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Things My Grandkids Taught Me

Photo by Brad Smith

Grandparents' Day, celebrated on September 10, is a good time to remind ourselves that we're never too old to learn.

By Mary Jo Dangel


Early Lessons

Modern Times

Tolerance in Church

God's Colorful Palette


W hen my daughter was pregnant with my first grandchild, I was elated with thoughts about the fun aspects of being a grandma. Then, when my grandson was born and I held him for the first time, I was weighed down with thoughts of the responsibilities that went along with my new position. I wasnít even thinking about what my daughter and son-in-law had ahead of them.

My focus was on all the things I would have to teach this newest member of our family. Little did I realize that being a grandparent would be a learning experience for me.

Not only are my three-year-old grandson and his one-year-old sister teaching me things I never knew, but theyíre also teaching me things I used to know. (The older I get, the more things I encounter that I used to know but forgot.) In addition, theyíre teaching me to become more aware of things I saw in the past but didnít really notice.

Early Lessons

Iím not just talking about learning the new rules of child-rearing: Never give aspirin to youngsters. Always use a recommended car seat (but never put it in the front seat of a vehicle). Never take your eyes off the kids, especially in public places.

An early lesson happened the first time my daughter and I had an outing with her firstborn. I developed a new rating system for department stores and restaurants because I learned that some establishments have more baby-friendly facilities than others. (This was one of those things I probably saw but didnít notice until I was a grandparent.) Is there a diaper-changing table and a nursing area for moms who want privacy when feeding their babies, and are these areas clean? At restaurants, is there a long wait for a table? As my grandson grew older, I also learned to check for crayons and appropriate menu selections.

My granddaughter also taught me an early lesson when she was an infant. She was born with a head full of fine black hair that stood up on top of her head like a Mohawk hairdo. To some people, it looked as if she was having a bad-hair day every day. But to me, she was proudly displaying her unique style. She reminded me that itís O.K. not to be like everybody else. God made each one of us to be unique. Sometimes we try too hard to fit into the wrong mold.

Iíve never seen anyone enjoy a bath as much as my granddaughter. The minute her tender body touches the water, she smiles and has a look of complete relaxation, reminiscent of someone enjoying a massage or sitting in a Jacuzzi.

Her attitude reminds me that I need to baby myself more often: take a nap, read a fun book, soak in a bubble bath, splurge on a massage and other ďnoĒ things I once felt guilty about doing. Itís very difficult for most of us to do nothing. But a bubble bath is one way to heal the body and the soul by providing a great opportunity to unwind and meditate. My young granddaughter has shown me some ways that I can reduce stress, which is beneficial for my health.

Modern Times

When my three children were born over 30 years ago, prefolded diapers were new and more expensive than the unfolded ones. Thus, the only prefolded diapers I owned were those received as gifts. Both varieties were fastened with diaper pins. (My daughter thinks Iím making up stories when I tell her that I used to hang unfolded diapers on a laundry line until we could afford a secondhand dryer.)

Since becoming a grandma, I havenít seen a baby wearing a cloth diaper or a diaper pin. The prefolded diapers have a new use and a new moniker, as my grandson informed me recently when I asked him to bring me the diaper that was near him so I could burp his baby sister. He corrected me by saying, ďThatís not a diaper; thatís a burp rag.Ē

His tone made me feel as outdated as my now-deceased grandmother, who used to call her refrigerator an ďicebox.Ē We grandmas today may wear faded T-shirts instead of faded housedresses but, in the minds of our grandkids, I realize that we still look ancient and say some mighty strange things.

I learned much about grandparenting from my grandmothers: One was an expert at singing lullabies while rocking babies; the other was a real pro at losing every game of Old Maid so her grandchildren were always winners. But this feminist grandma doesnít intend ever to play that sexist card game with my grandchildren, unless I change the name of the game to ďCareer GirlĒ and make her a winner instead of a loser.

If I become exhausted while playing with my grandchildren and I need a rest, Iíve learned not to say I need a ďtime-out.Ē Today this expression means that a child is being punished by not being allowed to play for a specific amount of time. (The norm is one minute of time-out for each year of age. The child is isolated from others and made to sit alone or go to another room.) My grandson revealed one of his past misdeeds when his baby sister was getting a checkup: He told the pediatrician that she better not touch the babyís eyes or the doctor would get time-out. Today, corporal punishment is out and time-out is in.

