Becoming a grandparent is one of life’s milestones. But no matter how close you are to your son or daughter and his or her spouse, you’re bound to have different ideas about discipline, feeding, parenting, or about spending time together as a family. This is normal as everyone adjusts to new family roles.
PITFALL #1: UNWANTED ADVICE
It’s important to remember that when your child becomes a parent, he or she is an independent adult. Advice from you about how to care for a new baby may be welcome. But hold off sharing your words of wisdom until your son or daughter or in-law asks for your help and advice. Try to keep your opinions to yourself about “how things should be done.” For example, a new mother might want to feed her baby on demand, while you may feel that the infant needs a regular feeding schedule. The current view is that sticking to a schedule in the early months can prevent the mother’s body from producing a sufficient amount of milk. Understand that new parents may be getting different advice from their doctors and friends than you may have heard when you were raising your children. It’s important to step back and let your child learn and discover things on his/her own.
PITFALL #2: RESPECT “NO THANKS”
When you visit your child’s new family, ask about specific tasks you might be able to help with. You might offer to help cook, shop, or watch the baby while the new parents take a rest, but respect your child’s “no thanks” if that is the answer. For example, older children often feel displaced with the arrival of a new baby and the loving attention of grandparents can play an important role in helping children adapt to a new sibling and feel loved. But it’s important to ask the parents before making any promises to the older grandchild.
PITFALL #3: ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT GENDER ROLES
As children grow older, new issues often arise among parents and grandparents. Conflicts may arise between parents and grandparents because of unspoken expectations about gender roles. You may be shocked at some of the choices your children make about gender roles. For example, many parents dress boys and girls in neutral colors rather than the traditional blue and pink. They may even dress boys in pink and girls in blue—or put nail polish on boys.
It’s also sometimes difficult for grandparents to accept that child rearing styles and practices have changed. For instance, fathers today are playing a more active role in their children’s lives than in previous generations. Grandpa may have to explain that he is not comfortable changing diapers. And when grandpa tells Johnny that “boys don’t cry,” he will have to accept it when his son or daughter-in-law tell him that their attitudes about gender roles are not the same as his.
PITFALL #4: RESPECT THEIR RULES AND CLARIFY YOURS
If your adult child gives you specific instructions about discipline when you’re babysitting, try to follow those guidelines as best as you can. This will help build trust between you and your child. However if you rarely see your grandchildren, talk to your child and in-law about whether exceptions are allowable or if you will be providing care for your grandchildren over an extended period of time, talk about how certain rules may be different in your own home. You may offer cookies and milk before bed to your grandchildren although your child does not do that. On the other hand, your child may allow the children to stay up later than you are comfortable with in your own home. Some families have “two sets of rules”—one for their own house and one for grandma or grandpa’s house—and these rules are enforced consistently at each place.
It’s okay to occasionally overindulge a grandchild; children can adjust and understand that the rules of a lenient or a very strict grandparent do not change their parents’ rules. But everyone needs to fully understand the rules and the non-negotiables so that tensions don’t arise. For example, if your daughter feels strongly about her children playing with guns, you need to accept that as a non-negotiable.
As a grandparent, it’s important to be clear about when you’re available to babysit, and when you aren’t. Consider setting up a regular schedule or a regular time for visits. Don’t show up without calling or assume you can show up an hour earlier than agreed upon.
In sum, respect and communication are the two main ingredients for a good relationship between grandparents and their adult children. Respect your children’s boundaries (time, privacy, etc.) and be clear about your own. Remember that they have their own way of doing things and it may not be the same as yours. Don’t take things for granted.
Keep talking—ask questions, show interest, share your own experiences or way of thinking. Don’t let misunderstandings fester and grow into resentments and grievances.
Finally, your children have things to teach you about parenting. Show your admiration for their parenting skills. For example, whenever one of my grandsons falls and starts to cry, my son and daughter-in-law always ask, "Are you just scared or are you hurt?" I never asked that, but I wish I did. It is a great way to help a child develop the ability to console himself as well as build reality testing. My eight-year-old grandson fell down recently and was about to cry, but stopped himself.
I asked, "Are you okay?"
"Yes," he replied, "I was just scared."