If there is one thing Ruth Cowles truly cherishes, it is her seven grandchildren. However, she lives in Kansas and they live in Kansas, Georgia, Pennsylvania and even Austria.
The distance makes it more challenging for her to have regular contact with each of them, but it has also instilled in her a passion to help grandparents have greater influence in the lives of their grandchildren. In fact, she considers it a biblical mission.
“Psalm 28, verse four says, “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done,” said Ruth. “Verses six and seven explain why we need to do that. ‘So the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they, in turn, would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds, but would keep his commands.’
“I feel it is so important for grandparents to pass on a legacy of faith. Otherwise, how are children to know if somebody doesn’t tell them about faith?” she asked. “Sometimes grandparents are too quiet about their beliefs. Rather than preaching at the kids, grandparents need to live out their lives in front of their grandchildren and love them.”
At the same time, it is important for grandparents to honor their adult children’s wishes regarding the level of spiritual influence they want grandpa and grandma to have on their grandkids.
Always a missionary
Ruth and her husband served in the mission field for 17 years. He was a pilot and she cared for their three children while teaching Bible classes. While they were in Africa, Ruth fell in love with Bible teaching and had many opportunities to do that in schools.
“Unlike other countries, schools in that part of Africa were open to having religious instruction,” she explained. “English was taught in the schools, so I was able to teach Bible classes in English as well, which was helpful.
“When we left Africa, I was 44 years old. We moved to Olathe, Kansas, where I worked on a church staff by ministering to women until I retired at age 60,” she explained. “You never really leave ministry, you just change locations.
“Today, I teach three Bible classes a week and I have my own blog where I try to post inspirational messages twice a month. My husband and I have very full lives,” she added.
Ruth is passionate about helping women to grow in their faith so they can better care for their families.
“Women are hurting. They have so many needs and there is so much fear in the world today that many women feel despair,” said Ruth. “If I can reach a woman from a biblical perspective, then that woman can guide her children.”
There is so much chaos and confusion in the world today, it’s important for people to monitor what they focus their attention upon.
“What voices are you listening to and focusing on?” Ruth asked. “If you are head down and fearful all the time, it’s hard to look up and see God.
“I’m a born again believer who loves the Lord. I know if we spend time reading the Bible, we don’t have to be looking down all the time. Our focus can be on God,” she explained. “We don’t have to ignore the present and what’s happening around us, but we can have an eternal perspective that keeps us from being in despair.”
Ruth picks a theme word to guide her every year. In 2023, that word was “light.” Grandmothers can be the light for their entire family by having a calming and energizing effect on everyone else.
“There is a lot of confusion among young people today. But, if parents can guide them correctly and have open communication with them, mothers will know what’s going on in their children’s heads,” said Ruth. “That way they will be able to counter some unbiblical things children may be learning at school.”
The Grandma Club
Ruth feels so strongly about grandparents having influence in the lives of their grandchildren, she wrote a book to help support those vital relationships. It is titled “The Grandma Club: The Joys and Challenges of Grandparenting.”
“When I was still working, a lady stopped into my office and excitedly announced she was going to be a grandmother for the first time,” Ruth explained. “I said, ‘Welcome to the club.’ Later, I thought that would be a good title for a book. We’re all in this stage of life where we are in this club of being grandparents.”
The book’s central focus is about effectively grandparenting from a distance. It’s a skill Ruth’s parents modeled for her.
“We lived in Africa for so long that my parents had to grandparent our children from a long distance,” she explained. “I want grandparents to know they can still have influence in the lives of their grandchildren even if they don’t live near them. There are so many things grandparents can do to maintain those close connections.”
Ruth’s book also helps grandparents set good expectations for relationships with the children.
“If something tragic happens in life, I think it is very important to model how to handle those situations and cope with the aftermath,” said Ruth.
“In the book, I also write about ways a grandmother can interact with grandchildren so she is not seen as interfering,” she added. “They are not your children. Your role is different as a grandparent.”