When I started reading books to my grandson, I thought we were just having fun and bonding. Then my pediatrician-daughter informed me that children who are read to as youngsters do better when they go to school. Iíve also discovered that my grandson and I laugh a lot when reading books. This reminds me that laughter is both fun and beneficialóanother one of those stress reducers.

As a modern grandparent, Iíve discovered that books for kids are not just printed on paper. Other options include audiocassettes, videocassettes and interactive CDís on the computer. (This is a good way for grandparents to learn computer skills with their grandkids.) I think itís important to introduce children to these modern forms, as long as printed books are not overlooked. I realize that itís not enough just to read the labels to ensure that Iím selecting age-appropriate items: I also want to know that the gifts I buy are not encouraging violence or stereotypes.

Although I donít want my grandchildren to become couch potatoes, I think appropriate videos are great for helping children unwind when itís time for a nap or when theyíre not feeling well. But some unpleasant experiences have taught me that not all G-rated videos are appropriate for young childrenómany are quite scary. (This is something I didnít encounter when my children were toddlers because they didnít have videos and probably didnít see movies in theaters until they were in grade school.)

Iíve also learned that toddlers love repeats of their favorite videos or books. And they have very definite ideas about which ones they want, depending on their moods. Thus, Iíve learned to purchase only items I think I will enjoy, realizing these objects may take up residence at Grandmaís house.

When my grandson was almost three, he started going through that ďI can do it myselfĒ phase. This was about the same time his little sister was teaching herself how to crawl by getting up on all fours, rocking and then falling flat on her face, only to keep trying until she mastered this skill. These little ones are teaching me that I need to be more confident and determined. Theyíre not afraid of failure or being laughed at or trying to do something by themselves, even if they donít get it right the first time. Such independence is good, as long as I donít confuse determination with stubbornness.

Tolerance in Church

Becoming a grandmother has taught me to be much more tolerant in church of families with small children. Like many older adults, my memory and vision were a bit fuzzy. But now I wear trifocals instead of rose-colored glasses.

When my daughter and her children stay overnight at our house and accompany us to church on Sunday, I see what a struggle it is to get all of us out of bed, fed, bathed and dressed. Iím usually exhausted by the time we get to church, sometimes after Mass has begun. Iím reminded that there are valid reasons for being late.

When our children were young, my husband and I usually went to different Masses so one of us could stay home with the children. But not all parents have that option, especially single parents.

One experience at Mass taught me I still have some sexist notions. A dad with small children, including a bottle-fed baby, was in the pew in front of me. (I later discovered that his wife worked on Sunday mornings.) Although he seemed to be doing just fine without any assistance from me, I was tempted to help him and tell him what a great job he was doing. Then I realized that I might not have had that reaction if it had been a mom with small childrenóshe would have simply been doing what was expected of her.

Iíve noticed that modern dads, in general, are much more helpful with their children than those of previous generations. This isnít just a benefit their wives are reaping: These dads are creating bonds and memories for themselves and their children, too.

Another lesson I learned in church concerns nourishment. When we reach a certain level of maturity, we learn to wait until Mass is almost over and share in the Eucharist together. One Sunday at Mass, my grandson shared his M&Mís with another toddler who extended his hands in my grandsonís direction as the boy and his grandma walked past us when she was in line to receive Communion. When I was younger and less experienced than I am now, I might have thought that children shouldnít be nursed or given candy in church. But Iíve observed that weíre all fed in various ways.

Regarding the singing at Mass, it was only natural for my grandson to demonstrate his approval because we taught him to applaud and yell ďyeahĒ whenever he hears music. Although my husband thought our grandsonís behavior was adorable, I felt embarrassed. But when Mass was over, I noticed that the people around us were smiling instead of giving us dirty looks. I learned that there are worse things than applauding at the wrong time. In fact, Iím not sure if there is a wrong time to give praise and say thanks. In general, Iíve discovered that the congregation is much more tolerant of children who make happy noises than of unhappy children who are noisy.

