by Ken Canfield, Ph.D.

One of the long-term goals of most grandparents is to build trust within the family—whether or not we would put it in those terms.

Trust is essential for families at any stage of life, and it can be tested as families grow.

When a lack of trust or a feeling of betrayal exists in a family, the most vulnerable family members often suffer the greatest consequences. And often grandkids are those vulnerable, impressionable ones.

Such was the case for a young man I’ll call “Drew.” He grew up in an intact family in middle America, and a major turning point in his life was the day he discovered serious character flaws in his grandfather. The grandfather was involved in shameful habits that were a stark contrast to the values that he portrayed to people and that he claimed to live by.

Drew grew up to become a songwriter and performer in an alternative metal band. In concerts he wore stark, evil-looking costumes and simulated acts of anger and violence on stage. His song lyrics matched that persona, and he even wrote a song about his grandfather’s lies and duplicitous life.

The grandfather’s hypocrisy was probably not the only cause of Drew’s turn toward a darker path, but it undoubtedly played a role. This story is a powerful case study for role modeling gone wrong. Sadly, many grandparents have major, unhealthy, unresolved personal issues, and they’d be mortified if their grandchildren ever found out or caught them in that behavior.

Betrayed trust damages and sometimes destroys relationships.

Grandchildren instinctively know to look up to grandparents, and most of us grandparents want to create a safe and secure environment where grandkids can flourish. We should view anything short of that as unacceptable.

In sharp contrast to Drew’s story is my friend Jim Caccamo. I believe he represents most grandparents, who are trying to make positive investments and leave a strong legacy for their grandkids. Even before Jim became a grandparent, he would tell his married children, “When you have kids, if they turn out to be half as sharp as you are, you won’t have any problems.” He cast a vision for his grandchildren long before he became a grandparent, and doing so paid off.

Jim also cast a similar vision for a larger audience: he spent more than 30 years as a school administrator serving Kansas City as the director of a broad community initiative where he challenged every institution in the city to do their best to ensure a hopeful future for children. He respectfully asked all city leaders to focus on one question when they responded to problems or promoted future programs:

Is it good for the children?

This simple question became a rallying cry and a game-changer for many organizations in the area, and it’s a great question for parents and grandparents to ask themselves about their families. Looking at a situation from this perspective can increase the likelihood of positive relationships and/or reconciliation.

That’s the kind of life that builds trust with our grandkids. They need to see that we stand for good things and our actions continue to reinforce those values. They need to know that they are high priorities in our lives, that we’re there for them anytime. We are available as sources of comfort, as sounding boards, as places where they can find unconditional love.

How can we build trust with our grandkids? There’s no formula or guarantee, but I believe there needs to be consistency in our character, taking initiative to spend time together and create stronger relationships, and an overall attitude of selflessness. Like with Jim, when our grandchildren see that we want what’s good for them, they will soon learn that we are dependable and trustworthy.

What seems to work for you? How do you deepen trust with your grandkids? Share some wisdom and connect with other grandparents on our Facebook page here.


This was adapted from Dr. Ken Canfield’s book, The HEART of Grandparenting. Find out more and get your copy here.