The World-Shaping Power of a Grandparent

The sun was setting on a fall evening, and my soccer game was about to start. As a ten-year-old boy, these soccer games were the highlight of my week. I loved to play. As with any youth soccer game, the field was lined with fans, mainly consisting of the families of the children. I scanned the crowd to make sure he was there: it just wasn’t the same if he didn’t come to the game. As the game started, I hadn’t seen him yet. But, it was time to play! The game began, and, after a few minutes, I scored my first goal of the game. And that’s when I heard it. His whistle soared over the noise of my teammates, over the noise of the crowd, all the way across the field. I’ve never heard anyone who could whistle louder than him, and every time I scored a goal, I knew I would hear that affirmative sound. He made it to the game!

Today marks sixteen years since my Granddad Bilisoly died. I’ve been wanting to write something to honor him: his presence in my life fundamentally shaped my future, my character, and my worldview. Next to my parents, there is no one on this earth I felt closer to as a child. As an adult, his voice is still in my head, his encouragement remains in my heart, and his life sets an example for me to follow. His influence in my life truly world-shaping.

I decided to write a tribute of a different sort here. Although I could write much about the charming, generous, encouraging, loving, humble and generally fascinating man he was, I decided to reflect on the example he set. What did he do as a grandparent that made such a big impact on me, my siblings, and my cousins? Knowing him, he would be much more comfortable with me writing something that would help others in their relationships with their own grandchildren than something focused on all of his wonderful qualities. He loved to see others succeed, to encourage them in their strengths, and to share the wisdom he had learned over his long life, and that is exactly what I hope to do in the remainder of this post: share with you the wisdom I learned from observing him.

I want to encourage all of you who are grandparents to understand just how much power you have to influence your grandchildren. Yet, this power is exercised in ways that can seem insignificant, perhaps even meaningless, in the moment. Your influence as a grandparent is often subtle, but like a small rudder steers the ship, so this subtle force can direct the lives of those who come after you.

I’m going to look at seven things he did that made an impact on me. And the good news is, these are things we can all do.

1. Everyday conversations matter

It’s not the grand gestures, holiday parties, or vacations together to make the biggest impact. It’s the everyday conversations about current events, relationships, God, and whatever else happens to come up that impacts a young child for life. My Granddad gave me an open door to talk about anything.

I had the great advantage of having him live with my family for the last twelve years of his life, but even if you do not see your grandchildren that much, you can still make yourself available when you do see them or talk to them. Do not be intimidated by vulnerability. Open up your heart and life to them so they will talk to you. Call just to chat with them, take walks together, sit around and do nothing, and ask them questions.

My Granddad was skilled at conversation. He knew how to draw a person out, which was important for me as a shy boy. He made me feel safe and comfortable enough to open up. I think grandparents can have a special ability to do this with their grandchildren and should try to make a deep connection with them. Simple, everyday conversations can change the little world of a young person.

2. Lunch trips change lives

Another practical, yet meaningful, activity we did together was go out to lunch almost every week. These hour long lunch trips changed my life, and that’s not an overstatement. The time we spent together in the car listening to funny songs and talking was precious. I’ll never forget when he pulled out an old cassette tape and told me he wanted me to learn the song “I Am My Own Grandpa” by Ray Stevens! We were riding in his 1994 Buick, laughing, and singing, and I am still trying to figure out how that idea worked out.

These lunches were never anything “special.” We would just go to a MacDonald’s. I would order chicken nuggets and fries with honey. He would order a fish filet with a side salad. And then we would get something for dessert, either apple pie a-la-mode or a hot-fudge sundae. I loved eating the junk food, but, even more than that, I loved being with him. These lunches built our relationship, and that relationship changed my life.

3. Be interested

Whatever you do, don’t make this relationship about you! Instead, be interested in what your grandchildren are interested in, and then give your time and attention to those things. This doesn’t mean you approve of everything they do, turn a blind eye to sin, or spoil them. What this does mean is that you take notice of their interests and strengths.

Granddad was amazing at doing this. I can remember some specific moments in my life when this mattered to me. My opening story about soccer is one. I know soccer was not a particular interest for him, but he came to almost every game I played because he knew that I loved it. When I was twelve years old, he bought my first study Bible, as I was interested in reading the Bible and maybe one day becoming a pastor. At age fourteen, I began playing guitar, and he would always listen to the new things I learned. He bought my first electric guitar, and he always encouraged me as I learned.

These are just a few examples, but each of them represents moments of significance for me as I was maturing into an adult. Most importantly, just knowing he supported me and was behind me gave me courage and pushed me on to success. Do not underestimate how much the simple act of being interested in your grandchildren can impact their lives. Find ways to support them, to invest in their development, and to give them courage to succeed.

4. Give perspective

Granddad and I would often watch the evening news together, and his commentary would lengthen my perspective on life. After living through the 1918 flu, two world wars, the Great Depression, the social upheaval of the late 1960’s, and the many other changes that took place during the his many years, he was not usually rattled by the current moment. As a boy and a teenager, I needed to hear that some things had changed, that some things never change, that life is long, and that I should not get too caught up in those brief years of my childhood.

Another way he would give me perspective was to remind me to not take myself too seriously. I have failed at this so many times, but I hear his voice still telling me that I need to relax, be humble, and be the first to laugh at myself. That’s what he always told me to do. He was a very short man, only 5’3″ at his tallest. Because of his small stature, he was often picked on as young man. Instead of letting this embitter him, however, he learned to take in stride, laugh at himself, and show his strength through ignoring the insults. His big personality more than made up for his small stature. If you are willing to overlook insults and laugh at yourself, it’s amazing how quickly you can bring calm to what could be a tense situation.

