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Navigating the Early Grade School Years

Original Air Date 07/25/2014

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Author Erin MacPherson and her mother, Ellen Schuknecht, an educator, offer encouragement and advice to moms of early grade school-aged children.

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Episode Transcript



Jim Daly: Erin what’s the number one thing a mom should do as her child enters the grade school years?

Erin MacPherson: My first answer is to pray, because this is your child’s experience. They’re starting kindergarten and you need to remember that it’s not you that’s going in. It’s not you that’s doing anything, but it’s their chance to start out into the world. And so, you just need to pray as you send them out, that you’ll make good choices and that they’ll be able to just grow the way that God wants them to grow.

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: Well, and I think every mom listening said, “Yeah, I’m prayin’. I’ve been praying.”


And that is - that is one of many things that you can do as you help your child go into the educational experience. Uh, that’s Erin MacPherson and she’s the author of The Christian Mama’s Guide to the Grade School Years. And she’s also joined by her mom and mentor, Ellen Schuknecht. And we are so glad to have them here on Focus on the Family with Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and Jim, this should be an eminently practical program for any mother who is worried about what’s ahead here for school.

Jim: It is, John, and I think uh, this book is really covering kindergarten through fourth grade. And those are exciting times. I mean, I can remember bein’ a kindergartner and I was uh, first day of school my mom had to drag me to school, ‘cause I didn’t want to go. Who wants to go? And uh, I mean, you can’t be sane and want to leave all day, ‘cause how are you gonna play?

John: Yeah, home is all I know and it’s a pretty good deal.

Jim: It is a good deal. You get snacks, all that good stuff. So she drags me to kindergarten and I fall in love with the teacher. I guess that’s what you say was a puppy crush. And I didn’t want to leave that afternoon.

John: Oh, my.

Jim: So my teacher had to actually push me all the way back home. Fortunately, I lived a block from school. But I mean - it was so funny. In fact, my mom, she was so smart. My mom said, “Oh, do you like your teacher?” I said, “Oh, I love my teacher. She’s so nice.” Mrs. Smith, now who doesn’t have a teacher named Mrs. Smith? She said, “Well, why don’t you invite her over for dinner?” And I asked my kindergarten teacher out to dinner. And I said, “Could you come to my house for dinner?” And she was so kind and she said, “Yes.”

So, I remember dinner at my house. My mom and her sat at the dining room table and ate. I sat with a TV tray and watched “Batman.”


That was my first date and uh, boy, I don’t know why Jean said yes, but uh, anyway, kindergarten. It just has all that trauma and opportunity, right?


Erin: A lot of trauma and a lot of opportunity. But I have to say for me, the trauma was more for me than for my son. I - they told us in a memo that we had to let our kids walk into the school by themselves so they could get used to it and ‘cause it…

Jim: They didn’t…

Erin: I think they…

Jim: …push him?

Erin: …didn’t want a bunch of parents in there. And so, I had to just drop him off at the curb and I had nightmares about that. Like, I was - I was like, “Well, what if he falls? What if someone picks on him? What if he can’t find his classroom? What if he just wanders off?” And my husband looked like, “Are you serious?”


“He has to walk 10 steps!”

Jim: Erin, it’s natural for young moms to think in those ways and dads, too. I think we have become far more protective because there - we perceive at least and I think it’s true, there’s so much more danger lurking that we uh, batten down the hatches. We’re, you know, making sure they’re never alone and is that healthy or unhealthy?

Erin: I think it’s unhealthy, but I - ‘cause they do obviously need experiences on their own. But I also think that when they’re 5, it’s really hard to let go and they’re not ready to completely be on their own. They’re not ready to walk all the way into the school by themselves. They need a little bit of a hand.

Jim: Ellen, you are mom here for Erin and I love the way she talks about you. The relationship you have comes through. It sounds like every time your daughter, Erin is in a jam, she calls mom. You’re like the red phone in the house. It’s the “bat phone.” Just dial, I guess.

John: Oh, okay.

Jim: …it’s an analogy here.


John: It’s gonna be all through the program now.

