Why looking after your grandchildren is good for your brain – and more effective than Sudoku

Marcia Milne's grandsons Fox, Orson and Bram visit several times a week
Marcia Milne pictured with her grandsons Fox, Orson and Bram - Clara Molden

We are in the age of the grandparent: there are 1.5bn grandparents worldwide, accounting for 20 per cent of the population, and the ratio of grandparents to grandchildren is higher than ever before. Marcia Milne, grandmother to three boys, lives in a conversion in what was the garage of her family home in south west London, now a house for her and her husband. Their daughter Flora, her husband Nick and the three boys living in the main house next door.

Milne’s grandsons visit several times a week. She takes them on outings and listens to their problems, being careful not to ask too many leading questions.

They, in turn, confide in her and the result is an easy intimacy. Aside from the odd issue surrounding discipline – “I’m more lenient and often not perhaps as strict as I should be,” she says – the extended family setup, complete with collective family card games on Friday evenings, sounds pretty ideal for everyone involved. And the experts agree.

Grandchildren are on another level from Sudoku

“We human beings are pack animals, and we’re meant to have groups of people that form our world,” explains Ryan Lowe, child psychotherapist and spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists. “Grandparents are the obvious best option for extending your pack out of just a nuclear family.” This is good for kids because it helps them form additional internal working models of human behavior, which in turn helps them build healthy relationships.

For grandparents, meanwhile, “one of the best ways of not experiencing too much detriment in your cognitive thinking is to keep growing your brain. Sudoku is one thing, but grandchildren are a whole other level,” laughs Lowe. Recent research backs her up: a 2021 Emory University study found that emotional empathy was strong in grandmothers who spent more time with their grandchildren; those who spend time with their grandchildren report lower levels of depression and loneliness, while a 2023 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that even those providing minimal care to their grandchildren had better cognitive functioning than non-caregivers.

Milne's three grandsons visit several times a week
Milne's three grandsons visit several times a week - Clara Molden

The age of the grandparent

The chasm of understanding can be wide, however. Even the youngest of today’s grandparents will have had a significantly different childhood to that now being experienced by their grandchildren, who are growing up in a tech-dominated world with a whole new, and often bewildering, set of societal mores and norms. Throw in the fact that, with soaring childcare costs, nine million British grandparents now spend an average of eight hours a week helping to care for their grandchildren, and many of the thorny issues become impossible to avoid.

Academic Vicki Harman, who has studied grandparenting, observed in a 2022 paper that “the two central norms of grandparenting are ‘being there’ and ‘not interfering’” – but that these dual approaches can be difficult, “because while grandparents feel they should not interfere in the way in which their children raise their grandchildren, they also feel a sense of responsibility to their grandchildren, and worry that on some occasions not interfering could be interpreted as not caring”.

So if you’re spending more time with your grandchildren – or if you’d like to get to know them better – how can you go about it, especially in those tricky areas of tension? And what are the real benefits of trying?

How to handle tricky areas

Phones (and social media)

For many grandparents, the devices that seem permanently to be in their grandchildren’s hands are a source of huge tension. Not surprising when you consider that 91 per cent of British children own a smartphone by the age of 11, according to data from Ofcom, and that screen time across the board is up. “Fighting the phone is a losing battle for a grandparent,” says Shellie Rushing Tomlinson, one half of US grandparent duo Rocking It Grand, who write on and discuss all things grandparent-related on their website and podcast. “What we like to do is help them learn to use it wisely and teach them to interact socially without the phone.”

“It isn’t a grandparent’s job to make the rules, it is a grandparent’s job to have conversations,” agrees Lowe firmly. And forget a blanket confiscation of phones when the grandkids come over: “If you take the phones off the kids every time they come to your house, they won’t want to come.”

Don't fight the phone: it can lead to resentment
Don't fight the phone: it can lead to resentment - Cavan Images

Do try, however, to come up with alternative sources of entertainment: it’s no use holding your hands up helplessly then allowing them to glue themselves to a screen regardless. “What you can do is to do more fun things with them,” advises Lowe. That doesn’t mean endless and expensive trips out – it can mean an enormous stack of board games, a pile of playing cards or a simple recipe to make for lunch. The key is to actually be prepared to sit down and play with them, or teach them a new game, rather than just leaving them to it.

