Dear Mr. Dad: I’m in my early 70s now and just retired. I put in long hours and did a lot of travel when I was working, so I wasn’t around for my son and daughter as much as I wish I could have been. But now that I’m a grandfather, I don’t want to miss an opportunity to build strong relationships with my grandkids. The problem is, I don’t know how. Where do I start?
A: With today’s fathers taking on a much more active role in their kids’ lives, you may be part of the last generation that has to ask this excellent (and kind of sad) question. There’s no going back, of course, but building close relationships with your grandchildren is the next best thing. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to do that.
• Keep in touch. Call, email, Skype, text, write, and, if the kids are old enough, follow each other on social media (if you don’t know how, chances are they’ll be able to get you set up).
• Bite your tongue. One of the best parts of the grandparent-grandchild relationship is that you get to skip over the natural conflicts that come up between parents and children. There’s a difference between fatherly advice and grandfatherly advice. Make the right choice.
• Stalk them (in a good way). If possible, be there for the kids’ recitals, grandparents’ day at school, and other special events. If you can’t be there, at least call and ask how it went.
• Do it all. Take the kids to museums and concerts, teach them how to change a tire, read books, and tell them scary stories about the dark, dark times before we had touch screens.
• Ask a lot of questions. What are the kids interested in? What are their favorite bands and artists? What blogs do they read and what’s their favorite YouTube channel? At the least you’ll get a crash course in pop culture. Plus, you’ll always know exactly what to get for birthdays and holidays.
• Get to know their friends. What are their names and why do your grandkids like them? Supporting their friendships shows your grandchildren that you care about everything in their life.
• Don’t be a Disneyland Grandpa. “Disneyland Dad” (or “Mom,” or that matter) typically refers to non-custodial parents who go crazy trying to make their limited time with their kids fun. Grandparents often fall into the same trap, spoiling the kids rotten, chucking discipline out the window, and treating the kids like visiting royalty instead of ordinary humans. Focus on making their time with you as normal as possible. Naturally, you’re going to indulge them a little—hey, that’s what grandparents do. But take it easy.
• Develop thick skin. Most teens and tweens go through an I-hate-everything-and-everyone phase and may push you away. Don’t take it personally. Just let them know you’re there for them and that they’ll always have a non-judgmental, safe place to hang out if they need one.
• Stay out of the middle. Never, ever, take sides in an argument between your grandchildren and their parents.
Keep a lid on the fatherly advice. Of course, you have your children’s best interests at heart and you want to make sure they’re happy in every area of their life. But unless they specifically ask for your opinions, keep them to yourself—especially the ones about how your child married a moron. It’s okay to clip out one of these columns or some other interesting article that your son or daughter might find interesting, but watch for their reaction and respond accordingly.