The Privilege and Peril of Being Grandparents to Toddlers

Loving, setting limits, and having fun without having to be Mom or Dad.

Posted Oct 11, 2017

David and Rachel, dear friends of ours, have this to say about being grandparents to toddlers and preschoolers: “It can be exhausting when all they have is one gear” (“one gear” as in overdrive); “There is a lot of tongue-biting” (in deference to the parenting beliefs of their daughter and son-in-law); “The joy is limitless” (unlike parenting where responsibility for children’s healthy growth and behavior seems 100 percent related to parental efficacy); “It’s like we’re in cahoots with them [grandchildren] to not take life too seriously” (which parents have no choice but to do just that); “They always laugh at my jokes;” “No hugs in the world mean as much to me as theirs’.”

David and Rachel seem to love being grandparents while working to “know their place,” and yet do not see themselves as slaves to or clones of their children’s role as parents. Generational expectations are quite different between baby boomers and millennials. Millennials are concerned about parenting “right” (therefore, anxious about getting it “wrong”), and boomers are keen on children who can share, show respect, and wait their turn when in groups of peers. While there’s a lot of overlap, little has changed in the parent-grandparent-child triangle to threaten the truth of the age-old saying about why grandparents and grandchildren can be so close—they have a common “enemy.”

Here are five things that grandparents should keep in mind about today’s parent-child relationship.

  • Reasonable amounts of stimulation through play are now known to be essential to a young child’s foundation for lifelong learning. Parents see it less as entertainment and more as skill-building, and they are right. “I Spy” or scavenger hunts work wonders in this regard.
  • Emotional intelligence really is a thing, and talking about feelings and emotions with very young children helps them learn to identify in words—not just behavior—what they are feeling when they are feeling it. Since 3-year-olds are just learning to share, it helps them to know that you know it’s a hard thing to learn and not easy to wait your turn, or be told: “it was mine first.” Yes, “it” will be alright, but you can help by saying what “it” is without judgment (which might be harder for their parents to do).
  • Nutrition matters more to your kids than it likely did to you when raising them, partly because we now know a lot more about it. Keep mealtimes low-key, especially if your grandchildren are in a “picky eater” or “white foods only” phase.
  • Remember that distraction works better than head-to-head discipline with toddlers and preschoolers when they need to stop what they are up to, and it still works; by kindergarten, not so much.
  • As the pace of American living accelerates, young children are often expected to up their levels of stress tolerance right along with the rest of us. They can’t and don’t, and the pace of grandparenting (with less of an emphasis on multitasking) is perfect for moderating that cultural impulse. Grandparents seem to have more time for just being with their grandchildren, unlike with their own children. This matters a ton, to all of you.

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