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Grandparents are helping grandchildren more with school, says study

Grandparents are spending billions of dollars on their grandchildren's educations each year. Here are a few tips grandparents should keep in mind if they're heavily involved with school.

By Heidi StevensChicago Tribune / October 9, 2012

Grandparents supporting their grandkids extends beyond the fiscal realm. The Hirtles, here seen reading to their grandkids in Temple, Texas, April 11, 2003, have a son-in-law who was deployed to Iraq, which has led to the couple spending more time with their grandchildren.

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Grandparents dote on their grandchildren to the tune of about $52 billion each year, the bulk of which — $32 billion — goes to school tuition and other education costs, according to “The Grandparent Economy,” a study by American Demographics founder Peter Francese.

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It follows, then, that they would want a say in that education. A growing number of grandparents are helping with class projects, checking homework, even attending parent-teacher conferences, says Cheri Burcham, a family life educator at the University of Illinois Extension.

“Their top concern is helping their grandkids succeed in school and advocating for them with their teachers,” says Burcham.

Marry that information to the fact that 5.4 million American children are being raised by their grandparents, according to 2010 Census figures, and you have a national portrait that looks a lot different from the back-to-school ads.

With the right approach, this dynamic can benefit all parties. Experts say grandparents should keep the following in mind as the new school year marches on.

Ask, don’t tell. “Ask questions rather than giving answers,” says Mount Sinai School of Medicine psychiatry professor Georgia Witkin, author of “The Modern Grandparent’s Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to the New Rules of Grandparenting” (NAL Trade). “The parents may be feeling somewhat guilty that they’re not able to do more, and you really have to be sensitive to your son’s or daughter’s feelings. ‘Would you like me to talk to the teacher, or is that something you’d prefer to do?’ ‘Would it be helpful if I go to the parent-teacher conference?’ Constantly let them know you see them as the parents.”

Keep the school in the loop. “The biggest point is to communicate with the principal and teachers from the beginning – not just at the parent-teacher conferences – to explain the situation and learn how to work with them for the benefit of the child,” says Burcham. Should emails be directed to the grandparents? Will the grandparents be chaperoning field trips and volunteering in the classroom? Does the school have a phone number and other contact information for the grandparents?

Be realistic — and vocal — about your boundaries. “The grandparents may have some health issues of their own or be on limited income,” says Burcham. “The stress can be overwhelming.” Your health and well-being have to remain a priority.

Enlist reinforcements. “I often suggest that grandparents have their grandchildren write down the names and phone numbers of one student in each of their classes so they have someone to contact to help at homework time if something is beyond the grandparents’ understanding,” says Burcham.

Do some research. Your state’s Department on Aging can likely offer resources and tips on tutors and other educational aids, says Burcham. Start with the National Institute on Aging website at www.nia.nih.gov. Grandparents.com offers a “Grandparents’ Guide to Education” (type “education” in the website’s search field) with a grade-by-grade primer on what you can expect your grandchildren to be learning in various subjects from kindergarten to eighth grade.

Be confident. “Teachers are relating to grandparents very much the same way they would to a parent,” says Witkin. “There is no generation gap. We’re all listening to The Black Eyed Peas. Everyone’s watching ‘American Idol.’ My daughter’s reading ‘50 Shades of Grey’ on her iPad. I’m reading ‘50 Shades of Grey’ on my iPad. We’re all living in the same world.”

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