Sharpen these skills to excel in your new role.
Your daughter recently welcomed her first child – your first grandchild – and you’re already in love. You envision festive holidays spent together, bouncing him or her on your knee, and buying heaps of toys and adorable shoes. But you may be able to offer so much more. Grandparents like you have historically had a powerful influence in the lives of their grandchildren and have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share.
So what kind of power are we talking about? Now that you’ve joined the grandparents club, you’re what anthropologists call a “secret benefactor” of humanity. Care from one generation to the next helps advance everything from our brain size to our life spans, according to the work of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an evolutionary anthropologist. Perhaps even more important, grandparents who share their love and knowledge influence their grandchildren in positive ways.
The “grandparent effect” can help families with everything from childcare to financial support. However, it’s the relationship that matters most. Simply having an attachment to an adult who isn’t a parent can play an important role in a child’s development, says Merril Silverstein, a Syracuse University professor who studies aging.
Grandparents also are role models when it comes to finances.
With all this in mind, here are some tips to make the most of your unique skills, while loving and spoiling your grandkids – just maybe draw the line before you get to rotten.
1. Adopt Levelheaded Diplomacy
Before you rush in to cuddle that sweet grandbaby of yours, take a moment to remember what it was like to be a first-time parent, exhausted and overwhelmed while trying to do everything right. New parents can be a bit anxious. You have the power to help your family flourish, but that’s only if you are a welcome presence. Your enthusiasm can lead you to fall into the trap of trampling over your children’s turf, like the mother-in-law who pushes decades-old parenting tips or the grandpa who often drops by unannounced. Expecting unlimited access to your grandchild and strict adherence to your advice is setting yourself up for conflict, says Scott Haltzman, author of “The Secrets of Happy Families.”
The solution here is to summon your inner diplomat and make peace with the fact that your children are in charge of raising your grandchild, and they make the rules. Following their routines and letting them call the shots – even those you disagree with – will make things smoother for all, including your grandchild. Have faith that you raised your children to have common sense, and allow them to pass it on.
Tip: Don’t sass back, if you can help it. An eye roll from grandpa isn’t going to convince your kids that organic, biodegradable diapers are unnecessary. Be glad that they care enough to buy what they consider “the best” for their new baby.
2. Model Financial Leadership
Most grandparents’ motto is “to protect and spoil.” Indulging your grandchild with toys and the like is the type of attention that can build self-esteem. However, your money could be better spent in setting up an education fund or socking away for a larger gift, perhaps even an inheritance. Your kids will likely appreciate a gift of money or time, rather than yet another toy or adorable outfit that will be too small, too soon.
Research shows that children look to their grandparents for money lessons, so it pays to offer timeless tidbits of age-appropriate advice, such as spend less than you earn, make savings a priority and invest wisely. Those little eyes will be watching you, so make sure your actions reflect your values. If education is a priority, consider this: A 2013 study from the University of Kansas found that a college savings account with as little as $1 in it can increase the probability a child will attend college from 45% to 71%.
Education planning can be complex, but a knowledgeable advisor can help you sort out your options. One of the better ways to save is a 529 plan. Families can invest in these tax-advantaged accounts without the earnings being taxed as long as disbursements are used to pay for college expenses. However, if you withdraw money from a 529 plan and do not use it on an eligible college expense, you generally will be subject to income tax and an additional 10% federal tax penalty on earnings.
Other education planning vehicles include Roth IRAs, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, grantor trusts, and UGMA and UTMA accounts. The key to maximizing college savings lies in the planning process, so be sure to talk to your advisor and your family members for a holistic approach.
3. Become a Charming Cheerleader
When you let parents take the reins in disciplining, suddenly you’re free to reward your grandchild’s good behavior instead. It’s called positive (grand)parenting, and it emphasizes the importance of catching kids doing the right thing and praising them. This research-based approach has evolved over more than 30 years and has been backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It focuses on nurturing relationships to prevent behavioral problems. You can glean more of the teachings of the Positive Parenting Program (Triple P) online.
A 2013 trial of a Triple P approach tailored for grandparents showed it reduced the caregivers’ stress and resulted in improved relationships with children and grandchildren, said James Kirby, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the University of Queensland, Australia. Resolving to see the best in people might just make you the happiest grandparent on the block.
4. Be a Team Player
When the going gets tough, to grandmother’s house we should go. That’s the view of Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. She describes grandparents’ most vital role as a form of family National Guard that provides an island of stability in a time of need. It’s helpful to have a second set of necessities at your place so the grandkids will feel right at home, assuming you have the space, time and energy for such an endeavor.
Most children perceive their relationships with grandma and grandpa to be virtually conflict-free, so it’s no wonder they find comfort when Nanny and Poppy are around. Another dimension of this special bond is its lasting effects on mental health. For example, grandparents and adult grandchildren who described their ties as “emotionally close” reported fewer symptoms of depression for both groups in a 2014 study out of Boston College. So keep those grandkids close – it’s good for both generations.
5. Get Involved
Do you want your grandchild to do well in school, get along with others, and be compassionate? Getting involved in the child’s daily life by asking about their grades or hobbies can give you the results you desire, according to a study from Brigham Young University. It found the advantages of this type of involvement are greater in instances where grandma and grandpa don’t live with the child, in part because it allows kids to think outside of their immediate world.
Technology can facilitate this confidant-type relationship if you don’t live close to your grandchild. Regular Skype or FaceTime chats, text messaging and email can help increase a child’s feelings of love and acceptance.
Commitment: The Glue that Holds it all Together
Becoming a grandparent is a pivotal moment in life. As you shape what kind of gram or gramps you will be, know that it’s important to be consistently committed to your new role, however you’ve defined it. Pick a level of involvement you’re comfortable with and stick with it. And remember, this is just the first grandchild – there might be many more grandchildren to come, and great-grandchildren now that we’re living longer, healthier lives. Commit to enjoying each one, with your own unique style.
Earnings in 529 plans are not subject to federal tax, and in most cases, state tax, so long as you use withdrawals for eligible college expenses, such as tuition and room and board. However, if you withdraw money from a 529 plan and do not use it on an eligible college expense, you generally will be subject to income tax and an additional 10% federal tax penalty on earnings. Investors should consider before investing, whether their home states offer state tax or other benefits only available for investments in their home state’s 529 plans. 529 plans offered outside their resident state may not provide the same tax benefits as those offered within their state.