5 Subtle Lessons I Learned From My Grandparents That Have Made Me a Better Parent

Black grandparents are often the caregivers and nurturers in their families and communities. These are the invaluable life lessons I learned by watching my maternal grandparents.

African American grandfather teaching granddaughter to play guitar
Photo: Getty Images

For most of my childhood Sunday afternoons, I stood cramped between chairs in my grandparents' small kitchen because all the seats were taken up by "grown folk." Above all the noise and laughter during those afternoons, I watched, listened, and learned from my grandparents. Their example taught me that there was value in living a long life, especially if you were Black. And their example taught various lessons—each one was supported by the love they showered on us.

Throughout the diaspora, Black grandparents have traditionally held several roles in their families and communities, including caregiver and nurturer. The elders of the community were expected to guide the next generation by passing down valuable lessons about navigating adulthood, relationships, and challenges they may encounter in life.

Many of the lessons I learned from my maternal grandparents were taught to me indirectly, but they impacted many aspects of my life. Here are five lessons I learned from my grandparents that have shaped my life.

Know When Bravery Is Necessary

My grandparents taught me that leaning into the unknown takes courage, and without courage, you won't seek something better. It took bravery for my grandparents to leave everything they knew behind in the South—including their own parents—to move north during the Great Migration. When I left my hometown to move across the country and left my parents and siblings behind, I reflected on how hard it must have been for both of my grandparents. But even though that transition was hard and probably very scary, they did it anyway so they and their children could have a better life.

When I think about the hardest things I have done, I compare my life challenges to the hardships and conditions my grandparents faced. I think of all the courage they had to push beyond their fear to find a way to move forward despite obstacles, and they have inspired me to do the same.

Never Lose Your Love for Play

My grandparents not only taught me how to be brave but also how to remain a kid at heart. My grandfather used to pretend he was going to chase my cousins and me around the house, or he would try his hand at a Rubik's Cube or video game. My grandmother would watch wrestling matches with us, and when she became an octogenarian great-grandmother, she bounced each of my children on her arthritic knees to play "Patty Cake." I witnessed the joy on her face each time she did this.

I realize now my grandparents' playfulness may have helped them maintain their vitality. Research shows that elderly people who play role-playing games have better moods and cognitive abilities. My grandparents lived into their late 90s and proved you're never too old to enjoy play.

Treat Family Time Like a Ritual

Spending family time with my grandparents was treated like a weekly ritual. It was commonplace for my siblings, cousins, and I to gather every Sunday to sit with our grandparents, talk with them on our own, and eat together as a family. My grandparents taught me the value of honoring a consistent ritual of spending quality time and eating together as a family. It kept our family close.

But I was an adult before I knew about all the other benefits of family dinners, like improving children's self-esteem and communication skills. Back then, I didn't know that those dinners and Sunday rituals also helped to strengthen my relationship with my grandparents and extended family, which impacted how I raised my own family.

Make Your Marriage a Partnership

My grandparents' were parents to eight children. In raising their children and working in the cotton fields together as sharecroppers, they learned to treat each other as spouses and partners doing the business of raising and supporting a family. I know this was not uncommon for Black families in farming communities in the South. But in observing their closeness in preparing meals together in the kitchen and hearing the stories of what they did together to help my mother and her siblings achieve their goals, I learned the power of their partnership. It made an impact on how I saw marriage.

As I watched them, my perspective of marriage expanded beyond a romantic ideal to an understanding of how a loving partnership could better stand the test of time and be a strong example for future generations. When I married my husband 26 years ago, I knew he would be a good husband, father, and partner in life.

Your Stories Are Your Legacy

My grandparents used to retell the same stories over and over again. I didn't know then that the repetition of these stories made it easier for me to remember them. And I didn't realize then my grandparents were carrying on an oral history tradition that Black people have maintained for centuries. Through stories, I learned about my grandparents' lives before they were parents. I also learned about family members I would never meet. When my grandparents made their transition, their stories helped me hold onto memories of them.

Stories of their strength, bravery, and accomplishments have been a source of pride and a legacy I have passed on to my children. They have been invaluable in proving what's possible.

Besides passing down the stories and the wisdom of experience, my grandparents passed down the information I didn't know I needed. By having the opportunity to closely observe my maternal grandparents' example, I have learned lessons that have made me love and appreciate myself, my story, and my family more intentionally. And I will be forever grateful to them for that.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles