Reading Clues Children Leave

How to Read the Clues to Our Grandchildren


When Kaitlyn sat on the couch, seemingly uninterested in anything around her, “that was a surefire sign that she wanted to talk about something personal,” said her grandma, Barbara.

Ryan spent the entire baseball game outing with his grandpa talking about the types of reeds he uses for his saxophone. This made his grandpa Cy feel dejected. “I don’t even know what a reed is,” he said. “We had nothing to talk about.”

The things our grandchildren don’t say out loud. The things they do say. These are the breadcrumbs they leave scattered around them that lead us into their world. When we misinterpret or simply overlook their silent messages, we miss a huge opportunity to connect. The secret, you see, is in reading the clues.

It’s not our fault that we “USAmerican” Grandparents often fail to notice the cues our grandchildren give us on how to enter their world. Culturally, people in the US are what’s called “low context.” High versus low context in communication refers to how we glean meaning in different situations. In high context cultures, such as Japanese, the meaning is implicit in the communication. It includes the actual words but relies heavily on context, history and nonverbal cues. For low context cultures, the meaning is in the words right before you.

Our grandchildren are shouting clues to their world all the time. It’s in their body posture. It’s on their school website, in their activities.

Barbara was able to see the full picture with her granddaughter. When she had asked her “what’s wrong” five minutes earlier, Kaitlyn had quipped “nothing.” But when she sat on the couch, no phone in hand, Barbara stopped what she was doing, sat down to join Kaitlyn, and waited for her to start talking.

Cy, on the other hand, left his outing with his grandson feeling frustrated. While Cy focused on what he thought would be fun (the baseball game) and his lack of knowledge (about reeds), he could have asked questions to engage his grandson. “What is a reed?” “What happens if you try to play the saxophone without one?” “What’s your favorite kind of music?” “What are you learning to play right now?” “I wonder if anyone’s ever played saxophone instead of organ at the baseball game.” You get the idea. They could still be talking a week later!

For Cy and all grandparents, here are four tips to broaden your context and find the clues to jumpstart conversation with your grandchildren:

  1. Think about the “before and after.”

We never talk to our grandchildren in a vacuum. Whether it’s by phone or in person, our grandchildren come to our moment of interaction in the context of something else. Maybe they have a big test at school tomorrow.

As their biggest fan, we just want to wish them luck! But any distraction might feel, to them, like they are being derailed.

If we know this, there may be other ways to connect: Send a “good luck” text rather than a call; Mail a care-package of treats to arrive the day before the big test; order their textbook at the beginning of the year. Read along and offer to help them study (I actually did that one for my granddaughter Merite’s history class. I learned a thing or two as well!)

  1. Listen with your full being.

Truly listening is a full-body action. The sound comes in our ears, but we must open our hearts and suspend judgment, too. And we need to release fear. When our grandchild confides that they are sure to flunk their test, our knee-jerk response is to assure them they won’t. “Oh, that’s silly,” we say. “You are so smart!” We mean it and believe it, but now, on top of everything else, we have minimized their feelings in that moment.

While it may be uncomfortable for us, what happens if we go down that route with them? “And then what?” may be the best question, to simply guide them to sharing more, rather than trying to solve it.

  1. Relishing the “in between times.”

Don’t expect a child to plan ahead or waive a sign when they are ready to talk. Some of the most meaningful interactions come off the cuff. Offer to drive your grandchildren to school or practices. It’s the in between times, when you are not actually “doing” something that grandkids may share the most.

In fact, studies show children are more apt to share when you are side by side, as in driving (for older grandchildren, who can sit up front) or taking a walk.

  1. No more “What? You’re too busy to call your grandma?”

I’ve written before about the idea of “mature love,” having the confidence to know that you are loved. As grandchildren age and calls or visits may become less frequent, don’t spend the time together lamenting “Why haven’t you called me?” Dive right in with what’s happening, ask “how are you feeling?” Follow their activities on the school website so you can ask real questions about what’s important to them.

Ask about them and share about you.  Give them a sense of what your day-to-day life is like so they can enter your world as well. What clues do we grandparents give our grandchildren about who we are? And how do we ‘curate’ what we want to share about our lives to truly engage?

Our grandchildren are shouting clues to their world all the time. It’s in their body posture. It’s on their school website, in their activities. Clues lie in things their parents say. In things their parents don’t say.

How do we read the clues? How do we listen without teaching or judging? It’s like pulling teeth sometimes to get them to talk. But we don’t need permission to read what they are reading in school. We don’t need permission to love them unconditionally.

And a final note to parents of teenagers-these tips are not just for grandparents. It’s about anyone who wants to have a deeper relationship with anyone.


Jerry Witkovsky, author of The Grandest Love is a long-time social work professional, grandparenting activist, and passionate grandpa.  Jerry offers fresh approaches to help grandparents enter their grandchild’s world, to leave values, not just valuables and create a living legacy. Jerry created the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection School Program and curricula with Deanna Shoss, President & CEO of Intercultural Talk, Inc., in 2016, to work with schools as the platform to teach grandparents and grandchildren how to enter each other’s world. Learn more here

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