Whether time or miles distance you from your extended family, all of us struggle occasionally to form deep relationships with our loved ones. Sometimes we just don’t know how to connect. It’s one thing to stay connected to your adult children, but it’s an entirely different ball game to bridge the gap between grandparents and grandchildren. That gap is often filled with barriers like technology and social life that can make it feel almost insurmountable to connect with the youth of today. “Kids these days!” we might say.
But Susan Alexander Yates has made a way.
Taking the Long View of Parenting
As the mother of five and grandmother of 21, Yates has had years of practice at becoming a parent and grandparent. She and her husband have been married for over 50 years, and together, they’ve navigated through the early phases of family survival mode all the way to planning an annual cousin camp for their brood of grandchildren. But she remembers well what it was like to be the mom of littles.
“In those early years, you are just trying to get through the day to day,” Yates shared. “During any season of life, if we’re really honest, we often think ‘we’ve ruined our child!’ When you’re in the middle [of a season of parenting] you don’t have perspective,” Yates shared. “It’s important to have some mentors who are at least one season ahead of you” to help see beyond this particular moment in time.”
Yates plastered this statement to the wall behind her desk to help her through challenging seasons:
“At every season we feel like failures. But God’s not done,” Yates said.
With this framework in mind, Yates and her husband have been able to take the long view of parenting and grandparenting. With their faith in God as the foundation, prayer builds and buttresses their relationships with their children and grandchildren.
Prayer as a Way to Build Relationships
Yates’ number one prayer for her children and grandchildren was that they would love the Lord their God, and number two – that they would fall in love with the Word of God.
“We were praying for our kids and praying for wisdom all along as we raised our children,” said Yates. “James 1:5 says that when we ask for wisdom, God will give it to us—generous wisdom. We treat God like he’s frugal. We need to boldly pray for generous wisdom. We’re also encouraged to approach the throne of grace with confidence,” Yates said, quoting Hebrews 4:16, “so that we might find mercy and grace in our time of need.”
Many of us know we ought to pray for our loved ones, but frequently these prayers dissolve into generalities. We don’t know what to pray for, specifically, and so we get discouraged.
Yates and her husband developed an annual routine early on in their children’s lives to identify specific prayer requests for each of their five children. At the start of the school year, they spent time together identifying a need for each of their children in five categories: physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, and social. From this list, the two would develop a prayer list for each child.
“That has put me and my husband on the same page,” Yates said. “We share our hearts and observations together.” When her children were small, this common vision helped the two parents with differing perspectives understand and get to know their children (and themselves) better.
Just as parenting must evolve, their approach to this practice evolved as their children grew. “As teenagers, we shared with them the concept of praying and identifying five areas of growth. We asked them, ‘What are your needs and goals for this school year?’ When they went to college we had them send their needs and goals home to us. Now they are doing it with their kids. And now, as grandparents, we ask our adult children to send us things to pray for their children.”
Their adult children will ask for things like, “Pray for our child who struggles with anger to learn self-control” or “Pray for one Christian friend in his class.”
These specific requests from their parents allow grandparents to get closer and more connected to their grandkids.
“As the kids get to their junior and senior high school years, you can begin to go straight to your grandchildren,” said Yates. “Now, with my college-aged grandchildren, I’m going directly to them to ask for specific things to pray for as they go back to school.”
Prayer requests become a foundation for hearing the heart of your children and grandchildren, knowing where they are vulnerable and discovering their hopes and dreams, and being able to act on them through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a powerful binding agent of love between family members, and (bonus!) it gives you something deeper to talk about beyond the surface-level concerns of their lives.
“One of the tremendous blessings of being a grandparent is the ability to ask very specific questions because you are one generation removed. They have more freedom to answer and won’t roll their eyes like they would at their parents,” Yates shared. And how wonderful is it to have someone care that much to ask about what’s really going on in your life?
Connecting Grandchild to Grandchild
In addition to developing relationships with their grandchildren, Yates and her husband also wanted their grandchildren to know and love one another. Only one of their five children live nearby, and the rest live out of state. “It’s hard to love someone you don’t know. That’s why we began Cousin Camp, to facilitate cousin bonding.”
In order for the camp to be a success, you need a detailed plan, but “be ready to throw out any part at any moment,” Yates said, laughing. “You’ll have expectations that at any point you’ll realize are not important.”
Yates also expected camp to provide plenty of opportunities for them to have great conversations with their grandchildren, but this turned out to be unrealistic. “The grandkids were much more interested in being with each other than with us,” said Yates. Abandoning unrealistic expectations became an art in and of itself.
“For the first camp I really cleaned my house – I thoroughly cleaned it. I had flowers everywhere. I thought to myself, the kids are going to be so thrilled,” Yates said. And then the kids showed up. “Within ten minutes the house was trashed.”
“I had to make a decision, do I want a clean house or do I want happy kids?” confessed Yates. “You need to be able to let go of that expectation of control and ask, does this really matter? What matters is character. That’s what matters.”
In the end, Yates urges grandparents to “Pray for laughter and don’t be afraid to fail.”
Susan Yates is the author of 16 books that cover a wide range of topics, including marriage, parenting, faith issues, and women’s issues. Her book, Cousin Camp, provides dozens of ideas for how to plan a cousin camp as well as ideas for family reunions, adult reunions and more. For those of us with littles who are dying in a pile during this global pandemic, Yates offers a free download on her site, “Camp at Home: 100 Practical Ideas for Families,” a perfect guide for parents of toddlers through teens as well as their grandparents.