April 9, 2010

Grandparenting: Basic Guide

1.  When the baby is born, don’t come to stay. It is curious to me that by some mechanism the emergence of an infant from the body of a daughter or daughter-in-law is taken as an open-ended invitation for a sleep-over visit. I won’t be a burden. You won’t Grandma_tie_one_on even know I’m there. You won’t have to do a thing. I can help with watching the baby, doing laundry, going shopping. You’ll need the help. These are some of their honest well-meaning intentions. The reality is that your body is slowly recovering, you’re in pain just to walk around, you’re incredibly sleep-deprived, you want to focus on the baby so everything else in your life and home have been put on hold. What do you get? Critical, judgmental houseguests.

It’s great, perhaps essential, to have supportive parents or relatives nearby when a baby is born. It can be crucial to have someone trusted to watch the baby while you sleep for a couple of hours. And it is indeed helpful if somebody is willing to do the laundry or some basic shopping. But the stories I hear are often about grandparents who bring their usual daily routine with them, play with the baby when the baby is happy but give you the crying baby. I hear about grandparents who, though they might not say it, still think of you as their child so they expect to be able to direct the baby’s care. After all, they’ve already been there and done that.

So when the baby is new, stay in a hotel. Or at least find a different relative nearby you can stay with.
2.  Pay for college. Obviously, if you’re not well-off enough to pay for the kid’s college, you can’t do this. And I’m happy to say that love and support is way more important than money. If you have no money, than it’s even more important to be supportive of your adult children. Now that I got that out of the way, however, money is sometimes where the rubber meets the road. Your children are adults now, with children of their own. They will be concerned about providing for the children and will be worried about this. It’s OK to believe in self-sufficiency and living within one’s means. But complaining about the cost of your yacht maintenance while your kids are struggling is not going to get you whatever sympathy you’re looking for. It’s not an empathic thing to do, and it’s potentially lethal to the relationship you have with those grandkids. So if you can, put money away for college. If you can’t, share with an open hand. Take the grandchildren to Disneyland. If that’s too much, take them to the movies. If you don’t like the way your kids handle money (who’s fault is that?), then do your giving directly to the grandchildren. But sharing what you have in this way takes a serious burden off of your children, and it might materially improve their lives. They will be grateful for it.

3.  Watch the children. What do you have that no one else has? Trust. The disturbing stories we hear on the news have made parents more cautious than ever to leave their kids in the care of a stranger. A grandparent is in the unique and privileged position of knowing the parent for his or her whole life. The parents know where you live, know who your friends are, and know how to get hold of you. They may not want you to let their children watch cartoons all afternoon. They may not want you to feed the child chocolate cake and 2 glasses of milk every schoolday afternoon. But they will love that their child loves you. And they will love you for being there to babysit. Generosity with your time will give you the opportunity to bond directly with your grandchildren without their parents filtering your intentions. Hopefully, your children will see this as the valuable gift that it is.

4.  Bite your tongue. I have said this several times, but I’ll say it again here. You had your opportunity. You raised your children in the best way you knew at the time, and now they are raising their own. It might look to you that they are needlessly flailing about and trying to re-invent the wheel. You might feel that you could save them a lot of trouble by just telling or showing them the way certain things should be done. If you get asked, then go ahead and be the teacher. But if you aren’t asked, volunteering an opinion could leave you vulnerable. This isn’t picking out a color for the drapes! For better or worse, your adult children have chosen a path to follow with their own children. If your suggestions contradict this, you won’t change anything. But you might give the impression that you think you know better, or that you’re interested in continuing to treat your child as a child. How will this help? Your experience and knowledge are important resources if they are wanted. If not, you are playing with fire.

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