I look in the mirror and the term just doesn't fit: Grandfather. Yet, a few weeks ago, I indeed became a grandfather. It's not that I think I look or feel too young to be a grandparent; I'm realistic about my age. It's just that the thought of having a child who has a child is so surreal. My own father died before our children were born and I've always grieved over how much he and they missed. I've looked forward to grandparenthood, envied others who had experienced it, and secretly hoped our kids would hurry up already and make babies before I was too old to play ball with them. My barber, who's a year older than me, has 14 grandchildren and a close friend, a couple years younger, has 11!
But now that I'm finally a grandfather, I'm a little lost. After finally finding my rhythm as a parent and even reluctantly accepting the fact that all of our kids are adults, my first instinct as a grandfather is...to parent! I can't help it: I've been doing that for so long, evolving along the way through the 14 milestones of parenthood. So, for my son and daughter-in-law who are new parents, and for all you parents of young kids who are still blessed to have your own parents in the picture, here are my seven guidelines for dealing with your kids' new grandparents.
1. Be patient. Your parents are going through growing pains. Much like the disorientation and apprehension you've experienced as new parents, your parents are now experiencing the "bends" as grandparents. They love you and your kids, but may struggle to find the right ways to show it. They may over-gift, over-feed, over-hug-and-kiss, over-protect, over-worry, over-lecture and in general overstep their new roles. It will pass. Probably.
2. Listen to their advice...and then filter it. It's natural for your parents to offer suggestions about childrearing and parenting—they've been doing it a lot longer than you and it's become a reflex. Listen to what they have to say, but then pick and choose which advice to accept and which to ignore. Your parents won't be (too) offended about the ignored advice; it's important for them to know you heard them, but deep down, they really do know that it's your job to be the decider now. Just saying their piece is usually enough for grandparents to move on to the next lesson.
3. Be polite. There are nice ways and not-so-nice ways of telling your parents they're being invasive or intrusive. Choose the nice ways. You might say, "Mom, we have decided to try it a different way with Emma than the way you and Dad chose with us as kids, but knowing how you did it gives us a great back-up plan." That will send the same message as, "You had your turn, now it's our turn, so back off," but in a kinder and more respectful way.
4. Don't be too proud. Occasionally, let yourself ask for your parents' advice, especially when you can really use it. Soliciting their help on your terms will show them that you value their opinions, and will also subtly show them that when you do need advice, you'll ask for it (so if you don't ask, it means you don't need it).
5. Share and include. The toughest thing for grandparents to adjust to is having only a part-time role in your kids' lives. When there are events at your kids' preschool that the grandparents might enjoy, invite them. It's a painless visit for you with your parents, and there's a natural endpoint when the event is over. If you live far from your parents, schedule regular Skype or FaceTime visits so your kids don't change so much between in-person visits that your parents feel the distance even more acutely. Send pictures by email and text–grandparents live for those small gestures from you and the digital mementos they can use to brag to their friends.
6. Be forgiving. Inevitably, and hopefully unintentionally, your parents will say or do things that are insensitive and hurt your feelings. Gently explain to them what it is they did wrong and the effect it had on you and/or on your kids. Ask them to be more thoughtful about the impact of their words and deeds in the future. But also give them the benefit of the doubt and realize they mean well and have your and your kids' well-being at heart.
7. Share this post with your parents. Knowing you're thinking and reading about your relationship with them as grandparents will make them more aware of the challenges and potential pitfalls of their new status.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman Emeritus of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children's Hospital Colorado. He is the author of three books for parents and families, including the recent No Regrets Parenting, a Parents advisor, and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at noregretsparenting.com.