Jim: It’s all about Batman. But uh, you know, it’s just - I - I love that, because that’s the way it should be. You - you also - the big benefit for Erin here is that you were an educator for 35 years. So, you’re coming with wonderful experience as Erin is uh, going through this time in her life, when she has 8-, 6- and 2-year-old. You can help her substantially. Talk about that experience, being an educator. Is what we’re talking about, have you seen those changes, where kids had more independence perhaps at an earlier age than they do today?

Ellen Schuknecht: I think there is a big shift there, but there’s also - it - I have to say, it’s really fun for me to have gone through that experience myself and now watch my children with their grandchildren going through there.

Jim: Do you bite your lip?

Ellen: I do.


Um, and I think the same message is clear in any generation, that the kids - parents have to let the kids learn and make the mistakes and grow from these challenges.

Jim: Why are we afraid of those mistakes?

Ellen: The current generation of parents, I think they - they so badly want their kids to be successful. Like any generation, but I think they’re more apt to feel like they’re responsible and it reflects on them. And so, they - they are so - I love young moms. I work with a lot of young moms at school with the parents. And they feel a lot of guilt and worry. And I try to just tell ‘em to relax, ‘cause the kids do need to learn and they learn and let ‘em learn when it’s safe when they’re little.

Jim: How do we let go? A real practical question, we all struggle with that, ‘cause I think we’re breeding control freaks and in us - I mean, the - the environment is making us more control-oriented. So, how do we actually uh, take a deep breath and let go a little bit?

Erin: I was gonna say, that story I told you about my son having to walk into the school by himself. First of all, I practiced. My husband thought I was crazy.

Jim: You actually practiced.

Erin: I - I took him like the day before school started and I was like, we’ll just go practice walking. I mean, it’s literally 10 steps.

Jim: And was the practice more for you than him?

Erin: Yeah, it was for me, ‘cause he was like, “I’m fine, mom.” But then I pulled out of the school driveway that morning and I pulled into the side road and I sobbed, because I was like, “My baby, he’s in school. What am I going to do with my life?” And at that moment, I realized I have to let God have my son for these, you know, six hours a day.

Jim: Now, we also want to recognize that there are all different types of educational choices. We have home schoolers and we have private Christian schools and uh, charter schools like my boys go to. Um, you know, there’s a lot of different educational choices today. So, we’re not grading those in any way. But parents who are choosing to place their children in school outside the home, that’s the environment we’re talking about.

Erin: Well, I think we’re kind of talking about all the environments. In the book we actually go through all the different choices and all the different ways that parents can decide to educate their kids. And it’s actually interesting. When I wrote the book, my son was going to public school. And last summer I woke up one morning in July, after all of the private school deadlines were long over and I thought, “I cannot send him back there.” And it wasn’t because I had a problem with it. It wasn’t - I loved the school. He did a great job there. But I just felt God really telling me that there was something else.

And I pursued it and I prayed about it and I didn’t tell my husband, ‘cause he really liked the public school, too. And a couple weeks later he told me, “We’re go - we can’t send him back there and we’re gonna have to send him somewhere else.” So, both of us kinda came to this conclusion on our own.

So I actually moved my son into a private university-model school, where he goes two days a week to school and two days a week school at home, and started my daughter there. So I’ve done both. So I do the home school. We did the public school. We’ve done the private school, so…

Jim: Um, Ellen, you came up with a list of 15 factors uh, that identify success in children and uh, if you could, why don’t you identify two or three out of the 15. And we’ll post those on the website, as well. But uh, identify a couple of those that actually indicate a child is moving in a healthy direction.

Ellen: One of ‘em is the initiative. And we were talkin’ about a little bit earlier, about how…

Jim: Having an initiative.

Ellen: …having initiative. Parents today, I feel like young moms like to think that if they worry, they care more. And I always tell ‘em, worry doesn’t mean you care more. You need to let your child go and let them grow and have the initiative try things out, to approach their teachers, to walk into the school alone - all those things that we’re trying to do to help them grow in their own initiative really. So I think initiative is a huge one. And…

Jim: Let’s explore that for a minute, ‘cause it’s very interesting to me. Uh, one of the things I’ve written a book about fathering and so often, both moms and dads today, we tend to want to uh, make it easier. So the - the analogy that I used was kids climbing trees at the park. It’s so fascinating. If you watch parents today, a lot of moms and dads will actually put their child up on the limb, rather than letting them climb it, which I find very interesting.

