7 Lessons from Downton Abbey to Be a Better Grandparent

We all know that what we see on television is very different from real life. This is all the more true for a show depicting the lives of wealthy English aristocrats and their domestic servants in the early part of last century. Aside from nostalgia for the days when wearing a black tie instead of a white tie to dinner at home was an absolute scandal — what if we could take away some valuable life lessons from Downton Abbey?

Photo by lafiguradelpadre Congreso / modified / CC BY 2.0

Luckily, in nearly every episode, the undisputed matriarch of the Crawley family offers us prime instruction on being a standout grandmother. Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (played by Maggie Smith) is a wellspring of wisdom. But watch out! It can be rather biting. Here are a few lessons to take away:

1. Different generation means different values. And that’s not a bad thing.

As the product of the previous generation (and the previous century!), you offer a unique perspective to your family.


The Countess could never get used to the growing informality with which her granddaughters conducted themselves, and was wary when electricity and telephones were introduced to the estate. Does seeing how much time your grandkids spend on their phones and tablets upset you? Do you find it distressing that no one knows how to write a proper letter anymore? Share these insights with your family. Your experience, gained in the past, can make them see the present in a whole new way.

2. The art of the sharp retort.

Did you know that being a grandparent gives you an automatic free pass to drop acid-laced witticisms whenever you feel like it? In all seriousness, as a grandparent you don’t have the same responsibilities a parent has. You’re allowed to give your grandchildren all the love and support they deserve — on your terms. If you’re anything like Countess Violet, this might include some clever quips.

 

Here are a few of our favorite remarks by Countess Violet to her grandchildren:


“I do hope I’m interrupting something.”


“Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle class.”


“There’s nothing simpler than avoiding people you don’t like. Avoiding one’s friends, that’s the real test.”


“It’s the job of grandmothers to interfere.”


And if you doubt the appropriateness of your biting commentary, remember Countess Violet’s best response to such criticism:


“Alas, I am beyond impropriety.”


3. Family first.

Countess Violet is involved in a long list of charities and organizations, but her ultimate allegiance is to her family. She spares no effort in doing what’s best for her granddaughters, and their well-being is always at the top of her priorities. Our list of responsibilities in the world might be very long, but we know that in order to make the world a better place, we must start with our families.

 

 

Do you have aristocrats in your family tree? Make incredible family history discoveries to share with your grandchildren.

4. Listen to your grandkids. And keep their secrets.

A surprising feature of Violet’s character is that, when the situation is serious, she puts aside indignation and conservatism, and listens to her granddaughters. And in turn, they know they can come to her with the problems they might not even be comfortable sharing with their parents. Violet takes this special responsibility seriously, by agreeing to keep her granddaughters’ secrets when requested (without spoilers: see Edith’s conundrum in Season 5.)


It’s important for your grandkids to feel they have an adult they can trust other than their parents, and that person might just be you. So listen well.

5. Never let your status get in the way of kindness.

Although she’s the most senior member of a wealthy, upper-crust family, Countess Violet knows how to put aside her self-importance when it really matters. And she reminds her grandchildren to do the same:


“My dear, a lack of compassion can be as vulgar as an excess of tears.”

6. Listen to your instincts.

Countess Violet can be accused of all sorts of things, but lack of self-confidence isn’t one of them. Her years of experience in the world have lent her a strong moral compass, and — as improper as she would find this expression — she listens to her gut.


As a grandparent, you have the type of life experience that gives your opinions a certain weight, so trust yourself.

7. Pride in your heritage — a value to pass on to the next generation.

Violet often makes fun of her class of English gentry:

 

Rosamund:  What do you think makes the English the way we are?

Countess Violet:  Opinions differ. Some say our history, but I blame the weather.

 

But underneath the criticism, Countess Violet is immensely proud of her family’s traditions, and she makes a point of passing this on to her son Robert and his daughters.

 

Safeguarding the family’s history is a major element of Downton Abbey, and the reason the show resonates with millions of fans is that we can relate to this on some level. We might not all be lords and ladies of famous estates in the English countryside, but we still take pride in our family histories. Passing this on to the next generation is our duty — and our joy.

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