Children need positive, trustworthy, reliable role models. In today’s world, we cannot repeat that statement often enough.
In many situations, parents provide the main example for their children. For a growing number of households, grandparents are playing that role. And really, in any situation where grandparents get to spend time with their grandkids—whether or not we are their main role models, and whether we see them daily or occasionally—our modeling influence is very important and can be just as powerful and long-lasting as that of parents.
Most often, this happens through the patterns we establish consistently over time. Our repeated habits and behaviors reinforce values and help to establish our legacy—how we will be remembered. When grandmas and grandpas can effectively model selflessness, honesty, hard work, kindness, faith, integrity, and many other values, virtues and behaviors, we help to establish a strong foundation for our grandchildren’s future.
My eyes were really opened to this as I reviewed a new and somewhat unusual data source: a collection of responses from more than 800 adults who were asked about their grandparents. As you’ll see, that collection of comments provides convincing evidence that grandparents make a huge and lasting difference in their grandchildren’s lives, often through the positive examples they set.
Here are five ways your example can be powerful in your grandchildren’s lives:
Grandparents model transcendent values.
At this point in our lives, we know what’s important and we’re willing to live out those priorities without hesitation or shame—and it shows. Over and over, the adults in our study mentioned their grandparents’ faith, patience and hard work, among other virtues.
Faith was perhaps the most common theme. One person reported:
They lived their life loving God and sharing His message. They were a great example for me and it has helped me in my faith.
I found it interesting that none of the memories about faith were tied to a denominational preference, like being Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, and so on. Also, the grandchildren focused more on actions than words. When it comes to being an example, the old saying is true: deeds are more important than creeds.
In addition, many of the other virtues mentioned about grandparents have a strong flavor of faith: love, perseverance, forgiveness, kindness, and acceptance without judgment. Here are a few more comments:
My grandparents were wonderful, Christian people. They taught me to live the example for grandchildren to see, and to love them even when they don’t do what you want them to.
I have learned how to love unconditionally, [to] forgive without question, and to be a positive example … and not to be so judgmental of others.
These descriptions of grandparents displaying faith-in-action should challenge each of us. What are the most important attributes of your spiritual life that you hope to pass on to future generations? And how specifically are you modeling those attributes so they help to strengthen your grandchildren’s faith? What spiritual disciplines do you want to pass on to your grandchildren, and how are you living them out in a conspicuous way?
Grandparents model devotion to family.
Grandparents are great about demonstrating devotion and sacrifice for their family, even though we know that, for them, it’s nothing unusual, just what they do. Sure, there are stories of some grandparents who desert their families or get caught in some despicable behavior, but the vast majority of grandparents are all about family.
Here’s how two people described it:
My grandparents taught me about being self-sufficient and being responsible for myself. More than that, they taught me about the importance of family, and being willing to help others who need it. They showed me that time spent is infinitely more important than money spent.
In many ways, grandparents symbolize family. If you had a relationship with your grandparents, many of your memories about them will draw out images that hold deep family connections for you. Maybe it’s all about the porch swing at their farmhouse, where you spent afternoons swinging and talking with Grandma. Maybe you think of the old kitchen table where you snapped beans or peeled potatoes, and then all the aunts, uncles and cousins squeezed around it for a meal. It could be Grandpa’s tool bench, where he hunted for just the right spare screw to fix your broken toy. Maybe it’s their clothes: Grandma’s apron or Grandpa’s overalls. The smell of burning pipe tobacco or freshly baked cinnamon rolls. These images carry lasting impressions about who you are and what your history is, and today, that’s part of the power of your example for your grandchildren.
You can also model the importance of family by being proactive about extended family gatherings. In a time when many people like to complain about Christmas dinners with the whole clan, do all you can to make them positive. It’s important for children to know their aunts and uncles, to see other family dynamics, and to be part of three or more generations relating to each other.
So, without laying guilt trips or causing hurt feelings, organize some events and let everyone know their presence is desired. Show the entire clan—including grandchildren—that in your family, togetherness is important.
Grandparents model dignity despite difficulties.
As grandparents, we are the patriarchs and matriarchs. Yes, that means we’re old—or at least older. Our physical health, or lack of health, will likely be a huge factor in our lives. We are likely the best examples our grandchildren will see of someone growing older and going through ailments and hardships. Here’s one fitting comment from an adult grandchild:
My grandparents were one of a kind. They made me the strong person that I am today. Even with all the health issues they had, I came first and foremost. I really miss them and I could never repay them. I hope that I can impress my grandchildren as a grandparent as well as my grandparents impressed me.
Our culture often devalues the elderly, sending the message that old age means out of step. Rather than receiving respect as a cultural custom, we grandparents might experience any range of rude or dismissive treatments. In such an atmosphere, it’s easy to feel betrayed and live a skeptical, bitter life. However, one of the greatest triumphs of the human spirit is the will to be thankful for whatever is good—a determination to focus on the positive, no matter what. Thankfulness produces joy, and joy can allow us to connect lovingly with our grandchildren.
Will we endure our later years with dignity and grace, or will we turn bitter? Or will we give up on life and pass our time with things that are insignificant? Maybe we’ll be fighting a horrible disease during our last months on earth. Will we stop trying and wait for the end, or can life be worthwhile even if we have to endure great suffering?
Physical health might be a major concern during this time, but clearly our example is much bigger than that. Anyone living this long will have relational or emotional weaknesses and deficits, and may endure tough family situations. It’s likely our children and grandchildren notice those as well.
What can we teach our grandchildren through the way we live our last years? Can we maintain a sense of humor until the end? Often, our real character shows up in these kinds of difficulties, and once again, our modeling never stops.
Grandparents model healthy manhood and womanhood.
Again, parents are vital role models for their children, showing them every day what it means to be a man or a woman. But children also need other adults in their lives who help to fill out the picture: maybe teachers, coaches, neighbors, youth sponsors, and yes, grandparents. You have a lot to contribute to their ideas about men and women.
Often, children think of their parents as Mommy and Daddy, unique people who make them eat their peas, do their homework, and help out in the kitchen or the back yard. Grandma and Grandpa, on the other hand, are people they see a lot who are part of the bigger world, with unique traits, pursuits and accomplishments. This was also reflected in the comments we received about grandparents:
My two grandmothers served as an inspiration, as they were never satisfied with status quo. One became widowed at the age of forty and entered the workforce for the first time as a single mother of three…. Words cannot express the impact of these two dedicated women upon my life.
Your grandchild surely wonders: If I live fifty or sixty more years, what will I be like? Grandsons are looking at their grandfathers, and granddaughters at their grandmothers. How does a grandfather or grandmother act? What do they do with themselves? They’re watching you, and years from now they’ll think back to how you handled yourself, like this adult woman’s reflections:
Nannie [would] give her shirt off her back and [was a] hard worker. Even though she never had to work because my grandfather had a great job, she was always there to lend a hand when we needed. Never expected anything in return. She was the most loving woman I have known and has definitely shown a wonderful example to never settle for less and stand up for myself.
This also goes across genders—granddaughters with their grandpas and grandsons with their grandmas. Young children are often repulsed by the opposite sex, and then when they’re more intrigued years later, there’s still a lot that’s confusing. But you can be someone of the opposite sex who seeks to understand them, who enjoys talking with them, who affirms them, and with whom they can have a rewarding connection. You can help to plant seeds for healthy relationships later in life.
Grandparents Model a Strong & Lasting Marriage
What makes a marriage work? As those of us who are married know so well, there are a lot of rewards and satisfaction in marriage, but it isn’t always romance and roses. There’s also a lot of hard work and sacrifice in the day-to-day grind of life. At times it may test everything we are and everything we believe.
Healthy examples can make a big difference. Our grandchildren, especially as they grow older and start dating and possibly get married themselves, will appreciate what it takes to build a strong relationship, handle conflict in a positive manner, and maintain a long-term commitment to a spouse. This is another area where our example will likely last in our grandchildren’s memories long after we’re gone.
These comments from the adults in the research sample really tell the story:
My grandparents have been married for over 60 years. They have taught me that with love, patience and prayer, marriages can last forever! I hope to follow their example so my marriage can [also] last forever!
My husband and I look to their marriage as a big example for ours. Love is not a feeling, it’s an action. You have to choose to love your spouse daily, even when you don’t want to and you don’t feel like your spouse is a lovable person that day.
MawMaw takes care of PawPaw full time even through her own health issues. PawPaw’s Parkinson’s has caused his body to slow down a lot and [he loses] his balance which causes him to fall. He also has developed dementia, which turns into frustration that MawMaw has to help him with. [But] their love for each other through all this is a true example of forever love. They have taken their vows seriously: till death do us part and in sickness and health.
I learned from my maternal grandparents that relationships are more than just love. They take dedication, sacrifice, strength, devotion, and prayer in the middle of it all. Married almost 67 years before passing, they taught me what true friendship and marriage are all about. I can never thank them enough for being such an example.
My grandparents gave me a sense of commitment to family that I feel very blessed to have shared. My grandfather suffered several major health issues, including a bad stroke and cancer, but through it all he and my grandmother were committed to loving each other and caring for each other. Their strength of love made me stronger in my own commitment to my family. I love them dearly for their example.
Grandparents, our modeling can have a powerful influence. Please make the most of the opportunities you have to influence your grands, even if all they’re doing is watching the way you live.
This was adapted from Ken Canfield’s new book, The Heart of Grandparenting.