Last Christmas, my daughter identified the various characters in a small crib set to her young son. When she pointed to baby Jesus in the manger, the toddler responded, ďHeís in his car seat.Ē I felt my grandsonís reasoning was logical since the infant Jesus was traveling, and when my grandkids travel, they are placed in their car seats to keep them safe. Just as Mary and Joseph did whatever they could to keep baby Jesus safe from harm, Iím reminded to do whatever I can to protect my grandbabies.

Iíve observed that youngsters who have something to occupy their interests in church are usually quiet and happy, and that should make other worshipers quiet and happy. Thus, when accompanying my grandkids to church, I come prepared with food, books and quiet toys. I discovered that missalettes and songbooks donít contain enough colorful artwork to hold the interests of small children. But if playing with those books keeps a child happy, thatís fine with me (as long as theyíre not being destructive).

God's Colorful Palette

My grandson seems to have inherited my love of nature. Taking him for a walk outdoors reminds me that I need to broaden my field of vision: I need to look up and down more often, not just straight ahead. When we looked up in the spring, we saw acorns beginning to develop on treesóI had never paid attention to this stage before. When the acorns matured in the fall, we looked up and I learned that I had a burr oak growing on my property. (Looking down wouldnít have helped because the squirrels and deer eat the acorns.) I knew what burr oak trees looked like from my tree field guideóthe fuzzy acorns are very distinctiveóbut Iíve only seen such a tree at one other location.

Each season provides different opportunities for being amazed at these wonders of creation. In the fall we marvel at the varied colors and textures of the leaves, the way a slight breeze rustles the leaves in the trees and causes them to sing. After the leaves disappear, we discover abandoned bird nests in the barren trees. Then when the flowers start blooming again, we smell them, pick them and identify their colors. We feel the distinct textures of the white pine needles and the stiffer needles of the Douglas fir.

When my toddler grandson and I worked in my garden in the spring, I learned that he enjoyed digging in the dirt more than planting seeds and bulbs. Then I remembered a friend saying she found it therapeutic to sink her hands into the earth. Perhaps, subconsciously, this is the real reason we garden and help little ones build sand castles on the beach. I want to be remembered as a grandma who said do touch and feel and pick instead of donít.

Not long ago when my grandson came for a visit, he ran to me and exclaimed, ďPretty colors,Ē as he pointed to the western sky, where pink clouds announced that the sun was setting. He also gets excited about full moons and starlit skies and Christmas lights. (We keep the Christmas lights installed on one window all year because of his enthusiastic ďwow!Ē whenever theyíre lit, which is each time he comes to our house.)

Our newest source of pretty colors is the crystal prism hanging in our dining room window. Ever since I was a child and saw the scene in Pollyanna where Hayley Mills hangs prisms in a sunny window, Iíve wanted a prism. I finally received one last year as a gift. Now, whenever the sun shines at the right angle and my grandson is around (and sometimes when heís not), I become a magical grandma by spinning the prism and making mini-rainbows sparkle around the room.

Iíve learned that, if I pause in the midst of preparing a meal in order to spin my prism, it may delay our eating time by one or two minutesóno big deal. But if I wait until Iím not busy, a cloud may have floated in front of the sun and then Iíve thrown away an opportunity to see my grandchildís eyes twinkle. And that loss would be a big deal.


I used to understand how stars were born and why the sun shining through a prism makes rainbows appear. Perhaps when my grandkids are older, they will teach me these and other scientific facts Iíve forgotten.

But for now, those things arenít as important as remembering how fast children grow upóand how fast they learn to mimic the expressions and attitudes of others. Thatís why I intend to make my grandchildren a top priority in my life by being present for the important events in their lives, even if it means changing my plans. (My presence is the most important present I can give them.) And, if I do have to change my plans for them, I donít ever want to give them the impression that they are causing me any inconvenience.

I have a friend who changed her vacation plans so she and her husband could fly hundreds of miles away in order to attend their grandsonís music recital. Thatís the kind of grandparent I want to be. (Iíve learned lots of doís and doníts from the examples of other grandparents.)

Iíd like to freeze my grandchildren in their present ages because theyíre so delightful, but I know I canít. Besides, that would cheat them and me out of some wonderful learning experiences in the future.

Mary Jo Dangel is an assistant editor of this publication who loves being a grandma. She tries not to confuse the distinct roles of parents and grandparents.



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