Your grandchildren need this kind of perspective from you. One source of foolishness is not having a proper understanding of how we fit into the bigger picture of history. When we think our generation is unique, our struggles are unique, or our our experiences totally new to humanity, we easily ignore the advice of our elders. But, when we realize that there is nothing new under the sun, that we are part of long chain of human brokenness, and that we are just experiencing the same hardships, pain, and joys as humanity has always experienced, we can start to be wise in how we understand the world around us. This is a part of fearing God. It is not wise to believe in the good old days (Eccl. 7:10), but wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord.

5. Be generous with your time and money

This point might already be obvious by now, but Granddad was generous with his time and his money. This doesn’t mean he always indulged me! I remember many times as a boy that he would kick me out of his room so he could have time alone, pay bills, make phone calls, or do other things. But, I never had the sense he did not want to spend time with me because he gave me so much of his time and resources.

Your grandchildren should feel like you want to be with them as much as possible. I know circumstances vary widely from family to family, but make the most of the situation you have! There are a many ways to show this generosity of spirit to your grandchildren. One is to spend the money necessary to invest in their dreams, interests, and gifts. This does not mean you must spend a lot: small purchases can go a long way. Remember the Bible I mentioned earlier? What a gift that was! Second, be the initiator of the relationship with them. Do not wait for the parents or the grandchildren to take the first step. Instead of waiting on them, be the one to call your grandchildren, be the one to set up lunch dates with them, be the one who plans a trip to the park for a couple of hours. Take the time to learn what they like to do, and then find out when you can do that with them. This kind of generosity with your time and money will leave a legacy for generations.

6. Tell stories of your successes and failures (and make them funny)

Granddad was a master story-teller. He loved to tell us stories from his life, and he told some of them over and over. Somehow, though, they never got old. I enjoyed hearing him talk about his life. Hearing some of those stories multiple times helped them stick in my memory. Many of his stories communicated some way in which he either succeeded or failed, and he would make them funny, especially the ones of his failures. Looking back, it was through these humorous stories of failure that he taught many lessons.

For example, Granddad was a good boxer. He ended up being the co-captain of the boxing team at North Carolina State University, going undefeated his senior year in 1934. Yet, he often reminded me of his very first boxing match. He was a scrappy boy who got into many playground fights. (Remember, these were the days when kids could fight on the playground and then just return to class and resume their day.) As he grew, his penchant for being quick and good fighter was noticed. The boxing coach invited him to the team. The coach told him he should come to practice and that the first match would be at the end of the week. Well, Granddad told me he thought he was already a good boxer and didn’t need to practice. So, he told the coach that, and the coach said, “Okay, I’ll see you at the match.” Granddad showed up to the match that week. He started to fight, and, oh, how quickly he realized he should have practiced. He said after the first round, he couldn’t even lift his gloves! He was beaten soundly by his opponent. I can remember him looking at me at the end of this story and saying, “So, you know what I did the next Monday? I showed up to practice!”

Granddad boxing in 1934 (Right)

He realized the coach went along with his arrogance to teach him a lesson. Instead of being discouraged by his resounding defeat, he decided it was time to be humble, learn from the coach, and apply himself. You see, I can still remember this story, and this is a lesson about life I never want to forget. Natural talent is never enough: it takes discipline to succeed.

Your grandchildren need to hear about what you have learned from your successes and failures in life so they can avoid some of the mistakes you have made, repeat some of the successes you have experienced, and realize that who you are today is the result of many years of growing in wisdom.

7. Encourage, encourage, encourage

This cannot be said enough! Encourage your grandchildren. Encouragement is not meaningless flattery. I think we can hear encourage and imagine just being someone who says nice things or what we think people want to hear from us. To encourage, however, means “to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope.” Your grandchildren need this kind of inspiration from you.

Granddad telling a story at my wedding rehearsal dinner in 2004. As usual, everyone was laughing.

Growing up can be confusing and scary. Growing up now in the age of social media only intensifies the confusion. Now, as much as ever, you need to realize that your grandchildren need the courage, spirit, and hope that can only be imparted by a grandparent. Parents are busy disciplining, educating, training, working and caring for their children. And though many of us do our best to encourage them, I know from personal experience the spark of life that comes specifically from a grandparent’s encouragement. To hear someone who has lived a long life point out your strengths, give you hope that a hard situation will pass, or tell you that you will succeed in the path you are choosing can be life-transforming.

I was a shy, timid, and insecure boy. I’m sure Granddad picked up on this in me, and he would take every opportunity to encourage me when I was doing something well or when he thought I could succeed at something. He did this by simply acknowledging my success, by telling me what and how I did something well, or by telling me he thought I could do something well. He would also say these things in front of other people. At key moments in my life, he offered words that gave me courage, spirit, and hope to pursue success. Do not underestimate the power of these encouraging words. You should assume your grandchildren need to hear these kinds of words from you. Your opinion means the world to them. It not only means the world to them, but your words will shape their world.

Let your “whistle” be heard

To honor my Granddad, I want to end by encouraging you to let your “whistle” be heard in the lives of your grandchildren. That whistle I described as soaring over the noise of my teammates and the crowd has become symbolic to me. That whistle, which I can still hear so vividly, represents everything my Granddad meant to me. He was there for me, he supported me, and, most importantly, his voice in my life rose above the noise of my friends and the confusion of life. He offered me friendship that came from another time and place, he offered me the wisdom of a life well-lived, and he encouraged me to be the kind of man that would also live a wise life. Whatever your grandchildren remember you for, let your presence be like that whistle: a life-giving sound rising above the noise of life. Use your power as a grandparent to shape the world of your grandchildren.

This is the last picture of the two of us at my wedding rehearsal dinner during the summer of 2004

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