“The first rule of grandparenting is that grandparents don’t make the rules.”
So says St. Davids’ Bruce Wilson who, with his wife DeDe, has four children, 11 grandkids and one great-grandchild. “What we’ve learned is that trying to impose our rules is an exercise in futility,” he says.
Anne and Charles Park raised five children in their Wayne home and now have 10 grandkids ranging in age from 8 to 27. “I confess to sometimes thinking, ‘I raised five kids—including you. Why do you trust advice from a book over my advice?’” says Anne. “But it seems that the best way to grandparent is with a zipped lip.”
Those closed mouths conceal plenty of opinions. Common concerns include overscheduled grandchildren, the use of technology and rules about food.
“Grandkids with different parents often have different rules about what they can eat,” DeDe says. “So I just say, ‘Go ask your parents if you can have this or that.’ I mean, I don’t think a glass of soda is going to do irreparable harm. But that’s not my decision to make.”
For Anne, the lack of outside play is “unfortunate.” “Our grandchildren have computers and cell phones, and one of our grandkids has every sort of i-thing you can imagine,” she says. “They don’t play and interact with each other. We could be on the beach together, and they all have something in their hands that they’re looking at. I think, ‘Go jump in the ocean. Go play ball. Somebody get a Frisbee, for Lord’s sake.’”
Opinions? Oh, yes, they have opinions. Barbara Graham is a Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Grandparents.com and the author of Eye of My Heart: 27 Writers Reveal the Hidden Pleasures and Perils of Being a Grandmother. She knows that being silent may be hard for the current crop of grandmothers. After all, these are the same women who broke ceilings and smashed barriers in the 1960s and ’70s, and found egalitarianism in their marriages and careers.
“We’ve spent the last several decades shaping ourselves, giving voice to our own experience,” says Graham. “Now, our children don’t want our opinions. Keeping your mouth shut is part of grandparenting. But I know from personal experience that it’s not so easy.”
As a counselor with Family Service of Chester County and a grandmother of four, Sharon Owens knows that quashed opinions have a way of bubbling to the surface in the form of raised eyebrows and rolled eyes. That can often escalate to remarks that eventually form a running commentary. It’s all textbook passive-aggressive behavior.
In many families, there can be a tenuous relationship between paternal grandmothers and their daughters-in-law. “On Grandparents.com, by far the most active discussion board is Mothers-in-Law Anonymous,” says Graham. “Several thousand people are registered, and there are so many hurt feelings and confusions.”
Chief among those issues is the feeling that maternal grandparents get more grandkid time than their paternal counterparts—and one set may have fewer rules than another. Grandparents often don’t understand the reasoning behind those rules and don’t follow them. Rebellions lead to revoking of privileges, and the situation worsens.
“Insecurities breed jealousies, and I’m not talking about the kids,” says Graham. “Is this a real situation, or are you making too much of it? Being a grandparent brings up a lot of emotions that take us by surprise—competitiveness among them. So if what’s happening originates largely with you, then, you know, get a grip.”
Most issues can be avoided or resolved through open communication. “Get to know your daughter-in-law as best you can,” Owens says. “Find opportunities to ask—gently—about the way she was raised. That will give you insight into why she makes certain decisions. She may have issues with her own parents. It might have nothing to do with you.”
Once a dialogue has been established, try a grandchild summit. “Sit down and engage in honest dialogue about their expectations of you and vice versa,” Owens says. “Say, ‘I want to be an active grandparent, but I don’t want to overstep my boundaries. How will it work best for us?’”
Negotiate, too. “If parents need you to provide childcare, make sure you’re able to do it physically and that you won’t be sacrificing something in your life that’s important to you,” Owens says.
Being honest is critical. “Today, kids are incredibly overscheduled, and both parents often work, so grandparents are called upon,” says Graham. “But they also lead active lives—much more so than our grandparents did.”
Graham advises grandparents to stand firm. “If you don’t want to be a granny nanny, then don’t. The more you agree to do something you don’t want to do, the faster you’ll come to resent it. Learn to say, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t carpool or babysit today.’ Don’t feel guilty about it. Even if you do, keep saying no. The guilt wears off.”
Guilt becomes less powerful as grandchildren age. And there’s a positive spin to older grandkids’ use of technology. “Skype and video chats are fantastic,” says Graham. “Even if you don’t live that far away, it’s wonderful to talk face-to-face.”
But there are hazards to avoid with older grandkids. Odds are, they’ll have conflicts with their parents. For these situations, Owens has a steadfast rule. “Never, ever be negative about parents to their children,” she says. “If parents find out that you undermined them, you’re cooked. Instead, be a resource for kids—especially teenagers—to talk to.”
For their part, the Wilsons and the Parks are sticking to their “silence is golden” methods. “The second rule of grandparenting is to keep a closed mouth and an open heart,” says Bruce.
See page 5 for grandparenting advice from Grandparents.com columnist Barbara Graham.
1.) Never criticize parents in front of grandchildren.
2.) Don’t compete with the other set of grandparents.
3.) Eye-rolling and raised eyebrows should be avoided.
4.) Obey parents’ food rules.
5.) Don’t overcommit to childcare.
6.) Tread lightly with daughters-in-law.