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How to Handle Your Grandchildren

I’m a grandfather. I didn’t just become one—I’ve been one for eleven years. And I’ve got six wonderful grandchildren.

Actually, I should say Marilyn and I are grandparents. Marilyn is the good grandparent, the cuddly one, the one to whom the grandchildren naturally gravitate. I’m the old grouchy guy in the corner.

One of the things I’ve come to realize about myself after seventy years is that I’m just not naturally comfortable with children. I used to jokingly call young children “rugrats” or “ankle biters”, but it never struck me until I became a grandfather that these titles were for real!

I was an only child and had a fine childhood. My parents were good but very busy parents, both working full-time. I grew up in a friendly neighborhood with lots of kids, but few younger than me—all were of the same age or older. 

Through high school, college, my first jobs, Protestant seminary, and then into my first pastorate, I had little if any contact with children. I remember, as a young single, ordained minister in Florida, being greeted after Worship by an elderly couple who had retired to Florida. They said, “You know what’s the greatest thing about grandchildren?” I hesitated to answer, since I was not married and had had zero experience with children of my own, let alone grandchildren. But, expecting the usual purely positive answer, I merely responded, “No. What?” The grandfather said with a smirk, “You can do your grandfatherly duty, and then say goodbye!” They both laughed, but I was a bit shocked, not sure how to respond. Was he joking, or being truthfully sarcastic?

Then in time Marilyn and I got married, and on the day after our first anniversary, our first son was born. I jumped right into parenting, reading every available Christian parenting manual, and eventually, Marilyn and I had two more sons. Raising “My Three Sons” was certainly as challenging as I expected and all the manuals had warned, so I just took it all in stride, praying daily for the grace to be a good father and husband. 

Eventually my oldest son, Jon Marc, married Teresa and is managing the Coming Home Network, and our middle son Peter became a Catholic priest, and our youngest son, Richard, married Katie, so I kind of think by grace I must not have screwed up too bad as a father.

But then Jon Marc and Teresa started having children. It was then in my old age that I began discovering one of my biggest shortcomings—an uncomfortable, if not pathological, fear of children! As a pastor I could smile and greet them, or maybe give them children sermons in front of the congregation, but this always carried with it the assumption that very quickly these little “crumb crunchers” would either go away with their parents or be off to a school room behind their teacher.

Even though I was far from the perfect father, bringing up our three sons from birth through the crazy years and on into manhood was not a big problem—we essentially walked together step by step through these years. I’d come to know them. Sure, I struggled with understanding them at their different ages, and pulled my hair out trying to communicate with them, but I just figured this was normal—in fact, all the other fathers I knew reported similar conundrums. 

But with my grandkids it’s been different. We live hours apart, and though, through the benefits of modern media, I have more ways to see and hear and come to know them then any previous generation of distant grandparents, still in many ways, they are more like strangers to me than my own sons ever were. 

And I guess this awkwardness shows, because when Marilyn and I are finally able to pay them a visit, after maybe a month or two absence, the six run to us with welcome glee! But after a quick perfunctory hug around my legs, they bolt to their grandmother. This is probably why that old Christmas poem doesn’t say, “Over the river and through the woods, to grandfather’s house we go.”

So, at age seventy, what does this old crotchety less-than-naturally-affectionate grandfather do? Some might say we should just drop every, sell our farm, and move closer to our grandchildren, so we can spend more quality time with them. In our case, this really isn’t possible, nor do I necessarily think this is wise.

I guess I can try to “be and feel” like everyone assumes good grandfathers are supposed to “be and feel”, but frankly, I think I’ve just “been and felt” this way all my life—I’m just not naturally comfortable with children; I frankly, don’t understand them. And I certainly don’t blame them or their parents or my parents. I’m just, I guess, a bit further than most of you reading this from being a perfect person.

So, how does one handle your grandchildren? This might be a funny way to put it, but it’s worded this way for a reason. There’s a wonderful, touching song from the hit musical Camelot that almost always chokes me up when I hear it. It goes like this, with King Arthur asking his wise guide, Merlin:

“How to handle a woman?
There’s a way,” said the wise old man,
“A way known by ev’ry woman
Since the whole rigmarole began.”
“Do I flatter her?” I begged him answer.
“Do I threaten or cajole or plead?
Do I brood or play the gay romancer?”
Said he, smiling: “No indeed.
How to handle a woman?
Mark me well, I will tell you, sir:
The way to handle a woman
Is to love her … simply love her…
Merely love her… love her… love her.”

I’ve always considered this good advice for husbands. But I’ve, also, learned that it’s good advice for fathers, as well as grouchy, curmudgeon old grandfathers, like me. 

Simply, love them.

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