Grandparenting 101: “Camera Don’t Lie.”

Neither my wife nor I had grandparents as meaningful presences in our lives, so we’ve been making it up as we go.  And we’ve found the experience to be much different from parenting, but every bit as rich and rewarding. 

Here’s a story.

Our grandson, known affectionately in grandparent shorthand as “Mister T”, has been a hard case, for himself and those around him.  He’s a good guy, but the pandemic, the times, his personality, and a million other variables have driven him deep inside himself. Now, in the summer of 2022, he’s a handsome, gangling boy of fifteen who is invested in being critical and willing to go to great pains to hide himself from the world and to stand in opposition to anything that might show him as soft and vulnerable.  A shrink might well be able to sort it all out, but we are not shrinks, we’re grandparents.  Our task is to love unconditionally, stay out of his parents’ way, make the right touch at the right moment, and model the values we believe are important for a good and worthy life. 

This summer, my wife, Louise, paid for T to go on a 10 day canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the border of Minnesota and Canada.  All who have done it, from the naturalist, Sigurd Olson, up until adventurers of today, have had their lives changed by the experience of moving soundlessly through those hundreds of miles of pristine lakes and pine covered islands.  I am among them.

T went, came back, and dismissed it as “terrible,” a brittle lie constructed to keep him at his desired critical distance. 

Then, last night, I prevailed upon the good graces of my friend, Robert Plant, to get us VIP seats to his concert with Alison Krauss.  We watched a wonderful concert from up close to the stage, and, afterwards, Robert, good man that he is, spent at least a half hour including T in conversation and giving him a level of attention that old Zep heads would give a year of their life to experience.

T took it in stride, saying little after the fact.  We drove home quietly, leaving undiscussed what had been a singular evening for all of us.  We knew that he would process things in his own time and way, and share when he is ready to do so.

If we were parents, we would have been upset at his emotional flatness and apparent lack of gratitude.  But we are grandparents.  Unlike parents, we do not have to respond to the moment. We have the luxury of planting seeds deep, far from the sunlight, knowing that they must germinate, sometimes for years or decades, before coming to flower.  We know that the right touch at the right moment can unlock something in a child that will shape them forever. We operate by faith as much as by vigilance.

And so we left T to his silence.  We knew he was working hard at masking his emotions, and we didn’t want to make him work any harder than he already was.

But we knew the truth.  We’ve been down that road, both in our own lives and with other children, many times before.

And we had an ally — the camera. 

What he tried so hard to hide, the camera caught. 

So we wait, knowing that this will bear fruit in its own good time.  The kid is a good guy, and “camera don’t lie.”  Sometimes the richest fruits grow best in the darkness, and sometimes long patience is the greatest virtue of all.




18 thoughts on “Grandparenting 101: “Camera Don’t Lie.””

  1. Pam Dunn Wamberg

    Oh my, Kent. And sometimes grandparents provide opportunity and their silence speaks clearly of Love.

  2. Shawn O’Rourke Gilbert

    Grandparents are blessed and obligated to provide that inestimable safe place for their grands. At age 81, I still remember and treasure my grandmother for giving me that gift,

  3. Mother Nature and Great Spirit can speak to our heart of hearts.
    Especially through our grandparents. It can be like planting seeds.
    And yet, we have to go the way we have to go to realize who loves us.
    Thank You Always Kent, for sharing. It helps me and many others, too.

  4. from Yorkshire UK.
    I hardly remember my grandparents on my Mothers side, only here say. My fathers parents were different. My grandmother was French and was born in Alderney, Channel Islands and my Grandad a Yorkshire soldier who was stationed in Alderney, at one of the forts overlooking the French coast. Keeping the Channel Islands safe from invasion of the French. I don’t remember love from my grandparents, but I remember with love Grannies baking. Was big style. From her I learnt to bake, embroider in the medieval style – Crewel work and knit. So something was given to me from these quite dour people. Thank you Kent for opening memories for me from long ago.

