A friend of mine has a father who spends relatively little time with his grandchildren. He much prefers living his own life, rather than attending sports practices and school events. It turns out that this man is still working, and is actively engaged in his profession. He writes books and travels the world, teaching and lecturing. He has had an impact on people wherever he goes. He has also provided his grandchildren with trips to various places on the planet. He takes them because he knows that travel and experiencing different cultures is one of the best educations a person can have. He has never taken them to Disney World.
The question is, should this man suck it up and happily attend the soccer games? Or, is his value simply who he is, a strong role model for his grandchildren, of someone whose vision and determination can literally change lives and whose own interests can benefit others?
There is no doubt that there are as many grandparent personalities as there are personalities in general. Most of them bring something to the table of value. Some are caregivers, when their children have to work. Some are nurterers, who remember all the special days. Some attend the sports events and engage in all the physical activity of their grandchildren. Some take the role of teacher. Some travel with their grandchildren. Some cook and do crafts. Many are combinations of the above. Some, like my friend's father, grandparent mostly by the example of their lives.
My own grandmother never attended a school event or took me to a park (or anywhere else). She never tossed a ball or chased me across a field. She never read me books (she was illiterate in the English language) or told me stories or sang me songs. She never engaged in arts and crafts projects with me, or played board games, or played dolls. Even her hugs were measured.
I adored her. She was a gentle soul, the counterpoint to a grandfather who spoke too loud and too often, whose opinions were often unwelcome and abrasive. She was, for me, the quiet space, the calm in the storm. When I spoke, she listened. She listened intently. When I "entertained" the family with my jokes and routines, her focus on me was total.
At no time did I ever wish for a different kind of grandmother. To be in her company was to feel a boundless kind of love and acceptance, that was, more often than not, wordless.
The lesson she taught me was the power of quiet persistence. She was steadfast in her love and her commitment to family. She never sought gratitude or acknowledgement. In a life of many challenges, she bore those challenges with dignity. And, when the occasion called for it, she used the power she had to protect her children. My mother was her stepdaughter, brought to her motherless, from another country, when she was eight years old. Their love for each other was total. She died in my mother's arms.
So, what is a good grandparent? Most of us will not have to assume the role of parent with our grandchildren, with all of the responsibility and distraction that is involved. Unlike parenting, in which we can be placed in situations in which we may have to make decisions that are uncomfortable for us or make us second-guess ourselves, as grandparents, we have the luxury of operating from our strengths and giving the best of ourselves to our grandchildren.
We can be occasional caretakers, occasional playmates, occasional teachers, occasional fellow travelers. We can listen without distraction, and we can slow down the pace that harried parents are often forced to operate at. Or, we can inspire by the way we live our lives and by the personal choices we make. Whatever path we choose, our grandchildren's lives will be richer for it.
And yes, we can take them to Disney World.