Tips for Grandfathers 



by Conrad Veazey Brown

How can you get your grandchildren to associate a visit to their grandparents' with something exciting to do when they get there? Is there a way to create a "draw," something special just for them?  The great traditional grandparent draw is a treehouse for young boys, a playhouse for girls (closely rivaled by a dollhouse). If the idea of a house in the trees makes you a bit nervous, then a girl's playhouse easily converts into a boy's clubhouse. A sign over the door will give it authenticity. It's important, however, that the boy choose the name.

For an experienced amateur carpenter, a playhouse makes a good summertime project. If you'd like to build one from scratch, the Southern Forest Products Assn. (1-504-443-4464) PO Box 641700, Kenner LA 70064-1700 will send you its free Plan #818 for building a 35-square-foot "American Gothic" playhouse. Its "spire" requires 12 feet of vertical clearance.

A step down the ease-of-construction ladder are Handy Home Products' two ready-to-assemble kits for building simple wood playhouses, a 4' x 4' x 5'-high Cabin and a 4' x 6' x 6'-high Swiss Chalet, which cost around $300 and come with a 15-year warranty. Call 1-800-221-1849 for the name of the dealer nearest you—likely to be a lumberyard.

Walpole Woodworkers (1-800-343-6948) can ship you from Massachusetts (via motor freight) an attractive little six-foot-square playhouse six feet tall, with a porch that extends another 20 inches; cost $1,195. Ask for their color brochure.

Pre-fab playhouses, shipped in as many as 20 sections, are available from Lilliput Play Homes (1-724-348-7071) in Finleyville PA. Its seven models vary in cost, from the simple "Storybook Bungalow," $2,499, to its fancy "Victorian Mansion," $4,399, which features stained glass windows, corbels, roof rails and cedar shingles. There are some 24 options. One of the models is a little eight-foot-by-five-foot firehouse, $3,599, with a second-floor firemen's quarters and a fire pole to slide down. It comes with a fire alarm bell and fire hose with a nozzle. But most intriguing of the choices is not an outdoor playhouse at all but an art deco "Nickelodeon Theater," $3,399, which sets up indoors and comes with a ticket window (and tickets), lighted marquee with changeable sign, interior with steps leading up to a peanut gallery, and a miniature proscenium to hold a TV and VCR or serve as a puppet stage. 

If you do not pour a concrete slab or concrete footings for a backyard playhouse but just raise it off the ground on flat stones or pavers, and if it is under 100 square feet, it will be considered a "temporary" structure in most U.S. localities and probably not come under local housing jurisdiction.  But check with your town's code enforcement people to make sure you don't need a permit.

David Stiles' wonderful Treehouses You Can Build, $18, from Houghton Mifflin (1-800-225-3362), presents a variety of treehouse designs, some of which require only one or two trees for support and a few that are really little boys' "forts" raised up on stilts. Like Stiles' other books, it is profusely illustrated with clever, appealing drawings. The author is an industrial designer and illustrator; the easily understood construction directions stress sturdiness and safety. With a treehouse like one of these to play in when they come for a visit, your grandchildren will be the envy of their peers, and you will have an unbeatable draw.

However, keep in mind that perhaps not a playhouse but most certainly a treehouse calls for adult supervision when kids are playing in it. You don't want any rowdy behavior leading to a neighbor's child getting hurt and you getting sued. In today's litigious society, gone are the days of our youth when we climbed a rope ladder to the backyard treehouse and hauled it up after us in splendid isolation, protected from the neighborhood bully. If you decide to put up a treehouse, a wooden stairway with railings, twisting its way up the tree is obviously a lot safer than a ladder—and you will find such a design in Stiles' book. A sturdy padlocked gate might be a good idea, or even a chain-link fence, to seal off a treehouse when grown-ups aren't around to watch the kids.

Whatever you may decide to put up, playhouse, clubhouse or treehouse, you virtually guarantee that the kids in the neighborhood will be over to play when your grandchildren come for a visit; they won't lack for little friends.

