Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships


During the past 17 days we traveled to North Carolina and Mississippi to be with two families with five and three grandchildren respectively. As a part of one of the trips, My wife and I rented a car and drove from North Carolina to Washington DC to give a tour of the Nation’s Capital to twin ten-year-old grandchildren.

Developing and maintaining relationships with grandchildren takes time and work. We are lucky to have 12 grandchildren in three families living around us within 8 miles of where we live. Developing relationships is much easier than trying to bridge the distances between us than the 11 who live elsewhere.

If you have done the addition, we’ve gone from one grandchild to 23 in 15 short years. Some people are amazed when they hear 23. Fifty years ago, this would have been ordinary.

Now, in an era of smaller families, 23 seems gargantuan. With one yet unmarried son, with two or three of the families still in their childbearing years and with a possibility of adoption with one of the families, this total could rise to over 30.

I am happy. I am pleased. There is truly joy in posterity. One professional near my age lamented that he had no grandchildren. His children haven’t chosen to have children.

What have I learned about being a grandfather so far?

- Being there. I’ve supported my wife in being there for the births of the grandchildren. Our daughters want the special mothering they get during that time. They want to share the excitement of the new addition with their mother. When a newborn comes, both generations unite in supporting the child.

I seek out the grandchildren to spend time with them. That means finding a way of getting together. Lately we have had the pleasure of hosting a family reunion here in St. Louis and have held two other reunions, one along the Oregon coast and another in Yosemite. These events take planning and organization.

As they can afford it, our children come to visit with grandchildren in tow. The anticipation and excitement of watching their headlights approach is only exceeded by the sadness of the sight of their taillights receding as they leave.

As we can afford it, we go to them. Our children want to expose their children to some of the things they remember when they were growing up. The best way to love and help our adult children is to love our grandchildren.

One wise woman, commenting to a mother of a large family, said, “Your hands are full now, your heart will be full later.” That is true for us.

- It starts very young. I love holding the newborns. They are so tiny and precious. They are a miracle from God. Robert Frost said, “A baby is God’s opinion that life must go on.”

- One-to-one. The relationship with each grandchild is individual. It depends on a conscious decision to personalize the time and make myself memorable in each grandchild’s life.

I have a special name. “Granddad.” That is to distinguish me from the other grandparents in their lives. I say it in a special and scary way to get their attention. It is a good name that I have to live up to.

Living at a distance, I take on the challenge of overcoming their natural fear of strangers. I may be strange but I won’t be a stranger for long. “Whether you want to or not, I am going to have a special relationship with you.”

I am in their face. I do my thing. I am dramatic. I overcome their wariness, whether it is one visit, two visits or whatever it takes. After that it is gravy.

Fun time. I play with them. I read to them. I tell improvised stories. I play special rowdy gymnastic games, games my children remember me playing with them. I am a tease.

I take them out for ice cream. To the movies. I take them to the park. I push them on swings. I watch and “ooh and aah” over their little accomplishments. I play catch. I help them build sand castles on the beach. I build bonfires.

I try to be fun for them. I work them up. Others get stuck with settling them down.

- Not so fun times. I feed them. And when I absolutely have to, I clean them up. I comfort them. I try to soothe them. I kiss their “owies.” I try not to clash with them. Distracting them works better. This kind of caregiving and nurturing helps build relationships also.

- Sharing our heritage. When we can, we attend church together. We share our heritage by example. The teaching moments come as they mature. There are times for sharing wisdom, encouragement, a listening ear, educational experiences and adventures.

- Photography is important. Someday, when they are old enough to appreciate it, the grandchildren will have a visual record of their memories. Casual photography captures those special moments of mutual delight. Hopefully, someday their emotional memories will be stirred by gifts, pictures, and tokens of the bond that existed between us.

Mainly I want the grandchildren to know, “Granddad loves me. I’m special to Granddad.”

Rewards. I love being a grandfather. It is a slice of the fun part of parenting - without the hard work, the struggle or responsibility of raising children.

It brings me joy and happiness. It brings me meaning and purpose. I hope that my children and grandchildren think so too. My heart is full already...and it can only get better.