist Kevin Arnold, Ph.D., ABPP, is the director of the Center for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapy in Columbus, and a clinical faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at the Ohio State University. He is married and the father of two children, and he loves being an "older" dad.