And it’s almost we’re saying, you don’t’ have to work hard. You - we don’t want you to fail. We don’t want you to fall. And nobody wants their child to fall out of the tree. But rather than struggle and maybe the first few times they can’t get up on the limb like their friends and they’re down at the bottom, maybe crying. Let ‘em go. Let ‘em go, because you know what? That pressure will create the desire to get up there and they’ll find a way. But so often, we want to bail our children out, don’t we?

Ellen: And if you ask a mom or a dad what they are most proud of, often it involves a challenge that they overcame. And yet, our tendency is maybe to want to take away the challenges from our kids, the very lessons that grow. So, letting them figure out how to face a challenge on their own grows confidence like nothing else.

Jim: It does and especially in school. I uh, you know, recently we had - this is a 7th grade analogy, not a young grade-school analogy, but uh, one of my boys was doing a science project and he was struggling. The first few assignments he didn’t do well with the grade.

Yet, he was telling Jean and me, “Don’t worry; I’ve got it. I’ve got it.” At one - at one point at the table, he had to say, “You - I feel like you guys are really judgin’ me.” So, I said to Jean, “Let’s just back off. Let’s just back off.” And we did and thankfully, I mean, it ends with a happy story. I’m not sure how I would’ve responded in the other way. But he ended up placing very high in - in the final competition. And I could tell he was beaming about it, because he had told us in essence, “I got it. Back off. Don’t judge me in the early stages here. I’ll do it.” And he did and his confidence was so much healthier…

Ellen: Yes.

Jim: …and in a good way. That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it?

Ellen: It’s exactly. And another one would be just being teachable. And a child who prefers maybe to think they know it all, because they don’t want to admit that there’s something they don’t know. And little kids’ll do this. Because for some reason, this idea that you have to know everything and to put on this idea that there’s nothing to learn starts very early in kids. And letting them be okay about not knowing something and learning it. And it’s a hard lesson to teach for the child. I think Joey, when he was little, liked to be the coach, even if he didn’t know the skills. ‘Cause he wanted to kind of feel like he knew it all. Knowing it’s okay that as adults, we all have to learn, too.

Jim: Uh, so initiative is one. Resilience is another one that you have on that list. I - I identify with resilience. I think it’s critical. It kinda fits with initiative. But resilience is being able to take the blows and still keep moving. Why is that important for a child?

Ellen: Because that’s what life is really about. It’s about - life - life is a series of unexpected things and I feel like when parents recognize their job is to grow children who can face what comes, rather than trying to pave the way ahead and make it easy, they’re raising kids who can handle whatever God’s gonna give them to do and what life’s gonna throw at them.

John: I so appreciate what you’re saying there, Ellen, because it refers back to something you mentioned earlier and that is, our vision of success for our children. It’s not necessarily the things that many of us would think of. And you’re giving us some good reference points on perhaps some better ways to think through what is success, particularly in the early years of school, those first and second grades. Uh, that’s a very foundational time. We’re gonna have this entire list that we’re touching on right here when you stop by and you can also find out about Erin’s book, The Christian Mama’s Guide to the Grade School Years and a CD or download of this program there, as well.

Jim: Let me ask you about another one that caught my attention, genuine faith. It’s interesting that you list it that way, as opposed to just faith. What do you mean by genuine faith?

Ellen: We want our kids to behave well and parents want their kids to be respectful and know how to be kind in their words and when they talk to adults. And we’re looking at these outward appearances and it’s very easy to replace the Gospel with moralism.

Jim: How do you create a lesson like that? Let’s - let’s just go through it, first, second, third grade, give us an example of teaching genuine faith, that Christ-heartedness with your child. Will - give us a picture of that.

Erin: Well, I’m gonna say, like I always say, my mom was working on her blog the other day and I was reading it and it was talking about the desires of your heart. And if a kid just desires to be good so they don’t get in trouble, then their desire may - it may work when they’re 8 and it’s easy. But when it gets hard, they don’t.

