Marilyn Heins

‘We are in our early 80s and our only son who is 54 just told us he is getting married and his lady friend who is 42 is pregnant. At one time we wanted grandchildren, but that was 30 years ago when our friends’ children were having babies. Our friends are having great-grandchildren now. We are supposed to be happy, but we are scared.”

First of all, congratulations, Old New Grandparents! The baby will be born to mature adults who are married. That’s a good start. I guarantee you will both be delighted when you see your new descendant!

Personal experience: I was visiting my almost 4-year-old grandson whose parents were busy. He took my hand and headed for the toilet, asking anxiously, “Grandma, do you know how to wipe bottoms?” Let me assure you, this task, once learned, is never forgotten.

Here is a quick version of Grandparenting 101. Grandparents may have many roles: You are a living ancestor, family historian, role model, teacher, mentor, helper, student of today’s technology, nurturer, genie, crony/pal, playmate, wizard, hero.

Here is what grandparents provide for their grandchildren: unconditional love, stability, history of family and identity, knowledge, exposure to older people and your personal interests and skills, cushioning, courage, reinforcement of moral values, emotional and other support for their busy parents. Don’t worry that this is too much. You can pick and choose depending on your health, stamina, and desires.

Here comes the good part. Think about how much your grandchild will provide for YOU! He or she will provide fun, a way for octogenarians to keep young and healthy, an antidote to isolation and boredom, a new way of looking at the future, a way to stay current, a return to playfulness, a special kind of love, a special kind of pal.

You don’t tell me whether you will be long-distance grandparents, but if so, the advice for such folks is short and sweet:

Keep in touch.

Keep in touch in person as often as you can. Keeping in touch these days is easy. Find a teenager in the neighborhood to teach you how to Facetime. Even if you are in Arizona and the grandchild is in Timbuktu, you can see the baby grow up, watch that adorable crooked smile, take those first steps. I speak from experience — these sessions are better than much of what is on TV now.

There are two words you need to memorize and avoid: indulgence and interference. Indulgence is in a grandparent’s DNA. Of course you want to purchase that adorable onesie or teddy bear. But Dr. Heins warns grandparents (and parents) about toy overload. It is not good for children to have so many toys they can’t find one to play with.

Interference is an even worse grandparenting sin than indulgence. You see, Old New Grandparents, new parents need confidence in their parenting skills actually more than they need baby clothes. (My daughter-in-law told me later she was terrified of me at first. I was not only her mother-in-law but a pediatrician, so this was understandable.)

My strategy was to praise her parenting, which was darned good; she was a natural. One should praise specifically rather than keep saying you are a good parent. “I notice how much you talk to little Adam. Babies love that!”

Because the relationship between grandma and mother is crucial to all three generations, before you say anything that could be interpreted as criticism, ask yourself how you would feel your first day on a new job if your boss said something similar.

A quick refresher course on parenting itself in case you have forgotten a thing or two: Parenting is the most important job we do, but we get no training for the job. The parenting job description includes: Be responsible; provide nurturing care to the child whether a helpless creature, a sassy kid or an obnoxious teenager; love and enjoy your children; have the guts to be an in-charge parent; be able to cope and be flexible; have a passion to teach; empathy; patience; a sense of humor; confidence in yourself as a parent.

A parent needs a few basic skills: knowledge of children and how they develop, communication skills, how to control yourself and your temper, how to make a living, how to reach for and accept professional help when you’re stuck, a willingness to let go.

Don’t be scared. First of all, pay attention to your own needs. If age and physical problems have curtailed your travel, consider wheelchair service. Or ask the proud parents to visit you. If you are not as steady on your feet, sit down when parents want to hand you their bundle of joy.

Set boundaries. If you don’t feel comfortable doing baby care after 54 years, say so. It’s hard work and not all octogenarians are up to it, including myself. But being in the same room with a baby and the parents will be thrilling! Sit and watch. Be sure to caress the baby’s head; nothing feels more wonderful. Ditto the baby’s soft skin. And the tiny fingers grasping your own.

I predict this baby will make you happy, not scared. You will both feel love in your heart, and we need all the love we can get, even when we are old. Enjoy!

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician and the founder and CEO of She welcomes your questions. Email