How To Be a Terrific
Without Stepping on Anybody's Toes
The role of grandparent comes in all shapes
and sizes. Grandparents can be fountainheads of wisdom or wellsprings
of irritation to parents. Whether you are helpful or critical depends
on how you view your own children in their roles as parents today,
and on the role you establish for yourself.
There's no doubt that you as a grandparent can be
an invaluable resource! The key is to find your place in the family.
A satisfying role means you must fit into the family culture, rather
than challenging it. And that means grandparents must take a back
seat when it comes to parental decision-making.
This doesn't always come naturally. Times have changed,
and families must adapt to far different situations than we may have
coped with as parents. More is known today, too, about child development.
Such changes in culture can create differences in childrearing approaches
that may be misunderstood.
For example, more than half of children today have
two parents working outside the home. This statistic alone changes
the way the family operates. In turn, grandparents may observe changes
in the manner in which children are raised. Small children may attend
preschool, stay up later to be with their parents, appear at late-night
hours in restaurants, use computers ... the list goes on. And if that
isn't enough, discipline may appear to evaporate; the old adage "Children
should be seen and not heard" has definitely gone out the window.
Our own children are more concerned about empowering their young than
we may have been.
As grandparents we want to offer our knowledge, but
when the situations in which we see our grandchildren are foreign
to us, we may find ourselves critical instead of supportive. We may
also feel hurt at the implication that our own children believe the
way we raised them was not the right way after all.
To be a great grandparent means we must allow and
forgive our own mistakes and be open to learning from our children.
It also means that we accept that our adult children will also make
their own mistakes. It is vital that we adopt a nonjudgmental approach
to the parents of our grandchildren when we see them doing things
we would not have done. It is wise to find out why they do things
differently than we did, rather than feel defensive about our past
decisions as parents or critical about their different practices.
After all, we had our turn, and now it is their time to be in charge!
And what can we really say about how we would raise
our own children today? We are not experiencing the same pressures
that our children experience as adults and parents. Each generation
has its own unique challenges. Work toward understanding the differences
when they come up, rather than simply reacting to them.
You can be a positive force in your grandchild's life
by fitting into the family culture, rather than bucking it. Following
are some "do's and don'ts" to help you accomplish this.
Don't criticize how your grandchild
is parented in front of your grandchild. For example: Your grandchild
is having a tantrum and you believe the mother should be firmer
in her approach. Instead of saying "He needs you to be more firm,"
allow the parent room to struggle with the situation. Offer your
support: "Can I hold these grocery bags for you so you can deal
with him?" And don't undermine the parent's authority in front of
your grandchildren -- for example, by saying "Poor child, give him
what he wants," when the parent has taken a toy or privilege away
as a measure of discipline. If you have something to say you believe
could be helpful, consider bringing it up when your grandchild is
out of earshot.
- Don't speak negatively about your grandchild's character.
Consider your role in creating a positive atmosphere for your grandchild.
When she or he does something you do not like, comment on the behavior
in a neutral tone. Teach manners rather than condemn character. For
example, you might say "I don't like it when you take food from my refrigerator
without asking. That is not polite." That's better than "My, he is such
an obstinate child!"
- Do choose a time when your grandchild is not present
to bring up an alternative view on parenting. If there is something
you want to bring up, ask first if the parent would like your suggestions
or input about the situation. If the answer is "no," respect that, and
be as supportive as possible. Parents get stressed, and sometimes the
best thing a grandparent can do is to nurture the parent. Let your child
know you are available as a sounding board if she or he does eventually
want your input.
- Do take a soft approach. Phrase your feedback as an
observation or a possibility, not as an instruction. Try "I am not sure
if this would make a difference or not, but I noticed that you sometimes
do not follow through on your statements. I wonder if he believes you
when you tell him he will not get to watch his favorite television program...."
rather than, "You really need to follow through on consequences with
your child. No wonder he doesn't listen to you!"
- Do be willing to learn a childrearing philosophy that
differs from how you raised your children. Before assuming incompetence,
consider that parents have a good reason for doing something the way
they are doing it. Approach discussions about childrearing with the
understanding that values about raising children have changed over the
last 20 years. For example, a high priority on developing a child's
self-esteem has changed parental approaches to dealing with younger
children and may look overly permissive to people who raised their children
in a different era. You might find yourself frustrated when a parent
gives your grandchild choices, because it slows things down. Yet a discussion
about this approach will illuminate that there really is a method behind
- Do defer decision-making to the parents, and follow
their rules. When your grandchild asks if she can have a cookie before
dinner, consider telling her to ask her mother if it is all right first.
This conveys respect for your grandchild's parents, and keeps you out
of the middle of any parent-child conflict. Similarly, if your grandchild
asks you to buy him a toy that is controversial (a gun or sword, for
example) and you believe it may be off-limits, let him know you will
have to check with his parents first.
- Do have regular contact with your grandchild. If possible,
arrange to have regular visits if you live nearby, or else phone calls
on a regular basis, to keep contact with your grandchildren. Letters,
e-mail, and of course appropriate gifts are ways to stay connected and
establish your grandparental role.
- Do share your struggles as a parent or child. Approaching
difficult situations with a story of your own similar troubles as a
child or parent can go a long way in endearing you not only to your
grandchildren, but to their parents. We all want to know that we are
not alone in our struggles. Consider telling parents stories about times
you failed as a parent or doubted yourself. Sharing your own struggles
as a parent may be the single most helpful thing you can do in trying
times. And grandchildren love to hear stories about the ways you may
have felt misunderstood by your parents as a child!
Parenting can be hard, so let the parents of your grandchildren
know when they are doing a great job and what you admire about their parenting
style. But above all else, enjoy your grandchildren! The grandparent role
is one to relish, not to sweat over. Leave the parenting to the parents.
Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.
Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.
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