Here are some excerpts from the Gifts and Keepsakes chapters in
Susan V. Bosak's new bestseller How to Build the Grandma Connection, which has won a Parent's Guide Award as one of the best books of the year.
Giving gifts is part of the magic of the grandparent/grandchild connection. You don't have to give big or expensive gifts. Gifts just need to be thoughtful and given with love.
The most important cautions are: don't overwhelm your grandchild with too many gifts; don't try to buy their affection; don't go against their parents' wishes; and never buy a big gift or one that will require special care or arrangements (e.g. pet, trip) without first consulting parents. You may also want to stay away from clothing since children's sizes and tastes are so variable.
Gifts can stimulate your grandchild's imagination, entertain, educate, or simply offer pure delight. In general, there are two kinds of gifts: formal gifts for birthdays and holidays; and "little things" you give just to make your grandchild feel special.
Children today have so many toys, many of which quickly become discarded or broken. Try to focus on toys with lasting value, or things children can use to be creative (e.g. art supplies, building sets, board games, a microscope). The more flexible and unstructured the toy is, the more lasting it tends to be.
It's okay to indulge your grandchild once in a while with an extravagant or "fad" gift they just "have to have." But, consult with parents first to ensure they don't have any strong objections.
Try to break the toy stereotypes. Don't just give girls dolls and boys trucks. There's one woman I know whose parents, when she was little, would never buy her a train set -- despite her pleas for one, Christmas after Christmas. Finally, it was Grandma who took her seriously and bought her the set. Today that woman is 47 years old, and still has and cherishes that train set.
Gifts are limited only by your imagination. Use these ideas to get you started:
- Play detective. What are your grandchild's interests and blooming talents? Give gifts that encourage and support them -- tickets to events/plays/concerts; lessons; musical instruments; sports equipment; a magazine subscription; posters or paintings; calendars; videos; computer software.
- Buy your grandchild things "big kids" need -- like a radio, clock, camera, desk, bookcase, or bags for carrying things to school, for sports, or for travel.
- Books are always in style, and won't break (see Books to Share with Your Grandchildren).
- Your junk mail can be a source of stickers, labels, and pages that can be painted or colored. Wrap them up with a bow and they become something fun.
- Plan a treasure hunt with clues your grandchild follows to find items hidden around your house.
- Give your grandchild a disposable camera with a list of places and things they can find and photograph.
Help your grandchild start a collection and then add to it over time. It can be cards (baseball to dinosaur), rocks, stamps, coins, comic books, miniatures or figurines, etc. There are also sticker and sticker book sets on the market you can use with younger children. For example, give your grandchild an animal sticker book and buy packets of animal stickers over time for them to stick in the right spot and learn about animals. Whatever the collection, it becomes a common interest you share.
One woman told me that during her four years in college she most looked forward to letters from her grandmother, which always contained a little "surprise" -- a stick of gum, a cartoon clipped from the newspaper, a funny sticker, a lucky coin. You can give or mail your grandchild a little something every once in a while as a surprise. It's not the gift itself that's important, but the connection it makes. It says, "I'm thinking about you."
Send something small and inexpensive, perhaps once a month or so (but don't feel pressured). You can start when your grandchild is around three years old. Craft shops and "dollar" stores are great places for these kinds of little gifts. Be creative and imaginative. You might send a finger puppet, small stencil, funny socks, a balloon with a message on it ("blow up this balloon to read a surprise message from Grandma"), a musical toothbrush, a pen in the shape of a snake (there are some wild things in dollar stores!), or even a magazine ad or photo cut up like a puzzle. You can also send things your grandchild can experiment with, like a magnifying glass, magnet, or flower/vegetable seeds.
Sometimes it's a nice idea to enclose a note with playful gifts suggesting things your grandchild can do. For example: "Here's a magnifying glass that's especially for you! If you hold it up to your eye and look through it, it makes things look bigger. Take it around the house and look closely at the wooden railing along the stairs, the carpet, a banana peel, a raisin. What do you see? Look at your brother's nose. Does it look bigger? Let me know what else you see with your magnifying glass."
Something handmade makes a special gift in the present and can become a treasured keepsake over the years. You might make your grandchild a quilt, a special blanket, a sweater or scarf, a fancy T-shirt, a stuffed doll or bear, or doll clothes. If sewing, knitting, or needlework is new to you, start with a kit from a needlework or craft shop.
If you don't have the time or skill to make your grandchild the "traditional" things, try your hand at more playful handmade crafts. It's the thought and creativity you put into it that counts. For example, make a picture out of pennies stuck to a sheet of colored cardboard (you can even spell out your grandchild's name). Your grandchild can admire the picture for a while, and then put the coins in their piggy bank. Another idea is to make shapes and animals out of the fuzzy "wire twisties" available in craft stores. You might make a giraffe out of a yellow twistie, and send it to your grandchild with another yellow twistie to playfully "challenge" them to make the same animal.
