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Lessons this grandpa learned while watching 4 grandchildren solo for 13 days

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My daughter Sierra called from California and asked if I would watch her four children while she and her husband, Chase, left the country for a much-needed getaway several months ago. My wife, Heidi (Nana to our grandchildren), had already been reserved for a couple of weeks as the coveted baby sitter for my daughter Amanda’s three children. The two sisters, who live near each other, wanted to take a couples vacation.

Sierra said, “Dad, you are the only person I can think of who might be able to watch the kids for that long. Do you think you can take the time off?”

I told her I might need to retire from my job in order to do it, and I did.

As Heidi and I wane toward retirement years, we have both agreed that one of our primary goals in life is to have a meaningful relationship with our grandchildren, although all 11 live out of state.

Two of my grandparents, Avon Rich Smart and Ira B. Sharp, were the guiding lights of my life. No one, other than my parents, has had a stronger influence on me. They both offered unconditional love and a refuge when absolutely no one else could. They encouraged me from as long as I can remember, and I nurtured them as they approached death.

Watching four children solo for 13 days turned out to be an adventure unlike anything I had ever done.

I was so looking forward to being with Johanna, 9, Emerson, 7, Dylan, 5, and Indie, 2, and being the best possible grandpa, I made sure to stop by the library to check out several books I had wanted to read and remembered to pack my guitar to help pass the extra time I would have while watching them.


Most of you who share parenting responsibilities know the lessons I have recently learned, but for me, this experience was a life-changing epiphany.

Sierra left a detailed chart with phone numbers, lesson times, baseball games and gymnastic lessons. Neighbors helped by picking up and taking kids to school and some lessons. In-laws helped with sleepovers for Dylan and Indie. It really took a village, and I’m grateful for the help I received. Almost everyone warned me how tough a 2-year-old can be and cautioned that my adorable Indie would quickly have me pulling out what little hair I have left.

Here are a few misadventures and insights I can pass along:

• I’ve spent more time training horses than children, but the basic premises are the same. Pulling pajamas on a screaming, tired two-year-old Indie can be as rough as trying to “pull” an unwilling horse into a trailer. You have to offer both “the good deal” and then use as much pressure as needed, but as little as it takes.

• I’m deaf and I am going to make an appointment with the audiologist. It must be from too many basketball games, loud buzzers, bands, football games with cannons and rock-and-roll. My high frustration level is largely due to not being able to hear what they say — combined with a lack of sleep.

• While dealing with a 2-year-old, it is either an “I can do it myself” day or a “you do it” day. I don’t understand why they are so different, but don’t fight it. Just go with it.

• After two days, social media is a nonevent. The NBA basketball series I was so interested in disappeared and was replaced by the cartoon series “Sophia the First” with Indie every day.

• Don’t do goldfish. Johanna won a goldfish at the after-school fundraiser, and, of course, Emerson, Dylan and Indie all wanted one also. I got the bright idea to do an afternoon venture to the pet store and have everyone pick out his or her own bowl and fish. I could be “good Grandpa” and leave those valuable lessons of death, loss and grief to the parents when they got home. Unfortunately, we almost didn’t last the ride home without a death as Indie wanted to hold her own all the way. After a successful afternoon lesson with each child learning about cleaning the fishbowl and feeding the fish, I thought I had hit a home run. The next day, I heard screams from upstairs as the older three children discovered that Indie had poured all the fish food into each of their bowls. They couldn’t find their fish, as the bowls were full of a sootlike substance. The older three all performed life-saving measures while Indie screamed to high heaven.

• Although I never got the time to read one of my own books, I did read some amazingly entertaining and thoughtful books at bedtime, such as, “I Love You Through and Through” and the ever-popular “Walter the Farting Dog.” Looking back, I’m now embarrassed I gave Heidi such a bad time for spending all that money on quality children’s books and am proud of my daughters for passing the love of reading on to their children.

• Someone should consider passing a helmet law for 2-year-olds.

• There is an adage I’ve tried to follow that goes, “Wherever you are, be there.” That is never truer then while being with grandchildren. Put the phone down. Don’t let the need to let everyone know about your experience override your experience.

• Then again, I realized the smartphone has a huge upside, especially when the battery on the phone died while I was driving in the middle of Orange County. With four screaming kids, I had no idea where I was without MapQuest.

• When Emerson asked me to teach him the guitar, I explained that the neck is too big for small hands, but maybe I could take him to the music store to look for one he can learn on. Although he can be very forgetful, he relentlessly reminded me about the guitar until “good Grandpa” took him to the store and bought one.

• My grandkids are constantly forgetting things. I think that is normal and I’m sure there is a good reason why, I just can’t remember it. Genetics isn’t always a good thing.

• Sometime during week two, I realized that raising children is like batting in baseball: There are more strikeouts than home runs — and it is all about percentages. In fact, I learned while garnering wisdom from Princess Sophia, “You may find that when you try to make things perfect, you might find that you make everyone around you perfectly miserable.” Hmmm. …

• There were incredible moments, such as spending time playing laser tag with Emerson and having him declare that it was the best day of his life. Also, there were horrible moments, such as when Johanna fell off the wall onto her head and I worried all night about a concussion. There were puzzling times, such as when Johanna lost a tooth and I had no idea what the deal is with the Tooth Fairy. There was the love of life in Dylan’s contagious grin, which he has worn since the day he was born.

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I would do it again in an instant for any one of our children.

As I was leaving, Indie leaned from her mother’s arms, crying for me, and held my cheeks between her little hands. “Grandpa, don’t go. I love you,” she said while intently holding my head, almost touching me nose to nose.

Somewhere in those two weeks, I made a connection that changed our relationship to something more than being “good Grandpa.” The effort I had put into this experience, however unsustainable and unrealistic, left them knowing how much I loved them. They have someone else who will listen, change their diapers, be patient and love them unconditionally.

In 20 years or so (hopefully), I might need someone to do the same for me. I have no doubt they will be there.

Tom Smart retired in March after 45 years as a photographer for the Deseret News.