The Line Between Loving and Spoiling

Introduction

grandparents with grandson

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It's a brilliant day, and I'm writing this from a park bench in a redwood grove. On the adjacent playground, I see mothers cavorting with their children, herding them with something between mirth and panic as their tiny bodies swing, climb jungle gyms, and spin on shiny metal go-rounds. The mothers hover, chatting among themselves like nervous bodyguards -- which, of course, they are, only much less well paid. The fringe benefits, however, are priceless. Yes. I am the mother of a mostly happy and miraculous 5-year-old boy, as are all 5-year-old boys. Yet I sit here unencumbered by a single tote bag, juice box, or moist towelette. I don't even have a purse; it's locked neatly in the trunk of my freshly washed car. I have only my key ring and my naked toes, which curl against the cool blades of grass. Why am I able to do this?

Grandparents.

I sing an ode to grandparents, near and far, biological and adopted. Without grandparents, there would be no freedom such as this for us mothers, ever. I would not be on this bench right now, blissfully serene, with no one who is four feet tall yelling about cartoons he is missing. But I am here. My son is at his grandparents'. Ahhhh.

Grandparents are like angels with their own cars, angels who will not take money for their services and who protect anyone in their charge completely. I term this the G Force: a silent power supporting everyday life, keeping all afloat in a magical way yet to be defined by science.

One need never think twice while one's child is with his grandparents: They will lift a car if they have to or flag down help with their fishing hat. They are invincible, safe, familiar.

At the same time all this affection and joy course through my son's small, sturdy body, he also instinctively knows that he can get away with murder for several days, and it is all right. It is all right because he is unconditionally loved there, and because his mother and father are somewhere, suspended in the ether -- alive and out of his way.

It is all right because he is in an ersatz four-star destination hotel with 24-hour room service and his own frog village fully claiming a tub. It is all right because without grandparents there would be no families for many of us, there would be no full, free relaxation, and there would be so much less joy. Grandparents are the genie in the lamp of parenthood.

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I remember my own grandmother, my Abuelita, serving me café con leche in a bowl in her kitchen in Pasadena. I don't remember where my mother was, but I do remember not caring in particular. I was with my grandma. There would be Lucky Charms, a cereal my own mom selfishly refused to get for me but one that my grandmother would take me to the store especially to buy. She would not comment as I took all the marshmallow bits and ate them first. I could be building a spaceship in her bathtub that would require weeks of assemblage and planning, and my grandma would just beam. In fact, she would offer suggestions on how to best ensure that the mission would be lucrative, in terms of candy and treasure acquired while abroad in the stratosphere. My grandma's was not just a place; it was a state of mind. Many things were possible, and nothing bad ever happened there. Now 95, she is still living in the same house. This is the power of the grandma.

When I was 6 years old, my grandfather on my father's side taught me to swim. He made it seem natural to walk into a big, deep, wet concrete motel pool of blue water where you couldn't breathe, just slowly walk to the deep end and flail around. He praised my flailing and soon I could swim. I could save myself in the water, something everyone should know how to do. Or at least my grandfather thought so. And perhaps there are things we all need to learn by a certain age or else they are lost to us. Grandparents seem to sense this, while we as parents are often so busy trying to figure out what to make for dinner, where the dinosaur pajama bottoms are hiding, and what smells funny in the garage.

Still, with all this similarly rapt attention and pampering at my son's chubby fingertips, there can sometimes be collusion, trickery. At the age of 5, my son knows all about manipulation and its possibilities. Freshly back from his time with my folks, he is capable of demanding that his green apples be served ice cold from the refrigerator and his cheese sliced on the diagonal. Like Grandma does it. He may pitch a spaghetti-laden fork across the room, saying Grandma says that's all right. In fact, Grandma lets him do that all the time.

This is when reality rushes back in, and he realizes he is just home again and not a superstar diva on a world tour. This is when he gets a time-out, which to a 5-year-old is like asking Streisand to just please step offstage for 10 minutes. He gets the message. He quickly self-corrects and he acts normal again. Of course, like all illusions of control, it is only temporary. It will doubtless begin all over again after his next trip to Grandma and Grandpa's, home of the G Force. But I humbly accept these small consequences, knowing I am hugely blessed to have parents young enough to race after a small boy carrying a live frog in each hand, headed toward Parts Unknown.

Suzanne Finnamore is a novelist and a mother, not in that order. The bestselling author of Otherwise Engaged and The Zygote Chronicles, she lives in Northern California.

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Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the February 2004 issue of Child magazine.

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