When a local pastor told me he was planning to hold a five-session course on grandparenting, I told him I was surprised - surprised that people need lessons on how to be grandparents.

I thought grandparenting came easy in two simple steps: Loving and spoiling.

One thing I know for sure is that being a grandparent is far different than being a parent. It takes constant, full-time, hard work to be a parent.

All of us who have “been there" know parenthood is an everlasting long road filled with challenges and responsibilities. When one is charged with the care and upbringing of a little soul, it's the world's biggest responsibility.

Of course it's love that makes it all possible. From the time we hold a newborn, there is a wellspring of awe that is almost holy in its purity of love. That love never goes away. Never.

But sometimes love of a child gets buried under parental responsibilities and we have to periodically remind our children it is there.

The rules and responsibilities for grandparents are completely different. Perhaps the hardest thing to remember is that we are not in charge of that childthat role belongs to the parent.

You know a lot about raising kids. But what you don't know is your child's idea of raising kids and that's the only view that counts.

I remember quite vividly the first time my daughter “allowed" me to baby-sit for my first grandchild. First, she had to give me detailed instructions.

When she took great pains to show me how to change a diaper, I nodded solemnly, hiding the laughter that was bubbling inside.

I was tempted to say, “Who do you think changed your diapers and took care of you?" But I resisted the urge.

I've had long discussions with grandparents and we all agree that the best exercise a grandparent can do is to hold her tongue. We now have a supportive role, not a starring role.

What that means is that we are free to lavish love and affection without any other expectations.

The last time my daughter Andrea came to visit me in Florida, she dropped off her three children for two days while she and her husband traveled. They are strict parents and their well-trained children are proof of that. But when they stayed with me, I threw all their “rules" out the window. Call it a grandparent's prerogative.

“How many pieces of candy may I have?" asked my grandson as he tried to pick a favorite from the candy jar.

“As many as you want," I told him. He looked shocked. At home, he is limited to one treat each night after dinner.

When Andrea came back, she watched my fun-filled interaction with her children. Water was splashing everywhere as the three kids enjoyed dive-bombing into the pool. When she told them to stop splashing, I said the kids could splash as much as they want. That's the reason the pool is there.

“How come you were never that easy going with me and my sister?" she asked. “We always had to tow the line."

It's simple. I don't have to discipline the grandkids. That's the role of their parents. And I don't have to do all the routine care giving.

My job, as well as that of other grandparents, is simply to love our grandkids and to lavish attention on them.

Grandparents have the ability to listen intently to everything a grandchild says. Our focus is not divided by “things we have to do."

This, in turn, helps a little one to feel important, knowing his thoughts can make us beam with pride. They have so much to teach us and we have so much to teach them.

It's a win-win situation for both generations.

But grandparenting isn't all sweetness and light. Sometimes even loving relationships get complicated and sometimes we need new skills to cope with new roles. That's what the grandparenting course is focusing on.

The minister told me he's holding the seminars because grandparenting is like most other things today it's harder than ever. Adoption, divorce, legal issues, religion, and step-grandparenting are just some of the challenges.

Then there's the biggest challenge of all grandparents who, for one reason or other, are raising their grandkids.

One friend of mine who just celebrated her 70th birthday is raising her 13-year-old grandson. “I'm grateful I can be here for him," she said, “but I have to pray for energy. My days are exhausting."

We talked today about all the legal issues and other complications she is plowing through. “A big worry is what will happen to him if something happens to me," she said.

But she is fast to say the rewards more than make up for the problems. This week, as I watched her and her grandson laughing as they played the piano together, I completely understood.

What that friend doesn't have is the problem facing many grandparents. I call it “cardboard grandchildren."

If you look in my home or that of many of my friends, you will see many photographs of our grandkids displayed with pride and affection. We have the cardboard photos, but we seldom have the grandkids.

My daughters are good about using technology to help me watch my grandkids grow up. They videotape sporting events, concerts and special occasions like my granddaughter's First Communion. But it's not the same as being there.

When it comes to having grandchildren, I have the loving and spoiling part down pat. But I sure do wish I could do it more often.