April 6, 2010

Empathic Grandparenting

grandmother As I publish more and more about parenting, I’ve been getting a lot more questions about the role of grandparents. Parents, whether biological or foster or adoptive or step or any other kind, have certain reasonably uniform tasks they usually need to accomplish with their children. Survival basics, such as food and shelter, schooling, love and support, and promotion of the child’s general sense of growth and accomplishment as they grow and develop. If there are some hurdles on the way, people ask me about it, and I do my best to give them some ideas on how to manage.

When grandparents are the primary caregivers for the children, and there are many, many families like this, then they are really acting as parents. In this context, parenting advice applies no matter what your title is. I have known fine adults raised by relatives both close and distant, and sometimes by parents who weren’t related to them at all. In all of these situations, I recommend openness about the reasons behind the situation. This openness should be limited to what is developmentally-appropriate for the child, and which protects the child’s sense of self worth. If parents are gone, then they’re gone and there’s no point in giving the child further opportunity for emotional scars by learning that what you say can’t be trusted. It’s hard to imagine a sadder image than a child waiting at the window for the parent who won’t return. So be as honest as you can with them.

An important part of the bargain when we take on the responsibility of being parents is that there are no warranty periods or lease expirations, during which we can trade up to a new model as long as the one we’re returning has only normal wear-and-tear. More needs to be said about what is and is not appropriate, and I’ll try to do that another time.

For most grandparents, however, the primary responsibilities of care for the grandkids falls squarely on the shoulders of your children and their spouses. This is a blissful arrangement in which you get most of the benefits of child indulgence with little of the consequences. Sure, it’s not as good to buy love as it is to get it spontaneously. But--just between us--it’s still love and it feels mighty good when bartered for some new toy or ice-cream before dinner that mommy would throw a fit about but we’ll just keep it as our little secret.

For those who’ve been reading my advice about getting kids to eat right and behave nicely, it might come as a surprise to know that I don’t disapprove of any of the above. Every child deserves to have somebody in this grandparent role, where some of the rules are a little more flexible than at home. I think there’s an important place in every child’s life for a trusted non-parental adult who isn’t spending every waking hour managing the relationship. But that’s not the same as having carte blanche.

With that said, however, we all know that childhood obesity is a big problem. There are many causes, of course, and I have no special cure or treatment. But I have had one insight that I have not seen written about in all the studies I’ve read: grandparents.

There are many reasons that both parents have to work outside the home. Mine did. With most elementary schools still dismissing their students at 3:00 in the afternoon, most working parents have to find some arrangement for the 2-3 hours or more before they get home from work. In my community, this is often a job gladly taken by grandparents. They treasure the opportunity to be with their grandchildren and have such an important role in their lives. They also are happy to help their children by being there when needed.

But when I talk to children who are overweight, I ask them about their diets. It becomes clear that their parents aren’t usually taking them out for fast food, and aren’t letting them eat potato chips instead of dinner. Most parents are reasonably careful about what they feed the kids, so the extra calories aren’t coming on their watch. Again and again, the calories just don’t add up. While it’s true that school lunch is often not nutritionally optimal, it’s usually not a major problem. They usually don’t have the money or transportation to get fast food. But again and again, I hear about the time in the afternoon with grandparents. There’s a lot of school-day afternoons filled with television and very fattening snacks. It’s one thing to be the indulgent grandparent who gets the kids stuff their parents wouldn’t or couldn’t get them. It’s quite another to be contributing to serious and long-lasting health problems for the child. Though I don’t want to be confrontational, I really wonder if these grandparents, who melt at the first hint of a whine, really feel all right with the consequences of that big piece of cake as an after-school snack.

I have often wondered about the mysterious mechanism by which brain functioning seems to change as soon as one’s offspring has offspring of their own. There is a clear difference between being a grandparent and being a parent, and I’m fine with that. But why, besides failing vision, can’t grandparents see that their grandchildren don’t need that extra cookie?

We get our parenting knowledge from several sources. Our own experience as a child is a major source, whether this was good or not. Our perspective on the parenting techniques used by our parents is a very biased one. In general, we love our parents. Perhaps as a result, I have heard people describe as useful some incredibly counterproductive experiences they had as children. Did washing your mouth out with soap stop you from using bad language? Sometime, parents are aware of the mistakes made by their own families, and make a conscious decision to go in another direction. This leaves the parent trying to find a path when they have no landmarks. And, of course, there are all kinds of parenting experts willing to suggest things, perhaps in a book or blog, that the parent hadn’t thought of.

Grandparents, however, have the certainty of their own experience. This can be a pain in the neck for parents who have decided to do some things differently. Just because you raised your kids a certain way, doesn’t mean that’s the only right way to raise them. This is often a major source of friction between adult children and their parents. If you, as a grandparent, value contact with your children and grandchildren, you must respect their point of view.

I guess it should go without saying that there are always exceptions. But it’s a mistake to assume that you are one of these exceptions.

In the next post, I’ll offer some specific guidelines for grandparents.

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Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?