As a clinical psychologist, who has been specializing in working with kids since I started my practice more than 35 years ago, I have given my share of advice to parents on how to raise children. When I became a parent, I learned a lot about child-rearing on the front lines in raising my own three children. Over the past seven years, I have taken on the new role of a grandparent. I now have 5 wonderful grandchildren and my experiences over these years have helped me learn a great deal about being a grandparent. I thought that I might share some of what I have learned in an effort to help guide those of you who are grandparents or soon-to-become one.
Being a grandparent is a unique, rewarding, but difficult role. Prior to becoming a grandparent, I thought it would be a wonderful and pretty easy job. You get to spoil the kids, have fun until you’re exhausted, and then give them back to their parents. Not exactly! While I strongly believe that grandparents can have a tremendous impact on the lives of their grandkids, I discovered there are a few caveats that one needs to keep in mind. I certainly struggled a bit in the beginning.
Remembering how much I loved being with my grandfather, and seeing how important grandparents were in the lives of our own children, I think my wife and I had unrealistic expectations for what our roles would be. We quickly learned the importance of respecting the wishes of our adult children and their spouses.
We are constantly navigating that delicate balance of developing a strong bond with all of our grandchildren and not over-stepping the boundaries imposed by our adult children and their spouses. It is important to discuss those expectations with your adult children. They need to let you know what they expect your role to be. Don’t be surprised if each of your children have different expectations for you. One child may only want you to show up on a holiday or birthday, while the other may expect you to be the primary caretaker. Likewise, it’s important to communicate your own feelings and limitations. Having grandparents involved should ideally be a relief and a joy to everyone, and not a burden or a cause of stress within the family.
Over the past several years in this new role of “Poppy,” I have come up with a “Do and Don’t List” that I thought I would share with all of you:
- Don’t offer advice or your opinion on parenting issues unless you are asked (and even then be careful)
- Don’t be intrusive. Don’t just pop over for a visit and assume you will be welcome at any time. Make plans ahead of time.
- Don’t undermine the parents’ rules regarding bedtime, snacks, videogames, television, etc. It’s alright to indulge once in a while as a grandparent, but your job is to support and respect your child and his or her spouse.
- Do spend one-on-one time with each grandchild. Treat each one as special and don’t play favorites. Tailor the activities to the specific interests of that child. Let each child choose. Play sports with the athletes, but do an art project, play with trucks, Legos or dolls, if that’s what your grandchild prefers. This time together is such a gift. It creates memories that will last a lifetime. Have fun, be silly, just relax and enjoy without expectations or demands. Give the unconditional love that is so unique to being a grandparent.
- Tell stories about your own childhood and about their parents as kids, as grandkids love those, especially if they’re funny (without being overly-embarrassing). I remember sitting down with both my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother and interviewing them when I was a graduate student to learn some of our family’s heritage. In a sense, one of your roles as a grandparent is to pass on that history to future generations.
Most importantly, have fun being a grandparent. It has its ups and downs, but it is truly a remarkable and wonderful experience. It is amazing both to see your own children negotiate the roller coaster of parenting, as well as to develop those extraordinary bonds with your grandchildren.