Will my grandchildren get confused?

Grandma: “I have dual nationality and I am regularly away from the Netherlands for a longer period of time. My three grandsons are seven weeks, two and a half and over three years old. I love them, and the eldest two obviously enjoy having me around. Sometimes I’m gone for six weeks, then back for a month, and then away for weeks. How does that occasional travel affect our bond? Does it affect how they bond with me? Do I sadden them or confuse them with that many are gone? Do they understand that I can’t just come and play for an afternoon because I’m far away? At what age can you explain such a thing? When will they understand what is ‘long time’ or ‘short’? What is a week or a month? What is ‘far away’, ‘to another country’…? Although the children are very well off with their parents, I sometimes feel a bit guilty about it.”

Name is known to the editor. (This section is anonymous because difficulties in parenting are sensitive.)

Predictability is important

Louis Tavecchio: “Grandparents are more important in children’s lives today than they used to be: because they live longer, and because of today’s dual-income model, they are more careful. This creates the opportunity for a unique attachment relationship between grandparents and grandchildren.

“The main bonding occurs between zero and two years. Children cannot bond with many adults at such a young age, but in addition to both parents and a crèche leader, there is room for grandparents as important safety figures. This does mean that there must be regular physical-emotional contact between grandparents and grandchild at essential moments: for example putting a child to bed, comforting it when it wakes up during the night. Eating together, laughing together, taking the child on your lap.

“Predictability is very important in that attachment for children. This does not yet apply to the youngest grandchild, but the eldest two grandchildren can continue their contact with grandma via video calling. Grandma can maintain the frequency of contact with her grandsons from abroad in a technological way, for example via skyping, zooming or facetime. I recommend introducing a stuffed animal to the children when she is in the Netherlands that she also shows during the video calling. For example, the children associate the image of grandma and the object as ‘being safe with grandma’.”

The contact may be irregular

Carolina de Weerth: “After birth, a child can become attached to a grandparent who sees it intensively. This grandma doesn’t have that role, and that’s okay. If a child already has important attachment figures, such as the parents in this case, then the bond with grandma or grandpa can just be a nice extra relationship. Grandfathers and grandmothers who do not play an intensive role in the upbringing of their grandchildren should therefore not feel guilty. That contact may well be irregular.

“This grandmother with her two nationalities and homes can become a special grandmother. Make it an educational adventure together. Grandma can send cards from her other address, she can bring surprises, treats and children’s books from the other country. She can show something of that other country via video calling. At home, parents can keep an Advent calendar and count down when Grandma comes home. This way you can make something super fun out of this grandparenthood together.”

Louis Tavecchio is emeritus professor of pedagogy at the University of Amsterdam. After his retirement he started to delve more deeply into the role and pedagogical significance of grandparents.

Carolina de Weerth is professor of psychobiology of early development at Radboudumc.

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