ONCE UPON A time, grandparents were kindly, gentle old souls who typically sat by the fire in a rocking chair knitting, or playing cards. They would cook a great Sunday roast and slipped you sixpence if you were good. The grandmothers wore slippers and housecoats; the grandfathers wore slippers and smoked pipes.
Fast-forward several decades and meet the grandparents of today. They are the baby-boomer generation, the children of the Sixties who are more likely to serve a Moroccan-influenced feast than a traditional Sunday roast. They text, send emails, Skype and reminisce about the Beatles or the Stones, and if you catch them knitting – well, it’s probably because it’s currently all the rage.
There are 14 million grandparents in the UK, with one in two people having grandchildren by the time they are 54. The majority of children under six have living grandparents (half even have great-grandparents) and they get to see them a lot, with 60 per cent of childcare provided by grandparents. On average, children see their grandparents at least once a week. And, according to a survey by the Early Learning Centre, these grandparents are wealthier, healthier and more technologically savvy than ever before. Also, according to a study by Oxford University and the Institute of Education, grandparents who are involved with their grandchild’s upbringing also contribute to their wellbeing. Simple intergenerational-friendly activities like reading or shopping together also boost child development, according to an Australian study which followed 10,000 families over four years. The study revealed that children aged from three months to 19 months had higher learning scores if they were cared for by grandparents as well as their parents.
So what’s the trick? Well, it’s not that grandparents are younger than those of previous generations, but that they seem younger, says Jackie Highe, author of The Modern Grandparents Guide. Highe, at 60 years of age, goes scuba diving, cycling and horse riding with her own grandchildren. In the old days, grandparents tended to hand over the reins once their children had children “and sort of settled down into nothingness,” says Highe. Today’s grandparents are having none of that, preferring, like Highe, to take an active part in their grandchildren’s lives.
However, to keep things harmonious, parents and grandparents should be aware that sometimes a delicate path has to be tread, for intergenerational relationships to work. Ground rules are important. Note to parents: don’t take advantage of your parents. Note to grandparents: know when to step back; your children may not always appreciate your advice.
So what are the special skills can grandparents offer? Well first of all, children love to hear family folklore, whether it’s about their great-grandfather’s eleven siblings or the adventurous brother who was killed by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park. “A grandparent is, after all, a link in the human chain that reaches back through centuries,” observes Joan Bakewell. “The link gives us our background, our heritage and, we now understand, our genes.”
For grandparents whose memory is a bit hazy, kick-start some reminiscing about ‘the olden days’ by making them a gift of the Grandparents’ Journal. There are pockets for photographs and sections to catalogue your family history, childhood memories and family traditions – it makes a great project for grandchildren and grandparents to do together.
Grandparents are also the ideal people to pass on traditional skills – cooking from scratch, simple carpentry, sewing and knitting – all the canny accomplishments that are back in vogue in these credit-crunching times. “Grandparents are the only ones who can pass on traditional pastimes and knowledge to another generation,” says Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, author of The Good Granny Guide. “Today, parents often don’t have the time, but grandparents often enjoy making paper boats, rolling out pastry, picking up their dropped stitches – all great ways to enjoy each other’s company.” As a garden designer, Fearnley-Whittingstall’s absolute favourite thing to do with her grandchildren is to get out in the garden, plant bulbs or sow seeds, and to show them how snapdragons and foxgloves got their names.
And of course, part of the fun of going to the grandparents’ house should be the thrill of doing things that are taboo at home. So comedienne Joan Rivers gives her seven-year-old grandson Cooper candy and ice cream instead of dinner. And Fearnley-Whittingstall offers her TV-chef son Hugh’s children the usually forbidden white bread. “I checked with their parents that it is OK to have different rules in our house about chocolate and sweets, television-watching and bedtimes,” she says. “So yes, white bread is considered a treat, and I keep a biscuit tin on a high shelf, just as my grandmother did – but unfortunately the older ones can now reach it if they stand on a chair!”
But it’s not about spoiling your grandchildren rotten or being their slave. “It’s about devotion, mutual trust, you being there for them and them knowing this,” says Jackie Highe. “It’s like having the wizard Merlin and the fairy godmother on permanent tap.”
But take heed grandparents, just like parents, you too can sometimes be guilty of bigging up your grandchildren a tad too much. As Joan Rivers (who, incidentally, professes to adore being a grandmother) points out in her comedy act: “Everyone thinks their children are the smartest. I’d love to meet the grandmother who says, ‘My grandson is a moron.’”