Better Conversation With Grandkids



by Susan M. Kettmann, M.S.Ed.

When you know that you are going to be talking to grandchildren in person, some simple preparatory steps done in advance can enhance the quality and flow of your conversations. After all, you want more than exchanged pleasantries. You want information, ideas, and opinions to go back and forth. Using some of the following techniques can help you achieve just that:

       Give your full attention. Make direct eye contact that draws them to you and always screen out as many interruptions as you can. Turn on your answering machine, or take the phone off the hook. Put on soft music instead of a blaring television and keep your hands free of busy work.

        Try not to dominate. At least half of any conversations with grandchildren should be spent listening. Resist feeling that because you are the adult, you should answer all of their questions or give them the answers. It might be more fun to suggest that you search for answers together so that they can experience the joy of discovery.

        Offer subject matter but take your cues from them. If they chatter on about things that you aren’t really interested in, get comfortable and make what they say a priority anyway.

        Do your best to be available to talk when they want to. Try to be available when a grandchild wants to talk to you. If it is really impossible to converse at the time that they want, agree on a time as soon as possible when you can do it, and follow through! A grandchild reaching out, offers you precious moments that might never come at a more “convenient” time.

        Schedule in “do-nothing” time. Plan in time to take a walk, bake cookies, or other low-key activities that are unhurried. When hands are busy, words flow!

        Ask older grandchildren for their opinions. If you have older grandchildren, ask them their opinions on current issues like religion, politics, drugs, and violence. Listen carefully to what they have to say and question them about the consequences of what they say so that they learn to process thoughts from start to finish.

        Ask your grandchildren to teach you something. Request assistance with something to make grandchildren feel useful and grown up. You’ve taught them plenty of things, so give them a chance to return the favor to you. Ask them to read a map for you, rearrange a cupboard, or to help you with a computer program. Thank them for their help.


For many grandparents, the main communication tool is the telephone. It is relatively cheap and a convenient way to keep in touch when distance is an issue.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to keep a conversation going with a grandchild that you don’t know well from spending time together on a regular basis. Picking up the phone and making an impulsive call might feel great, but to get the most out of calls to grandchildren, a little preplanning usually results in higher quality conversations.

Part of the value of a phone call for the grandparent lies in just hearing the voice, but it is important to remember that it is necessary to focus on the needs and age of the grandchild who is on the other end of the line.  Depending on the grandchild’s age and personality, she or he might not be an avid telephone talker, or might have trouble getting into a meaningful conversation, let alone picturing the grandparent at the other end of the line.

There are a number of things that you can do ahead of time in order to enhance your time on the phone with them, including any of the following suggestions:

        Make calls regular and predictable. To help children become more comfortable talking with you, make your phone calls regular and expected.  Setting aside a regular time to spend with each grandchild on the telephone tells them that they are special and reminds them that they are on your mind. It also enables them to organize things that they want to say, particularly in reference to past conversations.

        Mail items that you can talk about. To encourage better conversations with grandchildren who live far away, it can help to send a photograph of yourself to put by the telephone so they can associate it with your voice.  You can also mail newspaper clippings, travel brochures, and photographs to discuss at a later date when there are lulls in the conversation. You might give them a “Telephone Folder,” decorated with their name, to be kept next to the phone so everything is handy.

        Try day-dreaming together. If you run out of things to talk about, try day-dreaming together. Even better, make day-dreaming a regular part of your telephone conversations. Begin by saying something like, “I wish we were together today. Where could we go and what would we see?” The possibilities with such open-ended play are endless and best of all, you send a message that you care about what they are thinking!

        Share stories about your childhood. Your grandchildren will love it if you share stories about things that happened to you when you were their age.  They will also enjoy hearing about what their parents were like when they were children. You can draw closer while passing on family history.


As grandchildren grow older, the rewards of honest communication is the ultimate payoff, particularly as they approach adolescence and the teen years. Then, most families experience a certain amount of conflict provoked by the normal need to push limits. As grandchildren enter grade school, parents recede in importance in their daily lives. By adolescence, it is possible that parents know their child less than at any other time in their upbringing.

Staying close to older grandchildren requires an extra effort because they are so busy with their own friends and with their own activities.  Nevertheless, if you continue to use the strong communication habits you have built into your relationships over the years, you will be poised and ready when your ear is needed.

Older grandchildren still need adult encouragement and guidance, but they are more likely to seek it from someone other than the parents. How wonderful if they can come to look to a grandparent to fill that need! Some of the following suggestions can help you remain close even during the trying preadult periods:

        Don’t assume that you know what’s going on in their lives. Ask them, and ask specifically and often. Learn things like the names of their best friends, favorite teacher, favorite color, and most annoying pet peeve.

        Don’t just ask questions that have factual answers. You won’t learn anything new if you ask questions that can be answered with facts. Find out how they feel or think. Instead of asking who their favorite teacher is, ask what they like about their favorite teacher.

        Encourage grandchildren to talk about the adults in their lives. If they are angry with adults, let them know that they have the right to disagree as long as they are respectful. Sometimes, being able to express what they think is unfair is a coping strategy that makes them feel less powerless.

        Arrange for intimate chats when you spend time together. Take a walk or sit outside in the dark with a flashlight! See what happens!

        Remember that teenagers are uncertain about their opinions even though they might talk a tough line. Avoid the temptation to prove them wrong.  Instead, act as a sounding board and ask questions about what they are telling you. Reassure them that you will treat what they say confidentially.


From The 12 Rules of Grandparenting: A New Look at Traditional Roles and How to Break Them, by Susan M. Kettmann. Copyright © 2000 Susan M. Kettmann. Excerpted by arrangement with Checkmark Books, an imprint of Facts On File, Inc. $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800-322-8755 or click here.