Unfortunately, some grandparents have assumed the role of parenting grandchildren due to a variety of circumstances. But, absent that type of situation, Ruth said its important to remember grandparenting is a different role.
“You need to take care of yourself as a grandmother, but also pass on a spiritual legacy,” she explained. “I want grandparents to know there are still a lot of things they can do at this stage of life.”
Grandparenting from a distance
When Ruth was raising her children overseas, it was much more difficult for her parents to have influence with their grandchildren.
“We have social media now. Kids text us. I can have a face-to-face chat with my granddaughter in Austria,” Ruth explained. “But there is nothing wrong with sending snail mail and packages.”
When Ruth was a missionary, her mother would record conversations around the table on a cassette tape and send it to her.
“Whenever the family was gathered for a meal, my mother would turn on the tape recorder to include us in the conversations,” she explained. “When we received the cassette, we heard the clanking of forks, but she made us feel like we were part of the family.
“Today, you can do the same type of thing, but on Zoom,” she added. “I have played games on Zoom with my grandchildren in Pennsylvania. I throw my dice and let them see what I rolled, and they do the same.”
It helps that Ruth’s grandchildren range in age from 9 to 20, so using technology is easy for the children. However, she will have to adapt to communicating with a young child now that her first great-grandchild is less than a year old.
“He’s a little too young, but I can text his mama, who is my granddaughter,” said Ruth.
“It’s important that they see your face,” she added. “That way it’s like having person-to-person contact with them. You are not a stranger because they know your face. They see you as a real person who loves them. Then, when you’re together, there is already familiarity among everyone.”
Parents should attach photos of grandparents to their cell phone contacts. That way, when people are talking instead of having a video exchange, the grandchildren can still see who is having a conversation.
“When my grandson and granddaughter living in Austria were young, I bought books that allowed us to record ourselves reading a story,” said Ruth. “They could hear our voices over and over again as they flipped the pages.”
There are also digital photo frames on the market, like Skylight, which allow families to share images with each other. It is as simple as emailing photos to a special address where they are automatically uploaded to connected frames.
Grandparents should share photos of themselves engaged in various activities, and parents can upload images of grandchildren, too. Because the frames are continuously displaying new images, the digital devices attract and maintain attention for longer periods of time than traditional frames.
Grandkids love mail
Although most of Ruth’s communication with her grandchildren is done via email and online technology, she still loves to send things to them from time to time.
“I don’t do it a lot, but I send little notes to remind my grandchildren I love them and was thinking about them,” she explained. “That way they know I didn’t fall off the planet and that they are still in my heart and on my mind.”
She also makes sure to send packages for holidays, like birthdays and Christmas, so her grandchildren have something in hand from her.
When sending notes or cards, younger grandchildren love to receive stickers, which can be purchased rather inexpensively at places like Dollar Store.
“It’s rare for people to get decent mail today,” Ruth explained. “People mostly get bills.”
So, personalized notes really stand out, even for older grandchildren, she noted.
Should you spoil grandchildren?
A lot of grandparents admit they love to spoil their grandchildren. But, is that a good thing to do?
“It depends upon what you mean by ‘spoiling them,’” Ruth explained. “We certainly don’t want to spoil them to the extent they develop an entitlement mentality.
“Sometimes grandparents think grandchildren can do whatever they want. But, kids still need structure and discipline in a right kind of way,” she added. “Spoil them with love, but be careful.”
Ruth said it’s critically important that grandparents do not overrule a parent.
“If a parent says, ‘I don’t want them to have such and such,’ then don’t get the idea that it’s okay to give that to the children,” she explained. “We need to be careful and respect the parent’s wishes because they are the parents now.”
It doesn’t take too many episodes of overruling a parent to create friction in a relationship. The last thing a grandparent wants is for a parent to limit contact because his or her wishes are not being followed. If a grandparent thinks it is okay to not follow the parent’s instructions, then kids get the idea they don’t have to obey mom and dad either.
“Grandparents support their adult children by honoring the way they choose to parent,” said Ruth. “If we did a good job by instilling right thinking into our own children, then we need to trust them with how they are raising their kids.”
