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Being A Grandparent Is Much More Than Serving Up Cookies And Milk

In order to be the best grandparent one can be, it’s important to understand the development of grandchildren. One scholar, Erik Erikson, has suggested several stages children pass through, and the tasks important to be learned at these stages. By understanding these stages, grandparents can help their grandchildren learn what is important for them to know at certain ages.

grandparentingStage One- Birth-2 years old

In stage one, children learn to develop trust based on their surroundings. If their needs are met and they feel safe and secure, trust will result. During this stage, grandparents can be helpful by providing positive encouragement to the parents and baby-sitting every now and then to provide the parents some time alone and to help maintain a healthy marriage. Avoid over-stimulating infants and interact with the baby by talking, singing, holding, rocking, playing, etc.

Stage Two- 2-4 years

This stage encompass the “terrible twos” when “NO!” is the child’s favorite word and he wants to do everything all by himself as he tries to achieve autonomy. Avoid power struggles; there is nothing more frustrating than arguing with a 3-year-old! When your granddaughter says “no” to going inside, simply take her by the hand and lead her gently in. Keep your sense of humor! Separation from parents is a major issue during this time so providing opportunities for positive experiences away from mommy can help foster their autonomy. Encourage exploration by taking them on nature walks and provide opportunities for social interaction with others.

Stage Three- 4-7 years old

Initiative is the task children are working on at this age; they love to plan, make, and do. Grandparents can help them by introducing new ideas, skills, projects, and hobbies. They love being given small jobs to do but still need guidance. Some examples might be squeezing oranges together, washing the car, gardening, etc. Take them seriously and respect what they are feeling. Remember that children love to play and pretend. Using their imagination stimulates creativity. When pretending together, understand that children like to repeat the same play situations over and over. To avoid getting bored try to vary the theme a little each time but don’t try to control their fantasy world.

Stage Four- 7-13 years old

During this stage children work to attain industry. They are ready for work and need opportunities to learn (many are provided at school). Doing projects together is a great way to encourage work and learning. You might bake cookies, make a birdhouse, take outings, encourage interest in music, sports, art, nature, and tell stories. Don’t be in a hurry; children love attention and as a grandparent you can give them lots of it!

grandparentingStage Five- 14-22 years old

This is the time children seek to find their identity. Peers become very important and parents less so. “You can be a stabilizing influence at a time when parents can’t reach them” (Carson, 1996, 85). Just be available to listen, remembering that they trust you. Try not to judge them, and instead relate to them by sharing personal experiences and your ideas and philosophies of life. Encourage them to try hard in school and pursue their interests. Teach them about their cultural heritage. Support their parents. Have adventures together. Keep a constructive problem-solving approach.

Grandparenting is more than cookies and milk. Research verifies a number of the important roles grandparents can play in the lives of their grandchildren.

One important role grandparents play are as playmates to their grandchildren. Here are some additional ideas for activities to do when you are together.


While children and adults alike love stories, true stories revealing some family history hold special value for building their sense of relatedness and belonging. Stories with a lighter side provoke fun and laughter while reflecting part of the character of relatives. Children are especially interested in the geographical pathways of their ancestors. Stories not related to family life, such as ghost stories or fantasy tales, are also effective. Grandparents can record their stories on tape so they can be retold again and again even though they aren’t present.


Take pictures of grandchildren. Have a favorite snapshot sent off for enlargement to poster size, and send to your grandchildren. This will help them develop a strong sense of self at a time when the world of people seems so much bigger than they are.

Heirlooms and memorabilia

A spinning wheel, an old flintlock gun, pocket watches, razor, locks of great grandmother’s hair, her combs, a doll that has survived generations–these are all things that can help build a child’s sense of family history and strength. Newspaper clippings, old deeds, recipes for soap, canceled checks for once-in-a-lifetime purchases help tell the story of how one generation lived and transmitted its value and property to the next generation.

canstockphoto2091974Here is a list of other ideas you might try:

  1. Go on special outings, such as fishing, hunting, looking for arrowheads or other artifacts, take a nature walk, visit the zoo or museum, or go on a picnic.
  2. Teach grandchildren to play home board or child’s card games, for example, Life, Fish, or UNO (no endorsement implied), or let them teach you a game. Play spelling games such as Scrabble, put a jigsaw puzzle together, or show some “magic” tricks. Get some large boxes for playing house.
  3. Work together, such as gardening, making beds together, teaching them to milk a cow or feed chickens, paint, or knit and crochet.
  4. Read together. Listen to your grandchild read. Read comic strips with preschoolers looking on and discuss the humor. Read from a book of sacred writings and listen to your grandchild’s interpretation of what it means. Read or recite short, silly poems.
  5. Sing together. Teach your grandchild silly songs, favorite songs, or religious songs. One silly song a grandfather taught his grandchildren was “Little Blue Haired Boy.” Great-grandchildren love it each time they hear it. Listen to a grandchild sing songs he or she already knows.
  6. Other things: Allow grandchildren to review scouting awards, achievements, requirements, and their goals for the future. Practice first aid skills and test each other. Make toys or other crafts.
  7. When your energy runs low… Provide scrap paper for drawing, writing letters, or making paper airplanes. Help your grandchild make a toy parachute from a handkerchief by tying corners with equal lengths of string to a weight. Provide a stamp pad to make prints using fresh leaves. Let them wash your car. Or, give them some scrap wood and let them pound nails, bore holes, saw, screw screws, or use pliers, chisels, a soldering iron, or some other tool, depending on their ages and interests.

By understanding the developmental levels of children and spending time with them, grandparents can have more fun with their grandchildren and encourage healthy growth and learning, whatever their age.

Written by Marisa Beebe, Research Assistant, and Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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