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Avoid the Grandparent Trap

6 ways to build stronger bonds that last a lifetime

By Terri Orbuch, Ph.D. | August 22, 2012
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Terri Orbuch, Ph.D. (aka "the love doctor"), is a relationship therapist, professor and an author of five books, including Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship.

While grandparents have always played an important role in children’s lives, their presence today is more significant than ever. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, grandparents provide care for 23 percent of all children under the age of 5 — that represents an increase from 4.9 million, from 4.5 million, in the last 10 years. And it’s a trend that’s on the rise due to such factors as the economy (think foreclosures), single-parent families and divorce.  

Even though being a good grandparent sounds like it should be the most natural thing in the world, it actually requires lots of patience and understanding, and more than a touch of wisdom. In other words, it's work. For many, the dream of being a grandparent and the reality of being one are two very different things.

Take Susan and Bill, old family friends who dropped by our house recently. Susan had been a pro at raising her four children. When her first grandson arrived last year, she was surprised to find herself struggling in her new role as Grandma, particularly when it came to the tension it created with her daughter-in-law.

Susan’s tips for calming a fussy baby were essentially ignored. The cute cloth diapers she bought? They were still in a drawer. Susan found it hard to get a handle on what her role as a grandma was supposed be. While parenting had come very naturally, grandparenting was shaping up to be very different than she expected.

Conventional wisdom holds that if you made it through parenting, grandparenting will be a breeze. Yet all too often that’s not the case. It’s common to have different views on household rules, discipline and expectations. Grandparents can spoil their grandchildren. Grandchildren may not respect their elders. The list goes on. 

I think about my old friend Cheryl, who I bumped into at the gym last month. She had been my daughter’s preschool teacher, and I always admired her patience, humor and love when it came to young children. I hadn’t seen her for a few years and immediately asked about her daughter and two granddaughters. I expected her to glow with pride, but it was just the opposite.

“My daughter and I don’t agree on much these days, especially when it comes to my granddaughters," she told me. "I used to take the girls out for a treat after school — it was as much of a treat for me as it was for them — but my daughter complained that I was spoiling their dinner. I wish I could spend more time with them, but I don’t think my daughter wants me around them much. I really want to be a good grandma, but I need some help.”

We all feel like that from time to time. Would you love to be more involved with your grandkids but don’t want to ruffle any feathers? As a therapist and relationship expert for more than 20 years, I’ve helped countless families navigate these sometimes stormy waters. I’ve compiled a list of six easy tips that will help pave the way to a better relationship with your grandchildren. The fringe benefit is that they might improve your relations with your own children, too.

Six Tips for Great Grandparenting
  1. Don’t forget to be a parent: Once you become a grandparent, you must never forget that you’re still a parent. The better your relationship with your children, the better your relationship will be with their children. Continue to strengthen the bond with your children, but — and here’s the hard part — do your best to relate to them as adults.
  2. Listen first, then lay it on the line: One of Cheryl’s complaints was that she never knew about special events at her granddaughters’ school, which made her feel rejected and left out. Susan felt the same way. Talk with your children about your role as a grandparent and the involvement you’d like to have, but don’t wait until you’ve already started to feel resentful. It’s equally important to let your children tell you what they expect your role to be. In addition to being a grandparent, you might double as a baby sitter, disciplinarian, carpool driver or homework specialist. Openly discuss what you all expect. And remember, since there may be four or more grandparents in the picture, you need to be willing to adjust your expectations, especially around weekends, school vacations and holidays.
  3. Remember: “House rules” win: You may have a wealth of experience raising children (and your skills may be exceptional), but avoid criticizing your child’s parenting techniques or those of his or her spouse. Never offer advice unless it’s asked for, and even then, think twice before you speak. What you think is helpful, like sleeping or eating tips, might be taken in a different way. Your advice could cause unneeded tensions among everyone involved. If you’d like to introduce new ideas — like taking the kids to a museum or out for Saturday ice cream — work as a team and ask first. In Susan’s case, simply asking, “What can I do to help?” made a world of difference. In Cheryl’s case, I suggested she inquire beforehand about activities she was considering and which gifts might be appropriate for the girls. This kind of quick “check-in” resulted in her being more involved with her grandkids than ever before.
  4. Give the gift of time: Whenever possible, plan fun and unusual activities with your grandchildren rather than (or in addition to) just buying them gifts. Experiences are what children remember for the rest of their lives. Spend time together on special outings, during overnight sleepovers, or by sharing stories on the phone. It’s critical to establish a relationship with each grandchild apart from his or her parents — so spend time together, just the two of you.
  5. Trade stories: Cheryl’s got a great sense of humor, so I encouraged her to share her funny stories with granddaughters. Building on that, most children love to hear about their parents when they were little or even your childhood. This will help them connect the present to the past. And you can use it as a way to encourage them to open up to you.
  6. Embrace being hip: If you live out of town, schedule regular visits and take advantage of today’s technology. Set up regular Skype bedtime-story sessions. Email them fun attachments and ask them to send pictures and school projects by email. Brush up on emoticons. If possible, become a two-thumbed texter and learn the lingo. The bonds you develop now can last a lifetime.
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