Grandparents as parents
There are some cases today where grandparents are actually raising their grandchildren, which changes the dynamic of that relationship.
“Those grandparents need a support system in place, whether it is a good church, a family structure or friends who can help them with the responsibility,” said Ruth. “Honestly, the older we get, the more tired we are. We don’t have the energy we used to have when raising our own children.
“Grandparents in that situation should not be afraid to ask for help,” she added. “And when help is offered, accept it.”
“Grandchildren just naturally gravitate toward their grandparents with hearts full of love. If that love and acceptance is returned, it can be a wonderful relationship,” she said.
In her book, Ruth has a section about the joys of grandparenting, for which there are many.
“My first granddaughter was born in Pennsylvania and, within a month, my second granddaughter was born here in Olathe, where I live,” she explained. “When she was very young, even before she started attending preschool, I would take her out for breakfast on Friday mornings.
“I would take pictures and make picture books of her outings with Bibi, which is what my grandchildren call me,” said Ruth. “It’s a way to establish early on that I love you, I am here for you and I want to be with you. Make it fun. There is a lot of joy in that.”
Those type of outings do not have to cost a lot. Neither do they need to be big, elaborate activities.
“I used to take my granddaughter to recycle pop cans. Her parents would save cans, we would save them, too, and even my neighbors would save their cans for us to recycle,” Ruth explained. “Then, we’d take the bag to the big truck where she would crush the cans and get some quarters.
“Look for simple things to do, like take them to the fire station to see the fire trucks, or to a dairy farm to see the cows,” she added. “Just invest your time.”
Know when to butt out
There may be situations in which a grandparent believes children are not being raised “the right way.” Learning to discern when to butt in and when to bow out is a skill grandparents need to develop.
“Do you say something or do you not? Is the problem detrimental to the child’s health or wellbeing? If it’s not hurting the child, can you let it go and admit it’s something the parents prefer?” Ruth asked.
“I came to the realization that just because it was not my idea does not mean it’s wrong,” she explained. “It’s a challenge to know when to speak up and when to stay quiet.”
Yet, there can be situations, like divorce, that deeply affect a child. Or the grandchildren grow up and start walking down a destructive path. Then, what should grandparents do?
“You want to address it in a way that draws your grandchildren close instead of pushing them away. You can still give them some direction, but in a loving way.”
Perhaps the most devastating situation a grandparent can face occurs when a family breaks apart and the children live with the son- or daughter-in-law. Sometimes there is a falling apart between the grandparent and the child’s parent, and grandparents are punished by lack of contact.
“Try to reconcile the relationship as best you can and in a good way so that you can still enjoy that connection to your grandchildren,” said Ruth.
“A lot depends upon how much conversation you’ve had with parents up to that point,” she added. “When things were going well, how much involvement did you have with the parents and were they open to chatting with you?
“It’s a bad mistake to not have a lot of interaction with parents until they do something that is, in your opinion, wrong,” she explained. “Before you can tell parents what they are doing wrong, you must have a relationship established so you can hear each other without being critical.
“As we age, we can become critical, abrupt and not very loving or understanding, which just drives people further way,” said Ruth. “We must earn the right to have conversations about hard things.”
Sharing your faith with grandchildren
One difficult topic to address often centers around matters of religious faith. It’s especially challenging when faith is a central component to a grandparent’s life, but the parents are not actively pursuing God.
“It’s very hard. I know of a situation where the grandmother has been told very clearly that she is not to talk about Jesus to her grandchildren because the parent doesn’t want them to hear anything about that,” said Ruth. “It’s heartbreaking because the grandmother lives out her faith every day.
“The best advice is to pray for a softening of hearts because God can soften even the hardest heart,” she explained.
The grandmother in question also had pictures on her wall with scripture verses on them. Was she supposed to take them down when the grandchildren came to visit?
“Of course you do not need to take that down. This is your home and that is part of your decor,” said Ruth. “When the mother comes in and sees a peaceful home and the love grandmother has for her daughter and grandchildren, then it’s evident something on that wall speaks of truth.