Key to managing any screen-related struggles is to have discussed the issue with the parents beforehand: what are the house rules on phones? When do they have to hand them over? “Kids are really good at learning who they’re going to get the answer they want from,” warns Lowe – so if a parent has explicitly said “please don’t let them have your phone to play with”, don’t undermine that by allowing it. If the parents are more lenient than you when it comes to, say, phones in bedrooms, it’s fine to impose your own rules: that phones must be switched off and handed in by 9pm, for example. You’re also allowed to set your own rules around, for example, social media – if you don’t want to be featured in your grandchild’s post, say so, and explain why – it might be a good opportunity to discuss the pitfalls of a life shared online.

But phones don’t have to always be a negative thing: my own children have taught their grandparents how to use their phones properly, for a start. As Lowe puts it, “Grandparents need to keep their brain moving, so it can be mutually beneficial.”


It’s a familiar source of tension: dinner round the table, multiple generations involved – and a potential minefield of conflict ahead, from proper use of cutlery to subjects of conversation. Nevertheless, a recent Legal & General survey found that this was one area in which grandparents made a significant difference: across grandchildren of all ages, manners and politeness are the most frequently cited life lessons learned from grandparents.

“You’re teaching basic respect for others around you,” says Tomlinson. “Kids love boundaries and a framework to work within because it gives them a sense of security – so if they know the expectations you’ve set around manners, that’s like every other aspect of a child’s life: they live up to it.”

Do not, however, confront a manners issue in front of the grandchild’s parents. Tomlinson advises you to always talk to them aside. “We don’t want to be seen as disagreeing with the parent in front of the child.”

Remember, too, that grumbling or eye-rolling about how things were different in your day is equally rude and unlikely to foster a good connection. Instead, Lowe advises to say: “‘That’s weird, look at how different it is to how we used to do it. What is better about that and what has got lost?” That way, not only are you encouraging your grandchildren to make thoughtful conversation, but you’re demonstrating the respect to them that you’d like them to show to you.

Friendship groups

There are some things that change dramatically over the ages, and others – like the complications of friends and friendship groups – that remain much the same. Yes, the tech has moved on – cyberbullying is a new and horrible development – but the machinations of friendships are still predicated on the same human instincts as they’ve always been.

The best thing is for grandparents to simply be there for their grandchildren and listen to their problems
The best thing is for grandparents to simply be there for their grandchildren and listen to their problems - iStockphoto

While you might struggle to watch your grandchild go through a hard time with friends, the best thing you can do, says Lowe, is to just be there for them. “There is something very containing about someone who can bear anxiety,” she says – modelling to children that it’s not that you don’t feel it, but that it doesn’t have to take over. It’s no use trying to tell them that once they hit your age, they’ll understand, but “be calmer, be less wound up by things, be able to talk about your own experience of something – talk, rather than lecture,” says Lowe.


Believe it or not, there’s a whole host of gaming grannies and grandpas out there, many of whom enjoy substantial followings online for their prowess with a joystick. For those grandparents for whom a PlayStation remains a thing of mystery, however, there are plenty of learning opportunities – and good reasons why it’s worth trying to find out more.

First things first: kids who love to game aren’t necessarily doomed to a life of delinquent addiction: in fact, one study by the US Department of Defense found that people who play video games are up to 20 per cent better at solving problems. If you’ve got a grandchild who loves to game, the best thing you can do, says psychologist Dr Alok Kanojia, author of How To Raise a Healthy Gamer, is to take an interest.

He advises sitting down to ask questions – open-ended ones – about what they love about gaming, or just watching them play. Better, still, “let your grandchildren teach you to play a game. A lot of games out there are grandparent-friendly, and it can be a great way to connect.” Dr Kanojia recommends “couch co-op” games where players sit next to each other to play together; his own mother and young daughters play a game called Overcooked, set in a restaurant kitchen, where players have to cooperate to get dishes out to diners, but you could also try something like chess, a game you might know how to play, but not using a gaming control.

