There are many different ways of being a grandparent. You may be lucky enough to live nearby and have time to babysit and be an extra pair of hands at the drop of a hat. But if you live a far away, even in another country, technology can help you be a familiar presence to your grandchildren as you chat on the computer and send regular emails.

A helping hand

You might think that a busy new mom welcomes help in any form, and she does, but never forget that you are doing just that—helping. You are not in charge and you must do what you are told. Otherwise your offers may become much less welcome. If you get it right, there are many ways you can lend a hand, depending on your circumstances.

advice for grandparents

In some families, grandparents take a very active part in child care while parents work. For single-parent families, grandparent care may be the only way the parent can manage to work outside the home. If grandparents are still working themselves or have other commitments, help may take the form of a regular babysitting slot so parents can take a much-needed night out together, or an outing with grandchildren on the weekend.

Never forget that you are helping—you are not in charge and you must do what you are told

Long-distance grandparenting has been revolutionized by the internet, which allows you not only to talk with your grandchildren without worrying about the phone bill, but also to see each other, via the computer camera, as you talk. And of course you can send e mails as they get older.

How much do you want to do?

Some grandparents, particularly grandmas, find it difficult to deal with their irresistible desire to help with newborn and young grandchildren. It’s easy to want to be involved more than is good for you, and to commit to doing more than you can manage. My advice is to go carefully at first. Offer to help but never—ever—try to take over.

Some things are more exhausting than others. Helping with meals and bath times, reading books at bedtime, picking up grandchildren from school are all tasks that are pleasurable and not too taxing. But to take on full-time child care for even one grandchild so that your daughter or daughter-in-law can work, for instance, can be exhausting, depending on your age. Doing night duty for babies or young children, for example, could quickly wear you out.

The fatigue is a lot to deal with and you have to decide if this is how you saw this stage of your life. Just as important, is this how your partner saw it. Will he mind you being absent for long stretches of time when he may have been expecting to spend newly found, cherished “us-time” with you?

Making it clear what you can and can’t do

It may not be easy to be forthright with your children when you feel pulled in two directions. Your loyalty to them and your grandchildren may feel painfully stretched since you want to help but also want to make time for yourself and your partner. But it’s a conversation you have to broach. Without it, you may find your resentment building, especially if your help is taken for granted and goes unacknowledged. If you’re going to get deeply involved in child care, there’s also the question of payment, and while most grandparents don’t want to take money, it’s a subject worth raising if you provide significant child care.

old people

Your priorities

It’s only fair to your children that you make your priorities clear so that their expectations fit yours. Different expectations can result in strife. It may be that you prefer set times when you help out—for example, Wednesday afternoons and Friday mornings, as well as ad hoc babysitting duties. Or you may feel more comfortable with a casual arrangement, with you being an extra pair of hands occasionally or having a grandchild for a sleepover once in a while. For you to get the most out of grandparenting your involvement has to mesh with your children’s needs—and your own.

Resist the temptation to take sides and strive to be a grandparent who’s nice to know—one who is helpful, cheerful, and makes light of minor problems

Wise grandmas

As a grandmother to 11 grandchildren I’ve found myself adhering to certain ways of handling things that seem to work. The following is my advice for happy grandparents and families.

smiling grandparents

Respect your children’s space and only visit by invitation or mutual arrangement. You’ll keep communication open if you always respect your children’s choices and boundaries with good intentions. Look for opportunities to praise your children on being good parents, and never undermine your children or your grandchildren. Offer support and advice without always expecting it to be accepted and keep a well-developed sense of fairness and humor. Resist the temptation to take sides and try to be a grandparent who’s nice to know—one who is helpful, cheerful, and makes light of minor problems.

I’m not suggesting all this is easy. It’s not. You may have to change the way you think and behave about some things. And you may have to make many concessions and sacrifices, but it’ll be worth it in my experience. Being a grandparent is an opportunity to grow and that’s an offer we can’t refuse.