And so, she was talking about how to teach kids to truly desire God and to truly know Him. And part of that involves knowing Him and knowing Who He is and how He works with us. So, I think a big lesson for that is just helping kids to learn to desire God.

Ellen: And not focusing so much on outcomes. I think parents want good grades. We all want our kids to be so successful, as you said. But the - it’s the process. It’s what they do along the way that they’re learning more about who they are and who God is.

Jim: I need to ask this question, because I think again, as parents, we often want and expect the perfect outcome. And so, we’re on our kids about that and no matter what it is, grades, behavior. And in many ways, it’s good to have that expectation, but we also have to leave room for experiential learning. In other words, what you’re saying is, if you go beyond that boundary, here’s what’s gonna happen. How does a parent move from kind of that younger age where maybe they’re 5 or 6, into the 7-8 age group where they need to kinda figure it out? You need to let them feel the pain and consequence of their decision. Whereas before, it’s almost like you’re moving from that parent to more of a coach, if I could say it that way.

Ellen: Well, it’s interesting that you would say that. That’s what we call our parents in those years. And we train our parents at the school where my grandchildren go, to move out of that teacher role to a coach alongside, as the child is trying on right behavior. And they often in the process will try on wrong behavior. And allowing them the freedom to make mistakes, the freedom to fail and feel on their own what that feels like. ‘Cause then they change.

Jim: Again, is it when you’re in that public environment particularly, the freedom to fail, it’s a kind of a bigger pill for mom and dad to swallow.

Erin: Well, this is an interesting concept, restorative justice; do you guys know what it is? And it’s a concept in public schools right now, where they’re going away from, you know, you have to get these perfect grades. You have to - or you’ll get detention if you’re tardy, to a place where kids have to solve the problem. So, a kid’s tardy 10 times. They tell the teacher, “Well, this is what I need to make sure I’m not tardy. I need to know that I’m gonna be in detention every day.” And they’re in detention. Or “I need to write an essay about being late.” And suddenly, the responsibility for coming up with their own consequence, um, these kids are basically forced to analyze their behavior. And this is in public schools - public high schools in really rough cities; it’s really working. And I think that translates to parents, like allow your kids to almost figure out their own consequences for their behavior.

Jim: Well, and you know, what’s interesting about that is that oftentimes in those uh, settings, there may not be a strong parental role model. They may be uh, something like what I lived. I mean, I didn’t have a parent saying, “Be home by 9 o’clock.” And you’ve got to as a child; you gotta begin to set your own boundaries. Now that has to be healthy and hopefully, the - the adults in that environment are making sure, yeah, my penalty for being tardy is I get a donut.

Erin: Well, and that’s the thing. They have to work with a counselor and a teacher to come up with their own - “restoration policy” is what they call it - to restore themselves to where they should be. And so, working together and coming up with it, I think that make - I love the idea of restorative justice.

Ellen: I do, too and I think that when kids come up with their own solutions to their problems, they’re often a little harder on themselves than the adults would be. And they come up with creative ways that they own and are willing to follow through on.

Jim: That’s true. I’ve heard it, as well, that often times kids will be much more severe in terms of their consequence. And maybe we should try that at home. What’s an appropriate age to begin to do that?

Ellen: I think it’s a gradual thing. I think as much opportunity as you can give your children, even in the young preschool, kindergarten ages, to solve their own problems, as much responsibility as you can give them, you need to do it.

Jim: If it comes to that kind of disobedient behavior, would that be appropriate? Are we talking about other things where it’s not defiance per se? For me, defiance seems to fit into a separate category all its own.

Erin: I agree. I think it’s - defiance is different. I think this is more like you’ve hurt someone else or you’ve hurt yourself in a way, whether it’s intentional or unintentional and you solve the problem. So, you accidentally spilled the milk. You have to clean it up. You did that.

Jim: When you’re looking at those early years of - of grade school, let’s top out at fourth grade, what should that fourth-grader look like, he or she, going into fifth grade? What are the characteristics of their nature that you want them to possess?

Ellen: By fourth grade, I think they know how to be respectful first of all. They need to know how to be a good friend, how to share, how to turn in their homework, how to complete their work on their own. They need to have the basics down of behavior. They need to know what it looks like.