Money is always welcome, even in small amounts. You just don't want it to be the only gift you give, or use it as a way to "buy" your grandchildren. My grandmother would often let me have the change after I went to the store for her, or would give me a dollar when I helped her out with something. It didn't happen all the time, and I didn't perceive it as payment for services rendered. I just felt special when she would give me "a little something" that was all my own.
You can be creative with money. For example, you can make the penny pictures described above. A roll of quarters can even be magic. Another twist is to give your grandchild a sum of money with the proviso that they give it away to a charity of their choosing. This can spark some good conversations with older grandchildren, teaches them about helping others, and helps them think about what they value and why.
If you choose to, you can do something bigger and fancier over time, like buying savings bonds or stocks, or contributing to your grandchild's college education. Instead of waiting until you're gone, you might also consider making it known to older grandchildren that you have money available for big wishes or needs, such as helping to buy a car or getting special medical treatment.
A word of caution: if you give money to your grandchildren, or to your adult children for your grandchildren, be careful about putting restrictions on its use. If you can afford it, and it's coming from your heart, give it -- with the assumption that it will be used wisely. To do otherwise is to put a strain on your relationship.
Time is the greatest gift of all. Time coupons are a creative way for both you and your grandchild to anticipate a fun, shared experience. They also give your grandchild power in "redeeming" the coupon. You might have coupons for baking cookies, reading a story, going shopping, or learning how to do woodworking.
A Note about "Thank You" Notes
Parents have an important role to play in encouraging bonds between their children and grandparents. One of the easiest ways to do this is to help children write a simple "thank you" note for a gift from a grandparent. So many grandparents I talk to say this is THE biggest complaint they have -- they never get a "thank you" note. They often don't even know if a grandchild has received a gift safely, let alone whether or not they like it. If grandparents don't get feedback, how can they know what to get grandchildren?
A "thank you" note doesn't have to be fancy or long. It can just acknowledge receipt of the gift; have a line describing what the grandchild likes about the gift, or what they're going to do with it; and then end with a "thank you" and "I love you."
"Thank you" notes teach children an important social skill, and make grandparents feel loved and appreciated. They get two-way communication going.
What can a grandparent do to encourage "thank you" notes? You can talk to your adult children about how important acknowledgement is to you. You can also talk to your grandchildren and use this as an opportunity to teach a social grace. Explain that you want to hear from them and find out what they liked or didn't like about a gift. Be persistent in your communication, without anger or criticism. As a hint or reminder, some grandparents enclose a "fill-in-the-blanks" card they write out for grandchildren to return to them. Another good idea is to set an example yourself -- acknowledge and thank grandchildren for something they've sent or given you, or even a phone call.
One man told the story of visits to his grandmother's house when he was little and the cut crystal handles she had on the French doors into her dining room. His grandmother would take the door handles off, hang them on a string, and put them in the window so that the sunlight would catch them and there would be a rainbow in the room. When his grandmother died, his aunt gave him the door handles as a keepsake. After that, as he lived in different apartments and town houses across the country, he put those handles on either his bedroom door or the front closet door. Today, he owns his own house and the handles are on a prominent door. Sometimes, he and his six-year-old daughter take the handles off to "make a rainbow in the room." And that's the philosophy to life he's teaching his daughter, a philosophy he got from his grandmother: you can always find a rainbow when you need one.
You know when you hear a favorite song on the radio and your mind goes right back to a special memory? Keepsakes have that same kind of power. Grandchildren like the hottest new stuff, but they also have a real need for a sense of family history and connection. In the short term, keepsakes create an immediate sense of connection. Over the years, they become a powerful symbol of that connection. Keepsakes evoke memories and feelings. They also make us feel part of something bigger. They are a critical part of a living family legacy. Older people have a need to give keepsakes as "something to remember me by," and grandchildren have just as much of a need to receive them.
Many of the items discussed in earlier sections -- like using photos/videos, keeping a journal, writing letters and stories for your grandchildren, writing your life story, giving a handmade gift -- can become keepsakes. There are also some special things you can do with an eye toward creating keepsakes.
Something to Remember You By
My storybook Something to Remember Me By was inspired by my grandmother. She had a habit of giving me a small keepsake every once in a while and saying, "here's something to remember me by." Some of the keepsakes were things she made or bought; others were her own possessions. I have to admit I didn't like all the keepsakes at the time she gave them to me. There was one terribly tacky, flowery, orange and red and brown and blue tablecloth that was one of her favorites. I hated it! Today I look at that same tablecloth with a mixture of amusement and fondness. That's part of the power of keepsakes.
As you get older, think about slowly giving away some of your special possessions to older grandchildren (and your adult children) -- cup and saucer sets, salt and pepper shakers, figurines, fine linens, old jewelry, cuff links, watches. Even if they don't fully appreciate the keepsakes now, they will in the future.
