Debate! Last week a woman advertised for a new granny for her kids, because her own mother prefers a night out to baking. I don't get it, says Sylvia Hemingway; what could be more satisfying than kids? Living your own life, says Sheila Kitzinger

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SYLVIA

HEMINGWAY

I JUST don't understand that grandmother who hasn't got time for her grandchildren because she's only the age that I was when my eldest granddaughter Kerry was born, and I was so excited!

I'm the sort of grandma who will play hopscotch in the yard, or go conkering with them, or play ball games. I just sailed through being a grandmother - Kerry and Laura especially spent a lot of time with me. I would get all the tins out of the cupboard and play shops with them, or put washing- up liquid in the watering can to make bubbles. If I was doing the housework I'd give them a duster and let them trot round after me - they think they're helping when you do that. I'll always remember Kerry sitting on the stairs pretending she was sitting on the bus, or running up and down the garden sweeping with her little brush, or giving Laura my recipe book and letting her make a fruit cake - she wasn't allowed to do that at home.

Laura likes to play cards with me - a lot of children these days don't know how to play cards but me and Bill will teach them games like rummy and patience and it teaches them to count. That kind of thing doesn't seem to have rubbed off on the next generation. But I think that a lot of mothers work today and are very busy, and kids do miss out on a lot, and it's just common sense that children spend time with their grandparents. As they get older, it changes a bit - sometimes Kerry just wants to talk, and I'll sit and listen. Even if she says something I don't approve of, I won't interfere - I think that's up to the parents.

I really enjoy looking after children. All the kids round here know us as Sylv and Bill and we never have any trouble with them. I do honestly think children need a bit of respect. If you give children respect, they'll give it back to you, if you don't they won't. I talk to them, I don't rant and rave. Kids have got to know where they are, and if I say "No", they know I mean "No". I never say "I'll see" and I never promise anything if I can't keep that promise.

I've never stopped fostering, I'm always on the go. It's so hard to let the children go, though. We mostly do pre-adoption now, but we still get attached - it's hard not to and when they leave it's like a bereavement every time.

I've just had one of my foster girls back to see me, and she brought her own baby. The baby is a credit to her. I'm so proud of her, she's done so well, she's coping and what she hasn't got she does without. She doesn't see her own mother so perhaps in a way she looks on me as a grandmother too. Being a grandparent is so rewarding - grandparents who don't spend time with their grandchildren don't know what they're missing out on.

Sylvia Hemingway, 66, was voted Grandparent of the Year 1998 and has seven grandchildren: Kerry, 20, Sarah, 15, Laura, 11,

Jonathan, 11, Alice, nine,

Katie, nine, and Eliott, three. As well as bringing up her own family, she and husband Bill have fostered over 400 children in the past 44 years. She is currently fostering two babies.

SHEILA KITZINGER

IF YOU want to be a silver-haired grandmother in a rocking chair or to turn into a tribal elder, fine! Some of us don't feel ready for that yet. We are in the prime of our lives, and the world is in desperate need of those who have both the experience and the energy to fight social injustice and discrimination and work to build a better society. We owe that to our children, and our grandchildren, too.

The popular stereotype is that grandmothers are homebodies. Somebody gave me a tea-towel with the words, "Let her enjoy spoiling her grandchildren with sweets and toys. Invite her to stay and furnish her with bed socks, a nightcap and hot-water bottle and in the morning a cup of tea or breakfast in bed with flowers on the tray. Above all make her feel needed."

Often the myth is that Granny is always pottering about in the garden and kitchen, knitting and making cherry cakes for tea. But throughout history grandmothers have always been busy. In extended families grandmothers, along with aunts, sisters, sisters-in-law and cousins shared childcare and the work, often very heavy, in the household and on the farm. Instead of an overburdened mother and a passive, adoring grandmother there was a community of interdependent working women of varied ages. This is how it still is in traditional cultures.

One of the problems dedicated, full-time grandmothers face is that they get in a double bind between being warmly involved in their grandchildren's lives and realising that they are interfering. When I researched my book Becoming a Grandmother, women often told me, "I want to say something but I have to bite my tongue" or "Whenever I try to help my daughter she gets irritated. She won't take advice". Quite right too! It is tempting to use grandmothering as a kind of occupational therapy in an otherwise empty life.

The really important thing is that we give time to listen. That is what is so important for grandchildren: to have someone who has learned how to manage her time so that, however busy she is, she makes time to listen.

I enjoy being a grandmother largely because my identity is not encased in the grandmother model. I see other women not enjoying being grandmothers because they are anxious, trying to make everyone happy, or long to be in control or to be reassured that they are loved.

Through the way we live, we teach children more than how to bake biscuits - to learn new skills, develop as a person, take political action, and enjoy life. Then we really have something precious to give our grandchildren.

Sheila Kitzinger is a grandmother and author of `Becoming a Grandmother', published by Bantam, pounds 7.99.

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