For the past few years my daughter Amanda has been celebrating Christmas and the birthdays of her six nieces and nephews by giving them the gift of her presence in addition to more traditional presents such as books. Her one-on-one time with them has included a variety of excursions that match their tastes and developmental levels. At one end of the spectrum, there have been shared baking sessions in her home, preceded by a shared trip to the grocery store to purchase supplies for a new and fun project. At the other end of the spectrum have been out-of-town trips, on Amtrak, such as the one that included a night in a hotel and a day spent at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Clearly what we have here is one devoted aunt.
Simultaneously, the mothers of these fortunate grand-beings of mine have been on a rampage to de-clutter their homes, purging them of items that only add complexity and overcrowding to their daily life. They use this as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of sharing one’s good fortune with those less fortunate. As a result, lots of books, toys, puzzles, clothing and other items have gone to families who can put them to better use. In addition, relatives such as myself were asked to help stem the tide of replacement articles when the holidays rolled around.
Even the gift of cash, which is what I normally provided (it was always my preferred gift as a youth) was discouraged by my daughters. Greater than their concern that money could be converted into more stuff was their sense that the gift of my presence would ultimately be better appreciated and enjoyed. They assured me that more Grampy-time, especially one-on-one and especially some invested in some out-of-the-ordinary adventure, would be heartily welcomed by their youths.
Naturally, being smarter than I look, I complied with their request. The resultant experience from my experience became the seed for this article. I’ll call it the Two-way Gift of Grandparenting and begin with a short (for me) description of one of my subsequent offerings.
My gift to eight-year-old Madeline was a shopping trip to a store of her choice. If you’re worried that I was opening up to being taken advantage of, let me assure you that I knew my audience. That assumption was reinforced when I was told that Madeline would like to go to Old Navy, followed by lunch at her favorite spot, Elevation Burger. We did both, and more, and returned home almost four hours later with several tops (all on sale, and all 100% her choice) and a pair of new shoes (sneakers) purchased at the fourth store we visited. I learned later from her mom that she had had the time of her life.
Madeline was of course happy to have the fruits of her labor (and my surprisingly modest investment, which turned out to be less than I had planned to spend), and yet that was not what she emphasized when she and her mom discussed our trip later that evening. True to our intentions—and this is the point I wish to emphasize—what seems to have meant the most to Madeline was the extent to which I came across as being totally devoted to her sense of pleasure and autonomy. I was, to quote my father-in-law, “putty in her hands,” and she loved it. Of course she was happy to have some new clothing, but what seems to have meant more to her was sense that I was there for her. We moved entirely at her pace. She had total decision-making authority with regard to the articles of clothing that she considered, the amount of time spent at each rack, and the final choices that she made. Any time she asked for my opinion, she heard only the first half of a Balanced Response (all pluses, such as, “that color would look good on you”; “ooh, that’s nice and soft”; or, “it goes well with the pants that you have on”). When she felt finished in one part of the store, we moved on—and not before. When she didn’t see any footwear that she liked at Old Navy, I asked the sales lady for other suggestions, and we followed her recommendations one by one until we met success. I gave no hint of approval or disapproval of what she looked at, with the one exception of suggesting that the second store’s offerings didn’t seem to be of sufficient quality and she needn’t feel obligated to settle for something she really didn’t like. I saw that as more educational than manipulative on my part, and I believe she would agree. Eventually, in store #4, she spied a pair of sneakers identical to those of her older sister. With a twinkle in her eye, she carefully determined if the fit was right and whether her sister would really be upset or only joke about being so, and eventually made the decision to buy them. All the while, I was blissfully unobtrusive. It was Madeline’s show, and she knew it.
This experience was every bit as memorable for me as it seems to have been for my granddaughter. Throughout much of it, I kept having the thought that I wished I had been more like this as a parent: more patient, more youth-directed, less evaluative (let alone judgmental) when observing their choices. I realize that parents have the assumed responsibility for their development of their offspring and thus think they must be the ones who introduce and maintain boundaries, and in many
instances shape and mold their young charges in order to produce the desired outcomes. What, after all, could be the alternative—to let them “run wild” and likely fail to measure up to any societal norms, let alone be able to function in the “real” world?
Further contemplation has led me to decide that, more likely than not, the more we as both parents and grandparents respect the internal motivations of our young and respond with more unconditional love than conditional approval, the more likely we will end up with people who, as adults, are smart, kind, compassionate, creative, productive, considerate, honorable and all of the other attributes that we hold dear in our society. The question then becomes, how do we actualize our demonstrations of unconditional love without setting everyone up for abuses?
I immodestly hold up my shopping trip with Madeline as Exhibit 1 in this campaign. I imagine that most grandparents have fewer outside obligations than most parents and thus have access to more free time to simply be at the beck and call of their loved ones. Simply providing a period when no one feels rushed can provide a huge boost to the sense of being valued and loved. It doesn’t have to turn into half a day’s worth of shopping, either; only fifteen minutes of playing tiger with Cade and Cassie (almost eight and just five, respectively), wherein I kneel on the floor next to their parents’ bed and roar and grab at them while they jump up and down on the mattress and roar back, is enough time for us to feel fully connected and for them to feel attended to.
A second variable in the unconditional love department is the degree to which the youth feels heard—really heard, in a non-evaluative manner, free from any purpose other than unadulterated, one-way communication. No probing, certainly no criticizing, just lots of quiet listening and the occasional “uh huh” or “hmmmm,” with full eye contact as they speak. I believe that it is the virtual lack of response—the absence of even paraphrasing, which still requires something on the part of the speaker—that ultimately provides the sense of total acceptance. In addition, by conditioning ourselves not to respond, we are making it easier to avoid any inadvertent signs of judgment and thus less than a full sense of safety on the part of others. To practice for such moments, I recommend first trying this with a spouse, starting with five minutes each way. It’s harder than you think and can lead to deep emotional sharing and a sense of great relief—more unconditional love.
Space doesn’t allow for any more suggestions for now, so I will leave it to readers to develop and share their own ideas. Once you set the agenda of unconditional love, there is no end to the possibilities. Let grandparents lead the way.