I've also heard some wonderful, touching stories about people who buy special keepsakes or choose special possessions, wrap them up with a personal note, and hide them away in a closet or attic. Their plan is that when they pass away, their children and grandchildren will sort through their possessions and they will each find a package with their name on it as a source of comfort and remembrance.
One woman in New York told me she had lost both her mother and grandmother in the holocaust. She wanted to give her 14-year-old granddaughter a copy of Something to Remember Me By with some old photographs and her grandmother's handkerchief (the only keepsake this woman had left from her grandmother) so that her granddaughter would remember them all.
Bestow Your Furniture
A line that's repeated in Something to Remember Me By is: "Someday, that cedar chest at the foot of the bed will be yours." My grandmother picked out a piece of furniture to give each of her children and grandchildren. From the time I was five years old, I knew the cedar chest was mine. And I took care of it! Her other pieces of furniture were subject to the bumps and scratches that children inevitably inflict on furniture, but I was always careful around the cedar chest. Today that cedar chest sits proudly at the foot of my bed.
Assign a special piece of furniture to each of your grandchildren (and children). It's like giving twice, now and in the future. It makes your grandchildren feel special and important, creates a bond, and helps build a sense of responsibility.
Lane Furniture has just released the new heirloom-quality Something to Remember Me By Cedar Chest based on the chest in the book Something to Remember Me By. A cedar chest is a keepsake itself, and can hold a lifetime of memories and keepsakes passed along from generation to generation. A wonderful, meaningful, and special gift for children and grandchildren!
Tell the Story
When you give a keepsake, particularly an item with a family history to it, make sure you share the story behind it. Write down the story in a note when you pass along the keepsake. Is it a ring your father gave to your mother? A quilt your great-grandmother made? Where did the item come from? Why is it important?
Stories are what bring objects alive. That's the real power of a keepsake -- not necessarily what it is, but what it means in the context of your life story.
When you share a keepsake's story, often even young children can understand its meaning at some level. There was one precocious little girl who told me, "My Grandma gave my Mom a very beautiful ring, and someday she's going to give it to me, and someday I'll give it to my daughter. That's the way you make history."
Help your grandchildren understand their place in the larger context of their family. Doing a simple family tree together can be an extended project with older grandchildren. It also becomes a keepsake.
You and your grandchild can make a diagram of your family tree, perhaps including photographs. There is computer software available for charting family trees. Or, get a large sheet of paper and some pencil crayons or markers. Show your grandchild where to draw boxes for various relatives, starting at the bottom with the oldest generation you know about and then branching out. You might want to use one color for one side of the family and a different color for the other.
Depending on how much you know and what research you do, you can also include brief notes about each family member under their photo.
Family Time Capsule
You and your grandchildren, even if you live far away from each other, can collect items to put into a time capsule.
Collect personal items like family photos, school artwork, greeting cards, clothing, and family stories. You can also clip out current articles from magazines and newspapers, put in a hit CD, include clothing catalogs with the latest fashions, and make a list of popular movies, celebrities, and expressions. Put everything into a sealed storage container with the current date. Then, set a date five years or so into the future (long enough, but not too long) when your family will get together for a big party to open the time capsule. Mark the container, "Do not open until..." Store it in a safe place. Now everyone has something to look forward to!
Keepsakes and Traditions
There are some things you do again and again over time that become family rituals. Rituals provide both adults and children with something consistent, reliable, and cherished. Particularly during times of trouble or loss, rituals are a comfort, something "normal" to look forward to. They become part of a family's identity. In this often hectic world, we could all use a few more rituals. If you don't have any family traditions or rituals, START SOME!
Rituals can be anything that works for your family. You and your grandchildren might have a ritual of pulling out the playing cards or backgammon board for a family tournament. Or you can attend the home opener every year of a local sports team and collect the programs.
Rituals are often tied to keepsakes. For example, your grandchildren might enjoy the special holiday foods you cook year after year. Collect these recipes in a cookbook for posterity. Perhaps each holiday season you can start a tradition of giving each of your grandchildren a special ornament. If you have a regular family reunion, each time get T-shirts made for everyone with your family name, the reunion year, and a familiar family saying.
Keepsakes and rituals become the things your grandchildren carry into their families, often with the words, "I remember when Grandma..." A part of you will always be in their lives.
The above information is excerpted from Susan V. Bosak's new bestseller How to Build the Grandma Connection (200 pages; $8.95 US), which has won a Parent's Guide Award as one of the year's best books. In this one, concise, easy-to-use book are all the practical ideas, inspiration, and wisdom you need to build loving, rewarding, lifelong relationships with your grandchildren.
"Outstanding!... Excellent advice.... Grandparents and parents alike will love this highly usable, imminently practical guide."