“In the book, I suggest inviting parents who are opposed to your faith to attend a special event at church and to bring the children. If they say ‘No,’ that’s okay,” she added. “But do not go around their backs and take the kids or invite them without first getting an okay from the parents. That just drives a wedge between yourself and the parents.
“If God wants the children to know about your faith, he is going to make a way,” said Ruth.
What should grandparents do in those situations when the children are staying over on Saturday night? Should they simply not attend church?
“That can get tricky. But, if your children know it is your habit and custom to go to church on Sunday morning, then they’re going to have an expectation that will occur,” said Ruth. “However, if the children may end up in church against the parent’s wishes, that’s a conversation which needs to take place before that weekend.
“If the parent does not want the kids going to church, then some arrangement needs to be made,” she explained. “Either the children go home on Saturday night or the parents pick them up early Sunday morning, or the grandparents opt not to attend church that week. But, they have to talk about it first.”
Dealing with dementia
Ruth has written several other books as well. One that is really dear to her heart is titled “Bringing Mother Home: Journeying Together Through the Fog of Dementia.”
“It is about my journey with my mom through her dementia,” said Ruth. “As her caregiver, we brought my mother here from Pennsylvania and she lived with us the last half year of her life.
“Men and women who are providing care for another family member need to know it’s okay to sometimes feel frustrated and to acknowledge things don’t always go the way you hope,” she explained.
Ruth and her husband served as caregivers for his mother, too. She moved from South Carolina into a facility a mile and a half away from their home.
“Her situation was different, but she still required a lot of care from us every day. I was with her when she went to heaven,” Ruth explained. “Caregivers need to be supportive, but also know what resources are available to them.”
Ruth also wrote two devotionals, one pertaining to Easter and what it is all about, and the other about Christmas. Two other books are about poetry. You can find all of Ruth’s books on Amazon.
“One is called ‘Prayerful Ponderings: Poems of Prayer and Praise,’” she explained. “My book ‘Mommy Moments’ describe episodes when my children and grandchildren were little. It has some prose and poetry in it, too. I always liked poetry. I started writing poems when my children were little.
“My goal is to help people realize there is a lot of joy in knowing the Lord. So, I want to open people’s eyes to the truth of scripture,” said Ruth. “A lot of times, holidays are so commercialized that there is not much spiritual impact in many homes. The books are ways to remind people what holidays are about.”
She started writing while in the mission field when Ruth and her husband had to send out a missionary prayer letter every month.
“Because we spent 17 years on the mission field, that involved writing a lot of those prayer letters,” she explained. “I just love putting words on paper. I’m a communicator, teacher and speaker. Writing is just another way to communicate.”
Ruth started her first blog in 2014 when she began sharing an inspirational devotional twice a month. Today, she sends out a monthly newsletter to people who want to receive her inspirational messages.
Advice for people over 50
By the time they get to their 50s, Ruth said many people already have an idea regarding their passion. They just need to take action to live it out.
“If you love doing something, then it’s your passion. You really need to serve in that area of passion and giftedness. You are gifted by God with certain abilities,” she added. “By using that combination of your passion and your giftedness, you will feel a sense of fulfillment and joy.
“If what you’re doing feels like drudgery and you don’t enjoy it, or it feels obligatory, that’s not your passion,” said Ruth.
For people who are still uncertain about what to do, Ruth suggested trying new things. Eventually, something will capture your interest and your heart.
“Sometimes, it’s how people respond to what you are doing that gives you an idea whether it is an area of giftedness for you or not,” said Ruth.
“Pastor Adrian Rogers once said, ‘It’s always too soon to quit, but never too late to start,’” she added. “That’s a good reminder for grandparents, retirees and anyone over 50.”
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After closing his business and enduring several painful years of uncertainty regarding what to do with his life, Greg founded Forward From 50 to help men and women over 50 to live more purposeful lives by pursuing things they are passionate about. A Wisconsin native, Greg currently lives in Arizona.