True to his nature, my husband Dennis loves playful ways of engaging with our young grandchildren. “Do you want a papa bear hug?” he asks in a deep growling voice, “A mama bear hug?” a normal voice, “Or a baby bear hug?” he just barely whispers. Frequently and tentatively our grands will reply, ”A papa bear hug!”
Taking a deep breath our little one readies for the embrace. Papa wraps his arms tightly around our grandchild and squeezes her with a low grrrrrr followed by lots of laughter and smiles all around. The best and most common response is, “Again, Papa.”
From Genesis to Revelation God tells His story of seeking a warm love relationship with all His children as individuals. And it is so much more than the one word, relationship, can convey. That’s why He uses words like lavish, abundant, free gift, kindness, grace, mercy, adoption, grafted in, and Bride to describe His unending with us affection and love.
And this is why grandparenting is so much fun for most empty nesters. We usually don’t have to do the harder side of adult-child relationships: discipline, correction and intense focus on training. We can be with and enjoy these gifts from God in a way their parents can’t.
Dennis and I are still quite surprised at the sheer number of grandchildren God has given us, and none of them live in our hometown. Twenty-three grandchildren are scattered over three states; nine live almost 1000 miles west, two 500 miles northeast, another four 350 miles due east, and seven only 90 minutes north. Therefore all our relationships are built with intentionally planned travel. No spontaneous drop-in visits or spending the night with Mimi and Papa.
There are benefits to this distance. Our time is our own and it’s never interrupted by last minute babysitting needs. But there are many downsides, which have led to our feeling like failures as grandparents more often than feeling invested and connected.
My dear friend Lydia and her husband do have some of their grandchildren in the same town. She’s told me several stories of how she has become a trusted friend of her granddaughters and they come to her for advice sometimes when they can’t talk to their moms. It’s an amazing ministry of love and discipleship. Recently she told me this story.
My daughter and son-in-law were experiencing a season of suffering in their lives and their oldest child was very aware as children so often are. One day, this 8-year-old was with me for the afternoon as I ran a few errands. We were quiet in the car. I couldn’t get a conversation going on any topic I tried.
Then God gave me an idea. I said, “Gramma’s Bible is in the back seat and there’s a verse I need to hear right now. Would you reach back there, get it, and read it to me?” The answer was yes as she reached back and found my Bible. Then I asked her to find Psalm 139 and read it to me. While it was true that I needed to be reminded that God knows me, that He is intimately acquainted with all my ways, I wanted my precious granddaughter to know this for herself too. I wanted her to hear God say to her heart that He knew how she was feeling and what was happening in her life.
As I listened to her sweet voice read God’s Word I was praying, “Lord may these words sink deeply into her heart.” Though we still didn’t talk much as we finished the ride back to her house, I remembered that God promises His word will not return void, that it will accomplish His purposes. Today her parents are back in a good place and so is this grandchild of mine, and I thank God that He gave me the opportunity and privilege of leading this little one to see a little more of the Great Unchanging One.
Years ago before we entered this season of grandparenting life, missionary friends graced us with a visit to our home in Little Rock. Over dinner one evening, they shared their grandparenting challenges. Because they lived in London at the time while all their grandchildren lived in Alabama, within five minutes of their other grandparents, my friend transparently described her longing for more. She asked God for ways to connect with those children who lived so far away.
God’s idea was to be pen pals with her grandkids. She gave thanks for where God had planted each one and believed God for His grace and creativity to build long distance relationships. Though my attempts at pen pal relationships haven’t worked in this texting age, my friend’s firm belief in God’s creative genius has inspired us to also believe our creative God for ways to build relationships with our grands. Here are a few tips we’ve learned.
1. We have committed to be all there every time we visit. We keep our email and texting to the hours we aren’t with the kids; early in the morning when we are up and they are sleeping in, when the kids are at school or activities, or at night after they are in bed.
2. We do our best to engage in their interests. For the littles, I travel with my Mimi bag of favorite books that I love to read to them before naps and bedtime.For the middles, we seek to engage in their interests. Last summer I learned how to make slime with Caroline (12) and took my new skill to Indianapolis where Norah (10) and Alice (6) learned to make slime, too. We watched Annabelle (9) demonstrate her newest dance, Nathan (8) perform twists and turns on his hoverboard, and this fall I borrowed Andrew’s (11) favorite science fiction novels to read with him.
Teens have given us more opportunities to enter into their lives, though there can be challenges too. Peterson (13) is very bright but very private, so engaging him in conversation isn’t as easy as his sister Gabby (12) who loves people, snuggling on the couch with us and talking about everything. On a recent visit, Papa sat down with Peterson to ask questions about his new highly successful lawn mowing business and the book he recently read about entrepreneurism. It was a win.
Our two oldest grandsons are in high school and on their football team, so we’ve made several 90-minute road trips to cheer them on and join their after game dinner at 10 p.m., which is way past our bedtime! We’ve also begun some texting with these teens. Their parents have healthy limits on their phone access, so for now, it’s very intermittent conversations. College may bring more opportunities for Mimi and Papa to literally speak into their lives and worlds. In May, we will be attending Samuel’s high school graduation. It’s hard to believe!
3. We remember birthdays. Though sometimes overwhelming for me to manage and sometimes belatedly, this is always important for children. For little ones, my favorite gifts are always books. A child can’t have enough good books.
For middles and teens, we’ve started a tradition. Because we can’t buy impressive gifts for that many on our budget, we’ve started giving the grands money for each birthday. It’s not much, but we give them two dollar bills, one for each year of their age. I tape them together into a long rope so the bills have more punch when they open the card or letter from us. The older ones have come to expect the signature gift from us and we think they like the tradition we’ve created.
Loving our grandchildren, even from afar, is a great joy and privilege. We see ourselves as supplementing and supporting the parenting of our children, being cheerleaders for our kids and their 24/7/365 work. At every opportunity, we tell them what a great job they are doing parenting our grandchildren, even when we see things they might change. Our role is not to lead, correct, or challenge, but to love, support, and pray.
Jesus demonstrated the immeasurable love of God by coming to be with us as our Immanuel. And so our person to person relationships with our grandchildren, and as importantly supporting our children, mirror God’s love when we are with them.