This article originally appeared on Parenthood.com and is reprinted with permission of the author.
Check with parents first. This is the cardinal rule, emphasized by psychologists, religious leaders and family counselors. There are many delightful ways to share love of your heritage with your grandkids, but make sure you understand and abide by the children’s parents’ wishes. If you’re not sure where the boundaries are of what the parents find acceptable, ask them–out of the children’s earshot, and always before engaging in any sharing parents could find inconsistent with their teaching or requests.
Share the joys, not the conflicts. You may not agree with parents’ decisions about religion or how their other grandparents practice (or don’t practice) their faith. It’s your job, says psychologist and grandmother Carolyn Newberger, “to protect the child from your feelings of disapproval.” Not only is it distressing to any child to be caught in the crossfire, it’s also sure to be a turnoff. Children who experience religion as a war zone rather than a source of comfort and joy will likely steer clear of that religion, and who would blame them?
Food, glorious food! Think matzah ball soup, baskets of Easter candy, Christmas cookies. “Food is not a threatening kind of thing,” points out Ronnie Friedland, editor of InterfaithFamily.com. It’s a powerful source of connection between people and a way of creating or passing on traditions. Friedland encourages cooking together with older children. Then it’s not just the smells and tastes of the holiday meal they carry with them, but also the hands-on ability to make your nonna’s Christmas Eve lasagna, bubbe‘s potato latkes or your abuela‘s celebratory cinnamon bunuelos.
Tell your stories. Pass on your memories of being a child and of sharing time with your grandparents. If religious traditions were a part of that, it’s usually fine to share that too, whether or not your religion is the same as your grandchild’s.
Create family photo albums. Visual images often help children to hold on to a memory–one you and they have created together or one you are relaying to them about your family history.
Record personal audio or videotapes. These are great gifts for children living at a distance from their grandparents, but equally beloved by kids who see their grandparents often. Record a favorite story from your tradition or family history. Tape music from your spiritual heritage that carries emotional meaning for you. When together, watch videos or listen to CDs with holiday stories.
Love your grandkids! Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? And it’s easy, in most instances. According to The Grandparent Guide author Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., the values grandchildren pick up from grandparents come mostly from simply hanging out together, doing the things you would naturally do. “You don’t have to exert yourself,” Kornhaber says. “Just be yourself. It will happen.”
Be patient. Grandparents (and parents) sometimes get anxious about the younger generation’s decisions, projecting way into the future. Try to remember that your impact on your grandchildren’s values, spirituality, ethical choices, as well as how they carry your traditions into the future, may not become evident until they become independent adults, or even begin raising children of their own.