  5. Beautiful story. Sadly, it reminds me all too well of the struggles we have had with our autistic son, who seems to be so thoroughly addicted to screens that, whatever happens in life outside of the screens doesn’t ‘count’. If he has a good time in analog life, he doesn’t remember it or care to repeat it or even admit that he had a good time, whereas he will talk for hours and hours about the latest Mario game or the retro game system he found at a yard sale. This includes stunning summer camp experiences that I would have died for as a kid. Now he is 18, and we are hoping that we are seeing small signs of change. This weekend we are going camping for the first time in years where he will be mostly ‘off-grid’. Will he plug in to his hand-held game system and check out? Or tune in to the present situation, the beautiful land around him and let himself enjoy? Only time will tell! Wish us luck! In truth, as a loving father who has been endlessly disappointed by what often feels like rejection, like he is always choosing his drink over me, I want and need something more than a surreptitious selfie to document his smile.

  6. Nice job grandparents! Keep the love coming, its the best medicine we have and usually helps. I’m pulling for your grandson!

  7. Great words. My 15 year old Lakota grandson tries his best to pretend he doesn’t like me. But he always says he loves me when he leaves
    my house. I just keep telling him how much I love him (and I do) and buy him his favorite snacks. Someday he will understand and
    realize how much of a gift life and love are. But I will always “have his sixes”. We have made memories together.

  8. Thanks for writing, Ben. A short thought in response to your comment. I normally don’t involve my family in my posts. I am not a memoirist, and I don’t think that family members and their world should be put out in public as part of my writing life, especially where there are sadnesses and vulnerabilities involved. This post was an exception, because there was a sweetness to the moment and it did not seem too revelatory. And, at least on my part, it was more about grandparenting than about our grandson. Still, I almost didn’t post it; I did so only because I felt there was a universality to the story. Having said that, I want to reach out to you personally here. We have in our family a not dissimilar situation to yours, and we have a close friend who lives with an almost identical heartache and pain to what you experience on a daily basis. To be dealt such a hand, and to deal with the questioning, both psychological and spiritual, not to mention the constant fears of what happens to such a child in the future, is something that causes endless heartache and pain. I wish I could offer some sort of balm, but I can’t. Just know that I honor and respect you for the unexpected challenge that fatherhood handed you. It has forced you, in a quiet way, to become a greater man than the rest of us. I wish you peace and strength, and hope that you know that your son is lucky that you are his father. Many men would not have met the challenge with such an open heart. Good luck on the camping trip, and on the hard adventure that is your unexpected journey through fatherhood.

  9. Many kids surviving COVID isolation are left anxious and depressed. I have seen this many times as a psychotherapist. Sounds like you are a big help to him, appreciated or not!

  10. Kent, your reply has me in tears! (Just like your books) Thank you so much for your kind and compassionate words. .Many blessings.
    Mitakuye Oyasin,

  11. Never underestimate the power of a good grandparent can have on a child. I had the good luck of spending all my spare time as a child with my grandparents, they helped me understand the world, gave me a sense of right from wrong, and taught me everything from physics to gardening. I would never have become the person I am without them, they were an awesome gift to me!

  12. Karen Knife-Knife

    Only yesterday I shared with my daughter, how I would have watered down coffee with my Lakota Unci (grandmother). I remember her cat understood only Lakota and would sit in a chair at the table while we had coffee. She taught me many things. Karen Knife Sterner

