Who were your biggest fans when you were a child or teenager? Who encouraged you, had confidence in your abilities and boosted your self-esteem with love and well-earned praise? If you are lucky, your mother and father played that role. For some, it was a teacher or coach or another family member—perhaps a loving and positive grandparent.
Grandparents come naturally to the role of fan. Our love affair with a grandchild begins as soon as she or he is born (or even before the birth). Free of the 24-7 demands of parenthood, we are eager and able to focus loving attention on our grandchildren, to overlook some bad behaviour and to help them feel good about themselves by being positive in our interactions with them.
This is good. The importance of having caring, positive adults in your corner when you are growing up cannot be underestimated. But the research also shows that empty praise does not build self-esteem. Child psychologists suggest that self-esteem is only beneficial if it is a product of doing something well. They encourage parents and grandparents to encourage mastery and skill-building in children. Positive self-esteem will follow. Telling children they are wonderful and talented without any evidence does not build self-esteem. Providing opportunities to develop skills and master tasks, being encouraging and praising a job well done, does.
A healthy dose of self-worth can give grandchildren courage to try new things, accept life’s losses along with its wins, cultivate trust in their own abilities and work better as a team player. Here are some ideas on how to positively affect their confidence and self-esteem:
Praise specific achievements. Spotlighting specific actions or attitudes is far more meaningful than vague compliments such as “You are smart” or “You are talented.” An overload of generalized compliments can lead kids to dismiss them or to get an unrealistic sense of entitlement because they are repeatedly told they can do no wrong.
If your grandchild is anxious about his ability to make a presentation or play in a big game, ask him to close his eyes and imagine he is there and doing it. Help him walk through how it will be. Encourage him to imagine what it will be like after he has successfully accomplished the task.
Encourage your grandchild to pursue her interest and aptitude for things like singing, drawing, playing a sport, crafts, running or making friends easily. Provide opportunities for her to practise these things and perhaps to have some instruction that will enable her to master the activities she is passionate about.
Learn from each other. My grandson taught me how to use my digital camera and put my photos on Facebook. On the flip side, his grandfather has taught him how to fix a flat tire—a skill appreciated by his parents, several family members and neighbours.
Help your grandchild let go of mistakes and accept failure. Share the mistakes and failures you had as a child and how things worked out in the end. Stay relaxed when he makes a mistake with you. Burnt cookies or a broken plate need only a small note of correction, then a reminder of what he did well.
If your grandchild suffers because things are not perfect, explain that no one is perfect and use humour to make light of situations that don’t go as planned.
Listen; really listen to your grandchildren. Make eye contact, ask questions and relay back the main points. Don’t multitask when they are telling you something. This shows respect for the other person (child or adult) and tells them that what they are feeling and saying is worthwhile.
Keep any necessary criticism to a minimum and direct it to your grandchildren’s actions rather than criticizing them as people.
Showcase their talents. Put their art on the fridge or the wall, give them opportunities to show their talents at family gatherings, share stories about good or funny things they do and when they are kind to others. (I sometimes let them overhear me bragging about them.)
Whether your grandchildren live near you or 1,000 miles away, grandparenting provides an opportunity to love someone new, to appreciate the magic of a developing mind, and to nurture the growth and confidence of someone special. It doesn’t get grander than that!
Twenty-five Ways to Say “Very Good” to our Grandchildren
- You really did well today. You showed good teamwork when you…
- You did it by yourself.
- Thanks for helping me.
- You handled a tough situation well.
- It was very thoughtful how you handled that situation.
- I like the way you did that.
- I am proud of how you did that.
- You should be proud of your ability and talent.
- You rose to the challenge. Well done.
- Fine job. I liked how you…
- You always give it your best.
- Thanks for showing me how to…
- Good thinking, it made a difference…
- Great effort, it made a difference…
- I like the way you work with others.
- I like the way we are working together.
- I really like what you have done.
- I really like your attitude about this.
- Perfect! Let’s do it that way.
- You have a talent for… (just like your mother did when she was your age).
- You have a gift for this.
- Clever idea.
- You did that very well.
- Hey, you figured that out fast!
- You took a risk when you decided to… Good for you.
Mary Jane Sterne and Peggy Edwards are the authors of Intentional Grandparenting: A Boomer’s Guide (McClelland and Stewart, 2005). The authors live in Ottawa and have 21 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren between them.
This article originally appeared in the January-February 2013 issue of Fifty-Five Plus magazine. Patricia den Boer Editor | Fifty-Five Plus | Winner of 75 awards for editorial excellence in the magazine mature market