Years ago, when my daughters were on the edge of adolescence, a neglected item of clothing allowed me a moment of time travel. In a burst of spring cleaning, I found one of my old jackets wedged deep in the back of a closet. When I searched its pockets, I discovered a tiny doll. In an instant I was transported back to the season when my pockets were perennially full of little toys, bits of driftwood and pretty stones. As I held that doll, I tried to remember the last time I’d been entrusted with one of my children’s treasures. I couldn’t. An entire life stage had somehow slipped through my fingers without notice.

My daughters are grown women now, and the two oldest have children of their own. But as I get caught up in the busyness of daily life, I still find it too easy to take the little things for granted. A friend of mine inadvertently reminded me how fortunate I am. Her own children are both in their thirties, but there are no grandchildren on the immediate horizon. My friend is dating a man who does have grandkids, however, and the youngest one recently presented her with a lovely drawing. My friend gave the drawing pride of place on the front of her refrigerator and drew attention to it at our last visit. “Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I received a piece of children’s art?” she asked. Point taken. I returned home that evening with a new appreciation for the knee-level handprints on my sliding glass door and the plastic dinosaurs lurking behind the couch—evidence of the three-year-old in my life.

Gratitude is the perfect antidote for taking life’s little gifts for granted. I first turned to gratitude as a conscious practice following my mother’s premature death from cancer five years ago. It was initially a way to cope with grief, but it became much more. Through the lens of gratitude—a discipline that can be cultivated—I discovered that I was surrounded with gifts, both big and small. Some were obvious, while some required more intentional observation.

Our grandchildren are certainly gifts, simply by their existence. What could be more primally fulfilling than knowing that life goes on into the next generation? But our children’s children bring smaller gifts to our lives as well, gifts that can be missed if we aren’t paying attention. The impossible softness of newborn skin. The trusting grip of little fingers. The proud grin that follows a soccer goal or a well-executed gymnastics routine.

Gratitude and the practice of mindfulness seem to go hand-in-hand. When practiced formally, mindfulness is also known as meditation—time set aside to clear the mind of distraction, to get quiet and centred while anchored in an awareness of the breath. Practiced informally, mindfulness is about fully entering the present moment, focusing the attention on one thing, at one time, without judgement. While mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist tradition, western medical professionals are increasingly recognizing its benefits to mental and physical well-being.

Health benefits aside, as a grandparent I’m interested in how mindfulness can enrich my relationship with my grandkids. Life is busy and our grandchildren don’t always live nearby. Mindfulness won’t give us more time together, but it will help us make the most of each moment we do get.

How do we practice mindfulness with our grandkids? We put aside our phones in their company. We focus on one thing at a time. We invite them to join us in our work in the garden or at the kitchen counter. We explain what we’re doing in words they understand. We choose to see them, to look into their eyes when they’re speaking—whether in person or on Skype. We choose to hear them, to really listen to what they’re saying. We savour the little things: the dimples in an infant’s arm, the dusky smell of a toddler’s hair, the bangs that fall into a teenager’s eyes. We put aside judgement about what they’re wearing or how they’re behaving in a given moment, surrendering those responsibilities to their parents. We learn to respond rather than to react.

This kind of moment-by-moment presence should be easier to practice with our grandkids than it was when we were parenting their moms and dads. In theory we’re older and wiser this time around, and more aware of the calendar turning. Most of us have less responsibility as grandparents, less need to multitask or to control outcomes. We can afford to slow down, to appreciate each life stage before it slips past. But it does take intention.

I’ll be babysitting my three-month-old granddaughter this evening. She knows how to take a bottle, but this will be the first time her mother hasn’t nursed her to sleep. There may be some tears, but I’m confident we’ll get through them. I’ll bounce her gently, croon soft lullabies near her ear, feel the warm, squirming weight of her against my chest. And when at last she falls asleep, I’ll listen to her breathe for a while before tiptoeing gratefully from her room.

We can’t stop time or even slow it down, but we can learn to be more present in the moments we’re given. Being mindful of even the little things can help us to see our grandchildren fully and love them unconditionally. Isn’t that our job as grandparents?

Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and a children’s author. Her previous articles can be found at islandparent.ca.