One way to build anticipation in your grandchildren when a visit from them is scheduled, is for you to make what amounts to a movie trailer of the attractions waiting for them when they arrive. Go around with your camcorder to some of the places you expect to be taking them and shoot some very short, intriguing highlights to whet their appetites for the fun in store. If you don't have a computer, you can easily make a title to shoot with easy-to-use Press-Type, available at art stores or large stationary stores. Or ask a neighbor who does have a computer to make up a spectacular title for you, and shoot that.

When little grandkids are coming to visit, be sure to resurrect the child safety measures you applied when your offspring were toddlers. Install childproof snap-in covers on any electrical outlets not in use; move medications and household cleaning substances out of reach; attach childproof locks to lower cabinet doors; install a gate at the head of the stairwell; move houseplants and breakables out of reach; secure dangerous windows; review the instructional manual that came with the CPR course that (hopefully) you took; check your phone book for the location of its page of emergency numbers, including that of the poison control center.

Set aside a trunk or big box for old clothes, hats, shoes, gloves and other items that you intend to give away, but which little kids can use to play dress-up when they come to visit. Young children think it's cool to put on grown-ups' gear. And when the container gets too full, you can have the grandkids come along when you take the excess to The Salvation Army store.

Build a plywood toy box with a hinged top and paint it bright cheerful colors. Then stock it with toys, games, books and some simple sports equipment, like a badminton set or a softball and bat for your grandchildren to have fun with and look forward to when they are coming for a visit. If you have a nice wide, dead-level yard, a great sports equipment choice is a croquet set. It makes a big hit with grandkids, and you have a fair chance of beating them at it if you practice beforehand. For additional ideas, ask Genesis Direct (1-800-284-5383) to send you its Training Camp catalog of sports equipment for kids.

Few grandparents have problems with obstreperous grandchildren left in their charge. The principal is, if they love you they will behave themselves to please you, and mostly that works out. But if you're going to have your grandchildren in your charge for any length of time, it's a good idea to establish with their parents the parameters of good behavior well ahead of time. You may find they have quite different ideas on discipline from yours.  Spanking, even a swift smack, is a no-no these days. Child psychologists stress that children seek limits; they're going to test you to see how far you will go, how much they can get away with. Better be ready and have a strategy lined out. If yours are wild little bandits when they come to visit, best advice is to head 'em off at the pass:

The very first time they begin to get out of hand, sit them down and explain that in your house you expect them to behave in a manner conforming to your view of society's tenets of civilized behavior. "You don't act like this when you're at home, and you're not going to act this way in my house." Before imposing discipline, stop and decide, is this infraction all that important? Most childhood explosions are self-limiting.

Of course, you have to set a good example. Don't neglect to control your temper, or you won't be able to reprimand from strength when a little kid loses his. Try balancing firmness with loving praise. But let your grandchildren know you mean what you say by not overdoing the praise and by not turning on the firmness unless a child's actions warrant it. Try to hold off on punishment in favor of that old reliable strategy, distraction.

When you've got unruly kids to deal with, games are the great distraction. Cards, checkers and chess are fine, but board games have the edge when it comes to holding children's interest through a long rainy afternoon, or any other time you want to entice them away from television. Here are some of the best:




Trivial Pursuit






Chutes & Ladders


Good manners sometimes seem to get left by the wayside today, with both parents working in most American families and much of life catch as catch can. If you discover, when your grandchildren come to visit, that they seem ill at ease at the dinner table, take that as your cue to bring up the matter of good table manners. Explain that when they grow up they are going to have to know them and use them not only when they are invited out to dinner at someone's house, but as guests at business, civic and social functions. Then serve notice that once you and Grandma teach them the ropes, your grandchildren will be expected to practice their table manners during every sit-down meal with you.

The same should go for good manners in general. You can ask them to practice proper deportment in your house whenever guests come to call, standing back, then coming forward to shake hands and say "How do you do" as they are introduced. Persuade your grandchildren that they should also introduce their friends, and if they need it, gently remind them that "please" and "thank you" are expected in polite society.

Good manners make such an important difference, both in casual circumstances and on more formal occasions, your grandchildren will be grateful to you and Grandma someday for having made them tow the line.

When pre-teen grandkids come to visit, introduce them to other kids their age. Friends' children and neighbors' children can become lifelong friends with your grandchildren. Invite an older grandchild to bring a good friend with them, once in a while, when they come to see you.