Jim: Talk to us about the overdoing of praise, because I - you can see that, as well. When children aren’t really earning your praise, but because we’ve been told as parents, make sure you’re praisin’ your kids, we say, “Wow, I’ve never seen anybody eat a bowl of cereal the way you’ve just eaten that cereal. You’re awesome. High-five me.” Kids can go, “Wow, that’s all you’d need for, you know, strokes here. That’s pretty easy.” Do we give our kids a challenge when we’re overpraising them?

Erin: I think not only do we not give them a challenge, but we also kind of set ourselves up as liars, like you say, you’re the smartest kid in the entire world.

Jim: And the kids figure it out.

Erin: And then the kid figures out, wait, I got a C on this. I’m not the smartest kid in the entire world. My mom lied to me. Um…

Jim: Do they really process it that way?

Erin: I think some older kids could. I think the important thing is to praise the effort, to praise the process. You worked really hard on that math assignment. I’m proud of you. You’ve done a really good job of trying to learn patience and…

Jim: So, don’t overstate it.

Erin: Right, and praise the process and the effort and what they’re working on, instead of these amazing feats. And also, don’t praise somethin’ that God gave them. Why - like, you’re the most beautiful person in the world. That’s a gift from God. Praise what they’re doing.

Jim: Do you make it a distinction uh, in these early years of grade school, between the gifts God has given you and the attributes that you have honed? Do you try to make that distinction for the child? I think of - you know, one of my sons is a very good writer. His teacher is just praising him about his writing style and it’s quite good. But that’s something I’m talking to him about honing and working on that and continuing to develop it, ‘cause it’ll be a great skill set if he becomes an excellent writer. I’m not saying, um, you know, God necessarily has given you that skill, although that could be fair. Is there a distinction that you would make?

Erin: I think there is. I think you can say something like, you know, God gave you a talent to be a writer and I’m really proud of you for honing it and working so hard to get better.

Jim: Uh, sometimes you don’t want to have them rest, right? So, they - they get lazy with the talent God has given them.

Erin: Right.

Jim: How do you motivate a child uh, perhaps when you notice the gift and then the gift isn’t being developed?

Erin: I love your question here, because I think that if we continue to praise our kids for work ethic and the process, we continue to motivate them to get better. And if the flattery comes in, they may see no reason to get better, but they also may be afraid to try, ‘cause it may not meet the standard you’ve said about them. So, they’ll hide behind, what if I’m not really as good as my mom said I was.

Jim: Oh, yeah.

Erin: So, the praise on the effort, if they see that work ethic is what really sets up success down the road, that it’s growth.

Jim: And praise that.

Erin: Yes.

Jim: Yeah. Erin, you talk in your book, The Christian Mama’s Guide to the Grade School Years, you talk about being in college and having a season where you fell away from your faith. Talk about that. Did you feel you weren’t ready? Was there something in your early experience that perhaps provided the root for that? What was happening?

Erin: I think I got to college and I realized I had a lot of freedom and I realized that I had known what was right and wrong, but I hadn’t necessarily like I said earlier, desired what was right and wrong. And I wasn’t truly seeking God in my life. So, I figured, “Hey, it’s way more fun to just do what I want, to sleep in on Sunday and hang out with my friends.” And it just wasn’t important enough to me to stick to God, even though I still knew He was real.

Jim: That’s a very typical story that we’ll get here at Focus on the Family. Parents of 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, especially those that go off to college, not everyone goes off to college, but they do have a moment where their - their faith is in a crisis, because mom and dad who have set those boundaries and had monitored uh, perhaps overly monitored, their children aren’t ready to launch. And so, they get into that environment where there may be parties and other things, and they really have not developed the skill set to say no. How do you do a better job? How do we as parents do a better job launching our children to be able to get into an environment where we’re not around them and they make the right decisions?

Erin: Yes, it’s that genuine faith where they do the right thing even when they don’t have to or they’re not being forced to. I’m gonna let you answer that.

Ellen: Well, I think one of the most important things we can do is be okay with the kids asking the tough questions at home, being a safe place to talk about the tough things. And that’s hard for a Christian family, ‘cause we don’t want to hear doubt. We don’t want to hear these questionings. And yet, in those middle-school, adolescent years, where they are questioning inside and they don’t want to bring it out, if we could help our kids to be safe in talking about it.