  13. Wonderful as always, Kent. But I’d love to hear how a guy from Bemidji became good friends with Robert Plant! 🙂

  14. Hi Paul, Good to hear from you. I hope Jody and Sam are doing well. An interesting family, to be sure. And Sam was a talented man; I’m sure he’s up to something fascinating. As to Plant, he found Neither Wolf nor Dog in a bookstore in Denver and contacted me. He ended up coming out to see me speak in Deadwood at the South Dakota Festival of Books and, afterwards, I took him on a tour through the Black Hills and down to Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee. We became friends, and subsequently Louise and I visited him in England and he and I were on several venues together. When he comes through any place where we happen to be — he’s still touring with a schedule that would kill a lesser man — we always manage to spend a bit of time together. In this instance I wanted to do what I could to raise up my grandson, who is going through a rough patch, and Robert got us VIP seats and graciously gave us a lot of his time after the concert. Fingers crossed that it made an impression. Plant truly is a good man and not at all what you would expect. Thoughtful, intelligent, very grounded in his original small town in the Midlands, and both self effacing and generous. I don’t think I would be able to be so balanced if my life had been like his.

  15. Oh my word! What a wonderful, serendipitous friendship! Give my best to Louise. We (and the White Elephant) miss you back here! Paul

  16. Amazing story. I can’t thank you enough for sharing this. 15 is so hard. The truth of these priceless experiences will be revealed in time. Thank you for reminding us grandparents of the value of patience.

  17. We have a 12 year old grandson from Wisconsin who came to visit us the first week of August. He’s come up here “In-The-Middle-of-Nowhere Minnesota,” for a few weeks every summer of his life since 2010. I.T.M.O.N. isn’t the most exciting place for young people of the 21st Century nor is it particularly wonderful for most older-than-young people of this time period either as it’s a mostly agricultural region of northwest Minnesota located, on average, at least 125 miles from any sizable metropolitan population including Grand Forks, North Dakota; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Duluth, Minnesota, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The best thing to do around here man, woman, or etc, etc, or child the year-around, is fishing the Lake of the Woods; hunting would come in a likely second best thing; then winter sports activities such as hockey, snowmobiling, and ice fishing.
    As you can see, entertaining a 12-year old sports-minded grandson could be challenging so when I saw an ad in the weekly July issues of The Trading Post for Warwick Workouts: The Ultimate Basketball Skill Developing Program being offered in Warroad August 1st, 2nd, and 3rd this year for, among other grade levels, the 7th-12th grades 9-12 am, I called the grandson and asked if he’d be interested in participating; how could he not be? So I signed him up.
    We had to drive 40 miles from our house to Warroad, one way. To eliminate travel boredom, I varied the circuitous route each day, one time going by the old Salol Anhydrous Ammonia station on Roseau County Road 12.
    “I used to work there,” I said to my young passenger wearing white ear buds connected wirelessly to the cellphone in his lap. He glanced at the blur of a white steel building we passed. “Oh yeah, that’s where you kicked a dead skunk off the road and it stunk up your boot …”
    Ha! He was wrong about it being ‘there,’ but right in remembering an identical building north of Wannaska, near where grandma and I live.
    The first day, I stuck around to see how the grandson would do in such a challenging foreign setting. Not surprisingly, he held his own on the court for he had attended the Four-Older-Brothers-School of Higher Learning since birth, I was reminded.
    Since he was three years old, no one could intimidate him no matter how tall they were or attitude they’d cop, but you could perturb him as had another player repeatedly against whom he was trying to defend.
    I saw other player expressing enjoyment behind his back that he had made the grandson angry.
    During the next break,I told him, “I’ve known people like that all my life,” I said. “They just love making other people mad for no reason. You can’t let that get to you”
    Grandma has said he had to learn to control his anger; and that the other guy enjoyed ‘pushing his buttons.’ “Concentrate on you,” we told him. “Not the other guy, that’s just what he wants.
    ”What was that Adam Sandler movie we watched on Sunday night? Hustle wasn’t it? What was the single biggest problem that player from Spain had? He let what other players said make him mad …
    Whether the coaches observed the exchange between the two the day before, I don’t know, but at center court the following day, they talked about sportsmanship and everything else under the sun of basketball. I was happy to observe that behavior in my grandson well in advance of this incident. Likely the other kid did too, but contests of skill sometimes generate contention between the best of combatants.
    This’ll be something else he will remember for years and I’m glad grandma and I had a hand in it.

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