There is no doubt that becoming a grandparent is truly magical. Something biological/chemical/physical happens when you hold your grandchild for the first time - it’s extraordinary. That instant recognition and bond is powerful.
But, as Jackie Highe observes, becoming a grandparent is also a leap into the unknown.
‘You wake up one morning to find you’ve moved up the generation chain. Suddenly you have to see yourself in a new light and, however keen you are to have grandchildren, it’s a shock to the system. Others may not regard you in a different way but your image of yourself will change.’
Millennium grandparents and their circumstances are as varied as can be. Due to the financial demands of the 21st Century, many grandparents are providing childcare to enable their own children to continue working, many others live far away from their families – even overseas-, and often today’s grandparents are sandwiched between wanting to be great grandparents to their grandchildren whilst also being dutiful and loving children to their own elderly parents (feel my pain!)
My premise for writing this piece was to consider the millennium grandparent - to talk about how we are so different to our own grandparents - certainly not the twinset and pearl blue–rinse kind with a stack full of Vera Lyn LPs in the ornate dark oak sideboard! We consider ourselves to be very cool - still performing great moves to the Clash, eating 30 plant-based foods per week, physically active and maybe even wild swimming… But actually? I’m pretty confident that my grandchildren will regard the Clash to be the equivalent of Frank Sinatra, that bluetooth gadgets will be in the British Museum and that my treasured platform Dr Martens will have to be bequeathed by request to a vintage fashion loving granddaughter!
So, what is our role? What kind of grandparents do we want to be? What do we want to give?
Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., founder of the Foundation for Grandparenting,
identified 11 special roles that grandparents play in the lives of children. They are:
- Ancestor — a link to past generations and a living example of survival and resilience.
- Friend — a trusted pal and confidante.
- Hero — an inspiration and even a rescuer in times of need.
- Historian — a witness to the value of belonging to the family unit.
- Mentor — a cheerleader who boosts dreams, growth, and self-worth.
- Nurturer — an emotional and social safety net, especially when the family is in crisis.
- Role Model — an example of how to behave, interact, and care for others.
- Spiritual Guide — a compass for developing morality, principles, and beliefs.
- Student — a willingness to learn from the younger generation and empower their leadership.
- Teacher — an experienced instructor sharing knowledge, skills, and life lessons.
- Wizard — a friend who enjoys imaginative play and turning the simplest tasks into something magical.
Looking through this list (and adding a sprinkle of maverick), I identify every single role naturally being performed by my own grandparents. Certainly I was the beneficiary of all the above and I am eternally grateful for that. I still remember the smell of my grandad's shed - empty Old Holborn tins filled with reclaimed screws and bolts filed carefully on his home-made shelving. I remember the way my maternal grandmother used to massage my 4 year old feet once she’d put on my socks that had, of course, been warmed in front of the fire on the wooden clothes horse. I remember the intoxicating air in Grandad’s greenhouse - full of tomatoes and dahlias, and the way my paternal grandmother would carefully place the heavily coated silver spoon that had stirred the custard, onto a delicate China saucer and then put it in the fridge to enjoy later! Picnics on the heather-clad moors, blackberry and bilberry picking for pies and jam, exploring limpets in rock pools and civil engineering moats around sandcastles on an empty beach – all experiences planted into my DNA.
They weren’t push-overs by any means. My grandad’s criticism when I was in my mid-teens that I never finished anything- accompanied by a playful nickname of ’Half- a-job Hill’ still inspires me to prove him wrong - I’m 61 now and he passed away 20 years ago! Reaping the occasional displeasure from your grandparents is a salutary lesson and no bad thing.
As I reflect on my new role, I can now see how these experiences with my grandparents have formed me. I will strive to give to my grandchildren what my grandparents gave to me, a love of the natural world, a connection with my personal history, a sense of belonging and safety, a zest for adventure, and for them to know that Granny with twinkly eyes, will always give them a meal (most probably from the era of 30 plant-based foods per week...), give them time, and be rooting for them - no matter what.