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The 6 Hats We Wear as Grandparents


The Hats We Wear and the Roles We Play

While playing with my two-year-old grandson the other day, I was struck in the moment by the ease with which he changed his hats. In his case, the literal changing of hats—from straw hat to football helmet to fireman’s helmet—changed his behavior and play. It was his way of indicating to me how he now wanted to be perceived and what actions he wanted to do.

As a metaphor in life, “changing hats” means the same thing: adjusting behavior to suit the circumstances at hand and, at least in the case of firemen, to signal to those around them their rank and training.

My next thought was then, when a child is born, all our metaphorical hats change from “adult” to our respective familial titles (i.e., “mom,” “dad,” “grandparent,” “aunt,” “uncle”) with little or no training to prepare us for the way we may have to respond to a problem or challenge a child may bring to us.

My Story: From Analytical Hat to Mom Hat

When my youngest daughter was about three years old, for example, there was a six-month period when she went through a series of recurring earaches. Back and forth to the doctor we went, antibiotics were taken, and environmental circumstances were analyzed in depth before finally I surmised that maybe this earache issue was more than a chronic infection. What was I missing? What was I not asking?

I took off my “analytical-yet-perplexed parent” hat and put on my “mom hat.” (Truth: It was my “I’m feeling totally defeated, what more can I do?” hat.) I asked her to tell me if she knew why her ears kept hurting. Her first words were, “I don’t know.”

I said, “Okay. Then just make up a story about a little girl you know whose ears hurt all the time.” Without hesitation, she poured out this story.

“This little girl’s mommy is on the phone all the time and when she wants to talk to her mommy she can’t because her mommy is too busy on the phone and that is why her ears hurt.”

OUCH! She turned the mirror on me and made me stop to think about the possibility that maybe she was having some deeper feelings about my time on the phone than I knew. (This was pre-internet. So it was just me on the landline.)

I asked her, “Can we help the little girl and her mommy make an agreement?”
“Okay,” she said. “When the little girl wants to talk with her mommy while she is on the phone, the mommy will not tell her to wait.”

And so it was that the child defined her problem, and together they found a way to resolve it. Her earaches stopped soon after. Whether it had anything to do with me changing my interactions with her while on the phone, we’ll never know. But through that exercise, she felt heard in a way she hadn’t before.

The number of hats any parent wears throughout their parenting journey is unknowable. Every change of the hat (change in approach or relationship style), opens the door to new discoveries about their own capabilities and those of their children. 

The Six Hats You Can Choose from Today

Now, leap ahead 30 years and find yourself as a grandmother or grandfather. Where once you had ultimate authority in the lives of your children, you are now suddenly thrust into a world where that very well may not be true. Your hat must change again in your relationship with your grandchildren.

As they grow older and need different things from you, an understanding of some of the different types of hats, invisible to the eye but known in the heart and mind, can help.

01 – Be a Coach

A coach is more of an expert on people in general and helps people move forward, but there is not necessarily a higher or lower relationship between a child and coach; it’s more inter-developmental. In coaching, the person receiving the coaching doesn’t need the coach, and vice versa, which is why it’s called an inter-developmental relationship. They create the basis for a relationship on mutual terms, especially in sports for young children.

02 – Be a Consultant

Whereas a coach asks for change and growth, a consultant shares information and expertise of successes and failures but does not necessarily request a change of action on the part of the recipient.

03 – Be a Mentor

A mentor is an expert in a particular field or within a particular setting who knows what needs to be done inside and out for the mentee to progress. A mentor can guide someone under them to move up and forward within the setting they are in. Both mentor and mentee need each other for ultimate success.

04 – Be a Mountain Guide

A mountain guide is a specially trained and experienced professional in hard to travel terrains, who is typically certified. They are considered to be high-level experts in areas where most people do not travel alone without guidance or what we would call experience gained from having climbed many different types of terrain. They are hired to instruct or lead individuals or small groups who require this kind of advanced, personal expertise.

On a relationship level, a mountain guide is looked up to for his/her experience and trusted for their judgment. A mountain guide empowers each person on his/her own individual basis.

05 – Be an Elder

In the American Indian tradition, according to Wikipedia, elders “are repositories of cultural and philosophical knowledge and are the transmitters of such information.” Take the opportunity to hold, reflect on, then offer the vast knowledge of your experience to your grandkids.

06 – Be a Regular Caregiver

A caregiver is a (usually unpaid) member of a person’s family or social network who helps with the activities of daily living. Grandparents may often consider the kind of caregiving they might need in the future. But Grandparents can be part-time caregivers in the lives of their grandkids!

Is there another role you can see yourself playing in the lives of your grandchildren? Your culture and values may have many more possibilities. What type of leadership or instruction do you have or would you like to give within the context of your family?

It is important to know that the first rules and guidelines young children learn for living and making decisions are what they rely on for the rest of their lives. They need you around to teach them!

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Elane V. Scott

Elane is the co-founder of Raising Families. Her unique expertise in fields from marketing and media to community development and parent coaching is how she guides parents and grandparents to become more joyful and intentional family leaders.

In her free time Elane enjoys reading metaphysical texts, talking to strangers on airplanes, and lovingly convincing her grandchildren they're meant for Olympic stardom. Read full bio >>