Strengthening the Grandparent Bond

Grandparents are an important part of every child’s life because they can give a valuable gift: unconditional love. A warm, strong bond can enrich the lives of both generations. To succeed, it takes a partnership between parents and grandparents. Both need to respect each other’s roles and keep the child’s best interest in mind.

The mutual goal should be to encourage the bond between child and grandparent without putting Mom and Dad in an awkward middle position: Some suggestions:

Watch out for overindulgence.

It’s natural for grandparents to drop in, shower gifts on the kids, and then go home. Grandparents need to recognize that this can hurt parents, who need to maintain daily discipline. Before bringing gifts or treats, grandparents could ask if their plan is okay with the parents.

If grandparents tend to overindulge a child, parents can let them know how important they are in the child’s life, but emphasize that affection and attention are more important than gifts. A parent might say, “You don’t have to buy Roger a new toy whenever you visit. What he really loves is going to the playground with you.”

Know the ground rules, but expect some flexibility.

If grandparents are lax about enforcing parents’ rules, parents should remember the priority is to let a child develop a close, lasting relationship with grandparents. This can be difficult if you say, “It’s time for bed,” and Grandpa says, “Oh, let her stay up another hour.” It’s a challenge if both child and grandparent align themselves against a parent, as when Grandma slips a child candy and says, “Don’t tell your Dad.”

Grandparents should know what the parents’ rules are and not undercut them. But there’s room for flexibility as long as both parents and grandparents agree in advance. For example, if bedtime is 9 p.m. at home, parents could okay a 10 o’clock bedtime when the child visits Grandma on the weekend.

It helps to relax some rules when grandparents are around – but parents should make it clear ahead of time that this is a special occasion. For example, “When Grandpa visits this weekend, you won’t have to go to bed quite so early…” or “we may have some special treats we don’t usually have.” Parents can step out of the way for a while and let children and grandparents enjoy their time together.

Watch the criticism.

In many families, grandparents still carry old criticisms of their adult child (“You’re so unorganized…”), while parents still hang on to old reproaches from their youth (“You’re too rigid…”) Voicing critical words in front of children can be harmful, especially if the discord focuses on how parents are raising their children.

Parents need to accept that many grandparents are unlikely to change. It’s best to listen but if the criticism seems unwarranted, reply with a non-committal, “Uh-huh.” If a grandparent expresses differing opinions about health or food issues, a parent can simply say, “The pediatrician said…”

Sometimes parents reject a grandparent’s directions because they resent the interference, but Grandpa may have some good advice. A useful tactic for parents: Occasionally ask for opinions before they’re offered.

Grandparents should remember to keep their advice to a minimum. When it is invited, express it in non-critical words. If it’s rejected, drop it.

Focus on the child’s best interests.

It’s common for grandparents to voice disapproval of a child’s dress, language, or behavior. But the bond between them is often damaged because grandparents don’t recognize how important their views are to a child. Parents can remind grandparents in a non-confrontational way, “I know you dislike the way Suzie dresses, but it hurts her feelings when you comment about it, and she really cares what you think of her.”

Try not to play favorites.

It’s impossible to like all children equally, but it’s important not to show favoritism that hurts a child’s feelings. Some grandparents are more comfortable with girls than boys and vice versa, or enjoy older rather than younger kids. Many grandparents may not realize they’re harming the less preferred child. The solution is as simple as becoming aware of the unintended favoritism.

If parents or grandparents notice that they’re showering one child with extra attention, try to foster a relationship with the other child by playing games or going to a movie with that child alone. Gradually, the relationship will grow, or another grandparent may step in to show more attention to that child.

Build upon common interests.

If a grandparent is uninvolved or ignores a grandchild, both parent and child feel hurt. Many parents expect grandparents to be doting, bake cookies, and always be available to babysit, but their lifestyles and personalities don’t always fit the parent’s ideals. Both parents and grandparents need to be aware of these differences, respect them, but at the same time discover ways to strengthen the child-grandparent bond in ways that are comfortable to both.

Look for activities suited to the grandparent’s interests. If Grandpa is an avid golfer, maybe he’d enjoy taking the kids to a miniature golf course once in a while. If Grandma loves to read, she could take the kids to the library. Such directed activities enable grandparents and children to discover common interests more than simply spending unstructured time at home.

Don’t give up if your efforts to strengthen the grandparent-grandchild bond seem to stall. Keep trying, but it may take more time until children are older and both generations discover more in common.

Two thoughts to keep in mind:

Grandparents, a little spoiling is fine, but don’t undercut the child’s parents. Parents, sometimes you’ll need to step out of the way and allow children and grandparents to grow closer by allowing their relationship to develop on its own.