It’s easy to have strong relationships with grandchildren when they are small. Little ones are happy to receive all the love offered, and tired parents are often pleased to let grandparents take the kids in exchange for some precious time off. But as children grow and their schedules fill with sports, school, and other pursuits, it’s easy for grandparents to feel pushed aside. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
Joy and Brad Ryan, the dynamic grandmother-grandson team visiting all 63 National Parks together, have become a model for a strong grandparent, grandchild relationship. While they have an enviable adult relationship and obvious delight in one another’s company, for many years, they were estranged. In their case, Brad took the first step by visiting his grandmother. But grandparents needn’t—and shouldn’t—wait for their grandchildren to lead the way. There are lessons to be learned from those who have also forged lasting bonds with their grandkids.
Get Started Early
When Steve Rochman’s first grandchild was born, the new grandpa had already secured the perfect gift on a trip to Alaska: a salmon-shaped rattle. The trinket embodied his wish to pass on his lifelong love of fishing.
As his grandson Aviv grew, Rochman helped cultivate his love of animals and nature, often showing him videos of animals taken in Alaska. When Aviv was three, Rochman made his move, taking the boy to a local farm pond with a three-foot fishing rod.
“He caught some sunfish and bluegill there,” Rochman remembers. “After that, he always wanted to go fishing.” They began fishing every summer. At eight, Aviv accompanied his grandfather on an Alaskan expedition, and at 13, the pair hooked at 220-pound tuna in Panama’s Gulf of Chiriquí. All the summers in between and since have included an intergenerational fishing trip, a tradition Aviv, now 20, is excited to continue. They plan to return to the Gulf of Chiriquí next March.
For Rochman, fishing is enjoyable, but the real point is the enduring relationship with his grandson that the shared interest has helped them establish. They talk on the phone often and feel they have much in common.
Cultivating good relationships with grandchildren gets more difficult as they age, so Rochman recommends starting early to find topics you can bond over or things you can do together.
“You can’t say to a kid who’s 16 years old, ‘Hey, let’s go do this,'” he says. “You have to try to get them excited about some things when they’re in their formative, early years.”
Let Them Influence You
Like Rochman, Val Scott started building a relationship with her grandchild early, though in her case, the youngster showed her the way into a shared activity. Scott began driving her grandson, River, to his violin lessons when he started at age six, and soon enough, she was inspired to take up playing as well.
“I would go to his house and help in practice,” she remembers. In the Suzuki training style, caregivers are encouraged to participate in lessons and practice. “So I took up the violin. He and I learned the violin together. That created a bond right there.”
Once River started driving, Scott continued to go with him to his lessons, even with him in the driver’s seat. And as his younger siblings and cousins also took up instruments of their own, the family formed an ensemble with seven children and one grandmother. Calling themselves the Highland Chamber Orchestra, they play mostly for each other but occasionally perform at an assisted living facility.
Even though River is now 19 and doing his lessons mostly over Zoom, Scott still sometimes accompanies him to them digitally. He also frequently texts her, sometimes about music and other times about their other shared interest: plants. That element of their relationship blossomed when River was seven and gave his grandmother the leaf of a jade plant he had put in a tiny pot. Scott still has the plant, which has grown into a “magnificent” specimen, and more importantly, she has been able to cultivate yet another aspect of her relationship with her grandchild.
“Be very open and accepting of what this child is giving to you,” she advises. “If you’re very accepting and enjoy things through the child’s eyes, you create the opportunity to form a bond.”
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