It's almost inevitable that your grandchildren are going to run out of things to do when they come for a visit. At times like these, rental videos fill the gap. It's also great fun to schedule a "screening"—with fresh-popped popcorn—mixing rental videos with a few you may have shot yourself. But don't be upset if the kids become restless and wander away. American children are so saturated with moving images that many are secretly bored with "virtual reality" and keenly desire the real thing. Proof is in how joyfully they greet any promise of a true-life experience.

That said, here is a list of video movies, all of which are highly appealing to children. Film critics rate most of them as movie classics. You may be able to find the vintage ones in older video establishments in your area; those guys never throw out a cassette. Some of these titles are bound to be familiar to your grandkids, so it might be a good idea to run down the list with them before renting just to make sure you have an audience. But don't neglect a marvelous film like Great Expectations merely because they may never have heard of it.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Ann of Green Gables--1985 version

Baker's Hawk—western for children

Benji—a dog story

Blackberries in the Dark—a boy copes with loss of his grandfather

The Black Stallion

A Christmas Carol--1951 version

Columbia Pictures Cartoon Classics—tops!

David Copperfield--1935 version

A Dog of Flanders

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

The Golden Age of Looney Toons

Great Expectations—the 1946, or the much longer 1989 version

Heidi--1965 version

He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown—animation

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey—two dogs, one cat

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown—animation

Jacob I Have Loved—a tomboy learns a thing or two

Jungle Book—rent the 1942 version starring Sabu; colorized

Lassie Come Home—a dog and a boy

The Little Rascals—collections available on single videos

Mary Poppins—with Julie Andrews

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol—animated

My Side of the Mountain—boy and raccoon

Old Yeller—dog story

Our Vines Have Tender Grape—two kids, fine and funny

The Pied Piper of Hamlin

Pinochio—the wonderful 1940 Disney classic

The Prince and the Pauper—1978 version

Prince Brat and the Whipping Boy

The Railway Children—adventure comedy

The Red Ballon—a radiant Paris, no dialogue

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi—animated Kipling

Ring of Bright Water—amusing pet otter

The Secret of Nimh—animated mouse

The Secret of Ronin Innish—kids on an island

Shiloh—boy rescues mistreated dog

Shipwrecked—a boy's adventures at sea

Sleeping Beauty—1959 animated version

The Sound of Music

To Kill a Mocking Bird—three great kids

Treasure Island—1990 version is superb

Very Best of Bugs Bunny—Volume 1 is best

Walking on Air—boy and NASA

What's Up, Doc? — excellent Bugs Bunny

Whistle Down the Wind—trials of childhood

White Fang

Wilbur and Orville: The First to Fly

The Wind in the Willows—1949 and 1983 versions, both terrific

The Wizard of Oz

The Yearling—boy and pet fawn

Yellow Submarine—animated Beatles

You're in Love, Charlie Brown—animated kids

Next time a grandchild is in the hospital gather up his or her friends and playmates for a my-gang visit—especially important if the patient can't be home for a birthday. You supply transportation to the hospital as well as the firm voice of discipline when the kids get there. You might like to take some of your grandchild's buddies to a toy store the day before to find some little presents for the patient to play with in bed.

Bring kids and grandkids in for a family reunion on a major holiday. Even though it may be difficult for distant members to make the scene, there are few more meaningful ways of drawing an extended family together.

You want to visit your children and see your grandchildren who live in a distant town, but their house has no guest room. You don't want to spring for a hotel or motel, the charges mount up too fast and you're on a tight budget.  You and your wife are going to have to find somewhere to stash yourselves, cheap. Cheap but nice. Consider house-swapping, even for as short a time as a week. You can phone in a classified ad to the all-advertising publication that covers your children's area and see what turns up—but you'd better get at it at least a month ahead of time. With a swap like this, you can ask your offspring to act as your agent and drive around and check out the houses and the people who say they are interested.  Your kids can show them pictures of your place and answer questions. If car-swapping is part of the arrangement, better make sure that both party's auto insurance is paid up.

From Handbook for Grandfathers, by Conrad Veazey Brown. Copyright © 2000 by Conrad Brown. Excerpted by arrangement with Conrad Brown and $12.95. Available in local bookstores or click here.