Stephen and Sandra Covey – The habits of two highly effective grandparents

Stephen R. Covey has been recognized by Time Magazine as one of the Top 25 Most Influential Americans. Dr. Covey has won many honors as an organizational consultant, family expert and author of such books as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. But nothing is more important to Covey and his wife, Sandra, than their lifelong commitment to instilling principles and values in the lives of their nine children, 52 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren (with two more on the way).

GRAND: You give profound yet straightforward guidance to millions of your readers. Have you devised a special mentoring program for your grandchildren?

Stephen: We do. We try to get the value system inside our family to be based on principles, and we have worked very hard to develop a family mission statement: “Gathering for Zion.” Zion means the four dimensions of life: one heart, one mind, live in righteousness, and no poor among them.

GRAND: How do you explain this to your grandchildren?

Stephen: Every time I meet a grandchild, I say, “Now what’s our mission statement?” and “How do you like serving your brother?” “I don’t.” “How do you like serving someone in the class that is without a friend?” “I doooooo.”

Sandra: We’ve tried to find service projects to do. We have one granddaughter that’s always setting up something where we all go to a food supply place and work for a few hours…. Several of our families went down to Mexico with some of our in-laws who were builders and they built a house out of cinderblock. And we have some who are involved with Mothers Without Borders….

GRAND: Do your grandchildren have a special name for you?

Sandra: Stephen is called Papa, and I’m called Meree-Meree. Before we had grandchildren, I tried to think of a really good name, because my mother had been called Gaga-Honey and I wanted a better name than that, so I thought Grandmère—that’s the French for grandmother…. They couldn’t ever get that, and they shortened that to Meree-Meree.

GRAND: What is your secret to remembering all their names and birthdays?

Stephen: We see them all the time because we have a party place here at our home that has a swimming pool and a basketball court where they can go outside and play volleyball and things like this.

GRAND: How do you organize your family time in order to foster these relationships?

Stephen: We have a calendar and we do long-range planning of our vacations and of trips that we take together.

Sandra: We have all these traditions; for instance, at Easter we have Easter races and scavenger hunts and egg rolls and a big family dinner, and on St. Patrick’s Day I always dressed up like a leprechaun.

GRAND: Do you have any advice for new grandparents?

Stephen: They really have to listen empathically—that means within the frame of reference of the child…. They need to really build their relationships so that the kids feel understood and accepted as they are.

Sandra: Just because you’re their grandparents doesn’t mean they’ll love you automatically. You have to earn the love of every child.

GRAND: Sandra, what do you feel is the most important role of a grandmother?

Sandra: To really love and identify with every single grandchild and make a special effort. Like when the grandkids come to visit… I try to make contact with every single grandchild…rather than treating them as a group.

GRAND: Is there one message that you’d like to convey to America’s grandparents?

Stephen: I would like to see them develop a family mission statement that is basically focused on serving other people…as the best way to serve God and then have people accountable for that service, accountable to the entire family.

Sandra: And I think that I would encourage the parents to always have dinner with their children…. That’s where you do your teaching and [share] your values.

GRAND: Are you optimistic about the prospects of your grandchildren’s generation producing highly skilled leaders of the future?

Stephen: We’re very optimistic because we’re moving from the industrial age to the knowledge worker age, and the more people are empowered to use their creative capacities and the more they feel valued and appreciated, the less experience they have with the identity crisis.

Sandra: And I think that no matter where your grandchildren are, if they’re spread out throughout the country or if they’re close around, you really need to take the initiative to make that connection…. They might be having a fallout with their parents or something, but if they know that there’s a constant person who supports them and believes in them, even if they’re going through hard times, I think that this is very important and we have to take initiative on that.

Stephen: I ask large audiences all the time to turn to the person next to them and tell that person what percentage of the time they spend doing things that are urgent but not really important. And it’s over 50 percent of the time that’s spent on things that are pressing and popular and proximate but are really not that important. It’s because they haven’t yet defined what really is important: the vision of a family that is together forever and also a mission statement so that…little by little you cultivate a culture of real service.

The Covey tradition

Sidebar: Hear it here!

  • The Indian Talking Stick: Listen to Dr. Covey present a method that improves communication in every area of life. Try it! Audio; or video.
  • The GRAND Interview: Hear the complete GRAND interview with Stephen and Sandra Covey—there’s much more to hear than we had space to include in the issue. Click here to listen to the interview.

Author Bio:

Pat Burns, a regional editor for GRAND and a grandmother of three, is the author of Grandparents Rock: The Grandparenting Guide for the Rock-n-Roll Generation.

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