Jim: You - let me ask you this, because temperament can play into this. I - I’m just - the parental temperament. Um, Jean and I - Jean’s a science person. She did biochemistry. I’ve said this before, John, but when she makes pancakes, it’s exactly one cup. And she takes a knife and she scrapes the excess flour. I mean, I don’t get the cup out. I just throw it in, mix it up and sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re not so good, I must admit. But uh, the point of that is that those styles in parenting can play into this, because especially in - in our Christian experience, we hold ourselves to a high standard. We want our children to live to a high standard. And sometimes we become intolerant of failure.

And I think all along God is saying, uh, like in the prodigal story, love that child. Because that in the end is what will make the difference, uh, through thick and thin, through right and wrong. And the earlier they can make some of those mistakes, actually the better it is, so that they can go off better prepared to confront those pulls and those things that they’re going to encounter once they’re out of the home. Is that fair? Or would you add something to that, Ellen?

Ellen: Absolutely and that they see when they make the mistakes when they’re under your roof, that you still love them, that your connection to them is not based on their perfection, but based on their desire to grow and learn and you’re gonna love them even if they’re in a mess.


John: We’ve been having a great conversation with Erin MacPherson and Ellen Schuknecht on today’s Focus on the Family. And such great practical advice on ensuring those years of early grade school are some of the best years ever as you mold and shape the character of your child.

Jim: Navigating those years can be a challenge too. And it’s such a privilege to be able to share this kind of advice and information, especially as everyone is heading back to school at this time. We also have a fantastic podcast that we just released titled “Thriving Student: What Your Child Needs for School Success”. Everybody wants to go get that, right?

John: Hope so.

Jim: It’s available on iTunes and you can listen at our website here at Focus on the Family. You’ll hear from great parenting experts like Dr. Kevin Leman, Dr. Kathy Koch, and many others who will help you and your child gear up for heading back to school. And you know what? We receive literally thousands of letters from parents and emails and phone calls all the time that need a boost or didn’t know how to handle a particular situation with their children. And because of your financial support and your prayers, we’ve been able to be there for them in that moment of need.

In fact, one mom wrote us to say this: “Your program has led me to study more deeply and respond more effectively in my relationships. I love the way you always direct us through the Word and hit real life situations.” Man, that’s great. The only way we can continue to offer that kind of help is because of you and your gifts and donations to help us reach hundreds of thousands of families each and every year. In fact, when you donate a gift of any amount today, I want to send you a copy of Erin’s book, The Christian Mama’s Guide to the Grade School Years, as our way of saying thank you for standing for the family.

John: And to donate to the ministry of Focus on the Family and receive your copy of The Christian Mama’s Guide to the Grade School Years, just call us. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY - 800-232-6459 - or online:

John: Well next time, we’ll hear from Cynthia Tobias and Jean Daly as they discuss the middle school years.


Cynthia Tobias: If you talk to me like a child, then I’ll act like a child. If you talk to me like an adult, I will at least attempt to answer you in - in a better way, you know? And it takes some practice, I mean never - not gonna be good at it as a 12-year-old yet, but I’m trying.

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More Episode Resources


Erin MacPherson

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Erin MacPherson is an author whose books include Hot Mama: 12 Secrets to a Sizzling Hot Marriage, The Christian Mama's Guide series and Free to Parent. She has been a featured columnist for numerous websites and publications, including MOPS International and MomSense Magazine. Erin and her husband, Cameron, reside in Austin, Texas, with their three children. Learn more about Erin by visiting her website.


Ellen Schuknecht

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With more than 35 years of working with families in both public and private education, Ellen Schuknecht currently serves as Director of Family Ministries at Veritas Academy, where she mentors parents, teachers and students on a daily basis. She also does private one-on-one parent coaching, group consulting and public speaking through Family Wings, a family support organization of which she and her husband, Glen, are the directors. Ellen has co-authored several books with her daughter Erin MacPherson including Put the Disciple Into Discipline and Free to Parent. Glen and Ellen reside in Austin, Texas, near their three married children and grandchildren.