A century ago, most extended families lived together or within walking distance. Children naturally learned to love and respect their grandparents. Today, though, families are often spread across the country -- or even the world -- and parents must spend some extra time fostering positive relationships between children and grandparents. Whether you live right next door to grandma or across the country, close relationships naturally build respect.
Set an Example
Kids learn how to treat grandparents by watching their parents' behavior, says Boston grandmother Barbara Jacobs. She adds, "Since you can't dictate 'respect,' it's best when inspired. I believe that this comes from seeing how parents interact with their own elders. Parents communicating in a positive and loving, respectful way about their own parents will set the tone that respect is expected and assumed."
Devote Some Time
Kids need time with grandparents to really know them and form strong bonds. When children understand and love grandparents, respect naturally follows. C. Lee Reed, a mom and blogger in Beachside, Fla., says, "We always include grandparents in school events and holidays. If they are unable to attend a function, it is recorded and watched together later. We live nearby, so they are welcome and encouraged to spend time alone with our daughter. Our daughter understands that her grandparents love her deeply and are invested in her life."
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Participate in Family Traditions and Stories
Kids sometimes wonder what they have in common with grandparents, who seem so much older, wiser and removed from a child's interests. Suggest that your child interview his grandparents about their own childhood experiences and funny stories. Through these stories, kids realize that grandparents are really just like them. As children, they probably played games, went to school and even got in trouble from time to time. Looking through old photo albums also helps kids see grandparents as real people with interesting lives and experiences.
Share family traditions from your childhood. Make favorite family recipes or play holiday games. Perhaps you've kept some Christmas ornaments that have special meaning. Talk about your childhood experiences with your parents. All these activities help kids make family connections and foster respect.
Not every extended family lives within driving distance, but all families can connect on a regular basis through email or phone calls. These experiences strengthen relationships with grandparents and increase respect. Michelle Morton, a mom and blogger in Raleigh, N.C., says, "One of the ways that we teach our children to respect their grandparents is to let them talk with grandma and grandpa on the phone. When the kids receive something from their grandparents, such as a card or a gift, we encourage them to call and say thank you."
Grandparents may not do things exactly as you would. Unless a particular behavior is dangerous, this change in routine is actually good for kids. Learning to be flexible can enhance respect, says Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D., a resident scholar at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center in Waltham, Mass., and the author of two books about intergenerational relationships. "When grandma or grandpa discipline differently or provide different gifts or activities from those you deem appropriate, do not freak out! Instead, teach your children how to cope and enjoy the difference in routine. Children benefit from multiple inputs."
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It's human nature to love those we serve, and grandparents are no exception. If you live nearby, check in on grandparents frequently. Invite them to dinner or rake their leaves. If you live far away, plan a project when you visit grandparents. Paint the house or do some yardwork. As you show concern and tenderness for your parents, children learn important lessons in respect and empathy.
Many grandparents welcome the opportunity to serve in return. Ellen L. Grossman, director of The Preschool at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Ill., encourages grandparents to help in the classrooms. She says, "One important aspect to encouraging respect for the grandparent is to position them as important caregivers at an early age, and someone who can offer additional perspective and support for the child."