GrannyI flew back home to Vienna recently, after a week in the UK, sans famille. It was a lovely flying experience: I had a good wander round the airport shops without being nagged to buy this and that, I sat back in my seat and dozed a bit, I ate my meal at the same time as everyone else, without spills or whines (just wine!). Travelling without kids- what a luxury!

But when I looked across the aisle I saw a mum who had it even better than me. She was travelling with her son, yes, but also with her mother. Granny sat in the middle seat, mum in the aisle, and the 6-ish year old in the window seat. The whole way through the flight Granny looked after the son- she played with him, read to him, took him to the loo and helped him with his food. Mum did exactly the same as me: flew as if she was alone. Jealous much?!

Grandparents are often labelled as the bane of a mother’s life- turning up when we least want them (or maybe never turning up?), giving unwanted advice, offering sugar and sweets at totally inappropriate times, possibly undermining our parenting beliefs… they often see spoiling the grand-kids as their specific role. But they don’t have to be- there are so many wonderful things that they can bring to your family life, if you just know how to ‘exploit’ them.

So how can we get the best out of our parents and parents- in- law?

Language practice. I read an article recently about how important speaking to your children is in building their vocabulary. Actually, there is a precise figure of 30% of the time, or 50.4 hours per week of exposure for a language to be properly taken up (see my blog post: Exposure: how much is enough?) It seems obvious, but especially with the minority language, it can be quite hard to reach this goal alone, when life and work get in the way. Having any additional carer helps with language input, but grandparents are especially useful as they have an inherent interest in encouraging their grandchildren to speak, and will listen and speak to them long after other sitters have switched off. If they are the minority language grandparent, then they will be able to bring in an additional source of language exposure, and increase the need in the grandchildren to learn it- something essential to encourage young ones (see How to encourage language learning).

Grandparents are rich in culture. And culture is an essential part of learning a language. Whether it’s books, history, nursery rhymes, or something completely different, your parents and your partner’s parents can add more to your knowledge, and pass on interesting titbits to your children. It’s using 6 brains and memories instead of only 2, to pass on and teach family history and everything else. Culturally there might be differences too- as with the celebrations that take place at Christmas (as I posted before, in When Christmas isn’t just the 25thor other times of the year, that differ greatly depending upon your origins… these things that you may not think about to tell your children about, and have you sighing “Oh yes, I remember…” as they tell anecdotes and stories.

Different vocabulary. My parents are certainly quite different from me, not only in where we live, but also in the decades we grew up in, and therefore what interests us. So what was available to them when they were younger, and therefore what motivates or interests them can be very different. My mother is a keen gardener, and can take the kids out into the flowerbeds and teach them many things that I wouldn’t even be able to start on. She uses words that I hardly know or use myself, and has a rich vocabulary that I’m very glad my children have access to. And as my in-laws are from a different country, although still English speakers they use different words for things, and can enrich my children’s knowledge and interests hugely.

Parenting tips. Love it or hate it, your parents (along with everyone else in the world) will have gems of information to pass on to you, from how to hold your baby, to what clothes they need to wear, to how to discipline them. Much you will have to take through gritted teeth, but sometimes something good will come out, and make the rest of it all worthwhile. And who else can you sigh and roll your eyes at when they try to help??!!

Free childcare. Let’s face it, this should be at the top of the list! Childcare is becoming more and more expensive, and so the opportunity to ‘use’ your parents to look after your children is one you just can’t miss. For those of us lucky enough to live with grandparents in easy reach, this is a Godsend. Everyone else is supremely jealous, whether they tell you or not, that you can hand over your children for anything from 2 hours to a week and never look back, safe in the knowledge that your mother or mother in law is happy to spend time with the little ones.

Obviously, with our border- crossing and multi- lingual families things can get harder for grandparents: they don’t always live close enough to have regular contact with their grandchildren, and they might not speak the languages that their grand children are brought up with. However, grandparents can have a great bond with their grandchildren even if they have no common language. Babies and small children don’t need language to communicate- the contact and playtime that they receive from a grandparent is sufficient. With older children it becomes much more important; both generations will want to express themselves, and sometimes it is  easier for children to talk to their grandparents than their parents about certain issues.

Whatever cultural or linguistic differences there are between the generations, there are many ways to create a special bond, and although language is one of the easiest ways, it is not the only way. I wish I had had more time with my grandparents (I only knew two of the four of them) to learn from them and just BE with them. Make sure your kids don’t have this regret.