Someone sent me a joke a few years ago. Like so many jokes, it was grounded in truth. The joke was this:
Question: Why do grandparents and grandchildren get along so well?
Answer: They have a common enemy.
In case you are lucky enough not to know who the common enemy is, it is the in-between generation: the grandchildren’s parents. Notwithstanding the popular image of doting grandparents jiggling happy toddlers on their laps while beaming parents look on, the relationship between grandparents, adult children and grandchildren can be fraught with tensions, stress, and conflict.
Any pre-existing tensions between parents and their adult children will get played out in spades when grandchildren enter the picture. And as for the kiddies, at a very young age, they learn how to exploit the situation. Children soon learn what to do if their grandparents overlook rules that their mommies and daddies enforce. Just as children become geniuses at pitting mommy against daddy wherever possible, they also learn to pit parents against grandparents.
Many years ago, I presented my parents with their first grandchild, leading to a challenging power struggle between the three generations. Today, a grandmother myself, I experience this dynamic from the opposite side of the fence. I am keenly aware that a false move will put me in the “grandparent doghouse.”
My friends are grandparents also, and I have watched more than one of the land in doo-doo by stepping on parental toes. I’ve also observed how wiser grandparents handle the situation. As my friend Joan put it, “I am sure I have offended them (the parents) far more than I might like to think. Mostly I try to mind my own business and not do anything they don’t.”
The way I see it, today’s young families are under considerable stress from many sources. This stress and sense of overwhelm can lead to health challenges, marital problems and sometimes even divorce.
As a grandparent, I may not be able to reduce the amount of this stress – but I can refrain from causing more of it. After all, if I love my grandchildren, then it stands to reason that I want what’s best for them. It’s hard to see how contributing to disharmony in the family will be in the child’s best interests.
The following Grandparents Tips may pave the way to smoother relationships.
Grandparent Tip #1: Avoid Competitive Grandparenting
From time to time, I come across a grandparent who approaches the relationship as a competition between themselves and their adult children. The prize in the competition is the grandchildren’s love and affection. The goal of the game is not just to get the grandchild’s love, but to demonstrate that the grandchild loves you MORE than she loves her parents. This is relatively easy to do, given that parents are the “bad cops” tasked with maintaining discipline and reinforcing rules. The grandparents can slide easily into the “good cops” role”, closing their eyes to behaviors that the parents would strive to correct, or worse, encouraging them.
Competitive grandparenting can also occur between the two sets of grandparents. Who will be the “A” Team and who will be the “B” Team? This particular competition often involves one-upmanship in gift-giving. While the grandchildren are likely to score big in terms of material things, you also have to ask what life lesson they’re learning when this occurs.
Either type of competitive grandparenting increases the stress and tension in the household. While temporarily “winning the grandparent competition” has its short-term psychological rewards, it is not in the best interests of the grandchildren or anyone else. In the long term, there are no winners in this game.
Grandparent Tip #2: Remember you had your Turn
Keep in mind that you had your turn at parenting children and now the torch is passed to a younger generation. It’s fine to be sensitive to the milestones in your grandchild’s life, but avoid usurping the parents’ right to acknowledge these milestones in their own way.
Many years ago, my well-meaning parents took my oldest child for his first haircut. My husband, I knew nothing about this plan until the deed was done. To say we were annoyed would be an understatement. Not long ago, one of my friends got herself in the grandmother’s doghouse by doing exactly the same thing with her first grandchild. She (my friend) was both astounded and amused that her daughter and son-in-law were angry.
It may seem trivial – but it’s the sort of thing that builds resentment. A child’s first hair cut is an important milestone. It’s a decision and ritual that rightfully belongs to the parents. Interested grandparents might ask if they could be included in the haircut expedition, but most certainly should not take matters into their own hands.
The haircut is but one example of grandparents unthinkingly taking over the parenting role. When my oldest grandchild started school, I wanted to do something to mark the occasion. My first impulse was to buy a GIGANTIC box of art and school supplies along with a cute outfit for the first day of school. Thankfully, before I reached for my Visa card, I realized that shopping for school supplies and school clothing would be an important event for my son and daughter in law, and one that I should not hone in on. I bought a board game and books instead.
This brings us along to my third tip:
Grandparent Tip #3: Think Before You Buy
When I was a young mom, doting grandparents showered my son with enough cute outfits to supply an orphanage. Likewise, they bought enough toys, games, bicycles and other items to keep this same orphanage stocked for years to come.
Only a complete ingrate would complain about receiving such bounty, right? I never voiced my ambivalence about all of these gifts, judging myself for being unappreciative. However, not long ago, a young mom of today confided in me that she, as well as her circle of friends, wished the grandparents would cut back on the endless supply of kids’ clothing, toys, and games.
Why? Several reasons. First, refer to Tip #2. You had your turn. Young parents want the fun of shopping for their children and picking out the cute outfits themselves. Similarly, young parents want to decide how much care they devote to looking after the kid’s clothing. Most of them DON”T want the chore of caring for adorable but delicate fabrics that require special attention or worse, dry cleaning. I still remember the exquisitely cute outfit of red velvet and lace that my son received for his first birthday. Have you ever dressed a hyperactive 12-month-old boy in velvet and lace? If so, you have a fairly good idea of how that worked out.
When it comes to buying toys, consider the amount of storage space available as well as the amount of hassle that the toy is likely to create for mom and dad. I remember, none too fondly, the electrical wood burning kit that my eight-year-old son received one Christmas. Our home had wood-paneled walls. Let your imagination roam.
Also, keep in mind that today’s parents have their own ideas regarding the type of toys and activities that they deem appropriate and safe.
Excessive gift buying can get you in the grandparent doghouse for another reason. Refer to Tip # 1. You are likely to set up a competition between parents and grandparents. Grandparents may have more disposable income to spend than the young family – and this can create a situation where children see their grandparents as benevolent gift-givers and the parents as stingy and withholding. This may be a “feel good” thing for grandparents but certainly does not contribute to harmony within the family.
So how does a grandparent handle the gift-giving and shopping situation? It’s all about communication and respect. Communicate with the parents and invite their input regarding the shopping decisions. Perhaps paying for swimming lessons, donating money to a savings plan, purchasing a membership in a children’s museum, or making personalized, hand made gifts would be a better approach. On the other hand, maybe you will find that your adult children are delighted to receive the toys and clothing – in which case, go for it!