The benefits of getting involved in this way are multiple: first, by gaming with your grandchild, said child is then much more likely to want to do something with you and second, there are the beneficial aspects of gaming on your own body and brain – it can help hand-eye coordination and yes, problem-solving too.

Struggling to set boundaries around this most addictive of pastimes? “A very simple tool is to proactively suggest to the child when they come over, ‘let’s plan the day’,” says Dr Kanojia. “Ask them what they would like to do today that’s not on a screen.” And, he adds, go one step up. “Explicitly ask, ‘When we spend time together, what is the goal?’ It’s so baked-in for older generations that there’s value in it [time together] but kids don’t always recognise that. Getting them to articulate why chips away at a lot of resistance.”


You might feel you’ve spent all the money you wanted on bringing up your own children. But it’s quite likely that you’ll also be forking out to support your grandchildren: a recent survey found that the mean amount lent or gifted to grandchildren is £2,119, while 18 per cent of parents with children at private schools receive financial help from grandparents with fees and 44 per cent of grandparents give their grandchildren money for birthday and Christmas gifts.

Financial assistance can often be a source of tension, but this is something to address with adult children, rather than grandchildren – about what you can and can’t afford to help them with, and how long you’re prepared to do so (although if you can afford it and know they need the help, don’t wait for them to ask, offer).

If you’d like to help but can’t commit to something as significant as school fees, the aforementioned childcare can lift an enormous burden, as well as building a good relationship with your grandchildren.

If you can’t give the time but would like to help with the cost of something, try picking something with a personal connection: my own grandmother, for example, paid for our music lessons at school as she loved music; my father-in-law, a keen golfer, pays for my eldest son’s golf lessons. “If you’re funding something you love, it’s working for everyone,” says Lowe. The key is to “give without strings, and freely”: don’t pay because you want to control something.

You can also help teach your grandkids about money – a Legal & General survey found that 30 per cent received useful money-saving or financial advice from grandparents. That could be something as simple as helping them open a savings account, teaching them about interest and suggesting that a proportion of any birthday money goes into it. They’ll thank you for it one day.

Social media networks grandparents need to know about



What is it? A Chinese-owned app dedicated to short videos.

How do young people use it? For advice on everything from beauty tips to personal finance to cooking.

Why you might like it yourself: it’s entertaining, and can be useful for hobbies – “booktok”, for example, is a sub-genre that has been credited with making reading cool again, and is a place for book enthusiasts to discuss, recommend and discover what they like to read.



What is it? A messaging app that lets users exchange pictures and videos that are meant to disappear after they’re viewed.

How do young people use it? To connect with and follow friends.

Why you might like it yourself: it’s intimate and fun – and you’re more likely to get a response to your “snap” from your grandchild than sending a text.



What is it? A photo and video-sharing app.

How do young people use it? To document their lives.

Why you might like it yourself: it’s a great way to get visual inspiration on everything from new recipes to gardening.



What is it? A video-sharing website.

How do young people use it? To learn about different topics, like finding tricks or bugs in a video game, or what the guitar chords for a particular piece of music are.

Why you might like it yourself: you can get lost down a rabbit-hole of personally tailored videos, from Plácido Domingo’s conducting to every DIY project you could possibly imagine. Also extremely useful for when you, for example, want to work out how to clear the filter on your Bosch washing machine and can’t find the instructions.



What is it? An “end-to-end encrypted” messaging service (no one – including WhatsApp – can see the messages apart from the sender and recipient).

How do young people use it? To communicate with a group of friends (you can create a “group chat” to message a specific set of people).

Why you might like it yourself: set up a family WhatsApp group and it’s a great way to keep up with everyone’s goings-on, from sharing cute family photos to telling everyone what time to come for dinner.

Don’t bother with…

facebook twitter
facebook twitter

Facebook – it’s for old people.

Twitter/X – used solely to stalk older people.