4 Hints on Being a Gracious Grandparent

Jan Faull, MEd, gives grandparents basic tenets to respect when it comes to their children's children.
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After a speaking engagement one evening, a frustrated mom approached me about her mother, who frequently questions her approach to parenting. She'll ask her daughter, "When in the world are you going to potty train that child?" "You give her too many choices," "Don't you ever tell that child 'No!' and mean it?" "It takes you forever to put that child to bed -- why all the singing, massaging, and story reading?"

This mother consequently prefers not to be around her own mother. Why would she when she only feels criticized, questioned, challenged, and judged by her mother? What this parent needs is a T-shirt that says on the front, "Parenting is the toughest job in the world." And on the back, "What I need is your support and not your criticism."

No grandparent wants to be kept from a grandchild's life. Yet some grandparents find themselves in this position because their need to parent their adult child overrides the importance of a relationship with their grandchild.

Following the rules of gracious grandparenting will help. What are those rules? Let's let common sense dictate them.

Rule #1: Resist offering unsolicited advice.

The most you can say is, "Here's what worked for me...." "It's so different today from when I raised you," "What does your doctor recommend?" or "Maybe you should ask a child development specialist." Said these ways, your comments let your child know that you honor her efforts, but that you also recognize the limitations all parents feel.

Rule #2: Make time for you and your grandchild alone.

It's such a joy to witness a grandchild run with sheer joy into the arms of Grandma or Grandpa. How does a grandparent reach this point in their relationship with their grandchild?

By taking the grandchild aside and reading a story, offering a small (SMALL!) gift -- puzzle, paints, or game -- and playing with it with the child. By playing hide-and-seek or peekaboo, playing imaginatively with dolls or trucks, or cooking together. By going to the library, a puppet show, or park together without the mom or dad.

Essentially, plan fun that's a good reprieve for Mom and Dad, plus a special treat for your grandchild. When Grandma and Grandpa share in the adoration of this child, the parent who's doing the tough work of parenting feels nurtured. And that, in turn, provides that parent with the energy to raise, guide, feed, cuddle with, and positively interact with the child.

Rule #3: Adore your adult child who is raising the grandchild.

Behind every child there needs to be a parent who absolutely adores her. And behind every parent there needs to be a person who communicates to that parent that he is doing a wonderful job. That most obvious person is Grandma and Grandpa.

One mom had unreasonable expectations and an inappropriate approach to teaching her preschool-age child table manners. The mom would criticize any little error the child made. The child would squirm as she tried to do what was expected but then looked confused, frustrated, and embarrassed only to slip up again and receive the next reprimand.

The dinnertime sequence occurred even when Grandma and Grandpa were dinner guests. The hearts of the grandparents went out to their granddaughter. What's a grandparent to do?

While doing the dishes with her daughter, Grandma said kindly, "It's so hard to watch you criticize little Amy's table manners. It makes your dad and me so uncomfortable." The mom changed her ways.

Rule #4: Give quick, kind advice.

When you need to offer feedback as a grandparent, do so with a brief statement and communicate how the parent-child interaction affects you. Don't get in a debate -- just offer your opinion in a sound bite; then let the parent then do with it as she sees fit.

Lastly, when you're at a loss, err on the side of love. Zip your lip if you fear that consternation will slip out, and then unzip it to offer a compliment or a word of reassurance. Then, open your arms to the child and parents with a hug and kiss while asking, "Is there anything I can do to help?"

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com, and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, April 2005.

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