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4 Key Reasons Grandmas Act Differently With Their Grandkids

How is it that grandmas seem to love their grandkids more than their own kids?

Source: Flickr

Although no doubt I’m generalizing here, my 30-plus years of experience as a therapist has led me to a rather curious conclusion about families: Namely, that grandparents seem to have a much easier time loving their grandchildren—or at least demonstrating love to them—than they ever did their own children. Additionally, their grandkids (typically my clients) frequently found it more comfortable, and comforting, to confide in their grandma and (though not nearly as much) their grandpa than they did their mother and father.

Assuming the overall accuracy of my "findings" in this area—and granting that there are numerous exceptions to my observations—why should this be so?

Let me suggest some probable reasons:

1. The Older, the Mellower. It can’t be denied that some people become bitter with age. But the great majority of us become less uptight, less bent out of shape by everyday frustrations and disappointments. Also, as people grow older, their expectations of others become more modest, as they’ve become more adept at seeing the world as it is—vs. how they’d prefer it be. Their attitude tends to be more tolerant, accepting, and forgiving. As a result, they’re likely to regard the misbehaviors of their grandchildren much less harshly than was the case when they were rearing their own children (i.e., the parents of their grandkids). So what may have bothered—or even incensed—them about your words and actions when you were young they may now recognize as more or less age-appropriate: behaviors hardly compelling negative attention and immediate correction or punishment.

2. The Indisputable Drudgeries of Parenting vs. the Gratifying Delights of Grandparenting. It’s not even debatable that parenting is a trying task. Kids can be difficult (sometimes extraordinarily so). They frequently wear out your patience, no matter how hard you try to remain calm in the face of their unconstrained, unruly behaviors. They can be fussy, whiny, demanding, quarrelsome, stubbornly non-cooperative, recklessly impulsive—and at times just plain nasty. There’s probably not a single parent in the world who hasn’t occasionally “lost it” with their kids.

But moving to the next generation, grandmothers (or grandparents in general) typically aren’t called upon to deal with their grandkids at their most challenging worst. Nor are they required to function as disciplinarians, so they can be more lenient. Having completed the arduous, worrisome, and super-responsible job of childrearing, they’re in a far better position to simply sit back and enjoy all the things that children say and do that make them so lovable: their refreshing innocence, creative playfulness, endless sense of wonder and curiosity, surprisingly novel (and even charming) ways of expressing themselves, and so on. The daily stresses that go with parenting are largely absent in this quite different grandparent-to-child relationship. And so their role is less complicated, less taxing, less laborious.

3. Grandmothers Try Harder (After all, They’re Only Number Two). In a sense, children have to love their parents. Regardless of how well they’re treated, they’re yet so dependent on their caretakers that they’re highly motivated to find a way of securely “attaching” to them. It’s well known that children can bond even more closely to parents who are emotionally, physically, or even sexually abusive. And how could this not be the case when their needs are so great that it’s crucial they do everything possible to feel safe in the family?

In contrast, a child’s union with their grandparents, not grounded in such enormous dependency, doesn’t feel anywhere as critical to them. So grandparents can’t at all take it for granted. It must be earned. This is why grandparents—and particularly grandmothers—will go considerably out of their way to try to get their grandkids to bond with them. And that’s one reason they can be notorious for “spoiling” the offspring of their offspring. When they visit, they may bring them extravagant gifts (not to mention the most delicious home-baked cookies!); take them to parks and playgrounds (while they unabashedly shower them with “treats”), and generally indulge them at every opportunity.

No wonder that the kids’ parents may at times feel obliged to set boundaries on how much they’ll allow the grandparents to pamper their kids—not wanting them to become accustomed to such special treatment and thereby develop a sense of entitlement (as in, “But grandma told me it was okay to do it,” or “You’re mean! Grandma would have bought it for me.”). Perhaps, as well, parents may resent the grandparents for giving their kids so much more leeway, positive attention, and affection than they can remember receiving when they were young.

4. The Chance for a Do-Over. When parents age, it’s not uncommon for them to think about (and maybe ruminate over) past mistakes they made with their children when they were growing up. In fact, as children get older, they themselves become more likely to criticize their parents for what they felt was harmful in the way they were reared. They may have felt over-controlled, disrespected, incessantly lectured to, or not given as much soothing and support as they needed (and, back then, simply couldn’t articulate).

Grandparents (and again, grandmothers in particular) may be anxious to remedy these past failures through being more attentive—and exhibiting more love and caring—toward their children’s children. With greater patience, open-heartedness, compassion, and wisdom, they’re in an excellent position to provide their grandkids with what so many years ago may not even have been in them to offer their own children.

Needless to say, their grandkids are the lucky beneficiaries of such expanded empathy, warmth, and understanding. And they greatly appreciate all the positive regard their grandparents are so happy to bestow upon them. For the “transparency” of such concern and devotion in this two-generations-apart relationship may go far beyond what the child is able to experience with their own parents. And their appreciation for all this unconditional love (i.e., being made to feel valued solely for themselves) is hardly missed on the grandparents—who, too, are grateful for the validation they may never have received from their own children.

I’ll close this piece by including a few of my favorite quotes on this “singular” relationship—one which, ideally, affords what I’ll call “bidirectional nurturing.” And you’ll note that several of these quotes (although perhaps exaggerated) reflect some of the ideas I’ve already proposed:

  • "Perfect love sometimes does not come until the first grandchild." –Welsh Proverb
  • "Grandmas are moms with lots of frosting." –Author Unknown
  • "A child needs a grandparent, anybody’s grandparent, to grow a little more securely into an unfamiliar world." –Charles and Ann Morse
  • "Our grandchildren accept us for ourselves, without rebuke or effort to change us, as no one in our entire lives has ever done, not our parents, siblings, spouses, friends — and hardly ever our own grown children." –Ruth Goode
  • "Being grandparents sufficiently removes us from the responsibilities so that we can be friends." –Allan Frome
  • "When grandparents enter the door, discipline flies out the window" [!]. –Ogden Nash
  • "Grandmas never run out of hugs or cookies." –Author Unknown

© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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