A lot has changed since I had babies in the house: limits on screen time, updating immunizations, the Back to Sleep campaign, new car seat laws and baby led weaning, to name a few. Parents today are more child-centered than any generation before them and are supreme consumers of baby products. While they are learning what it means to be a parent and adjusting to a new and sometimes overwhelming responsibility, they are inundated with information about what they should and shouldn’t be doing with their babies.
In contrast, grandparents walk a line between providing support and advice to their children and having to learn new skills and “rules” about raising kids today. It’s still an incredibly gratifying and thrilling experience, but as with all relationships, it takes work.
Upon learning that you will be a grandparent, the first thing everyone asks is “What do you want to be called?” Even though it may be a couple of years before the baby will be able to call you anything, the idea of picking a nickname evokes memories of your own grandparents. It also arouses expectations of the kind of relationship you envision with this unknown and anticipated new member of your family. Today, Granny just won’t do! Baby Boomers demonstrate resistance to showing our age by opting for young sounding names. When in doubt, alliteration is always easy; my youngest granddaughter has a BeBe and a K.K.!
Chances are, not only your name, but your experiences as a grandparent will be different from the relationships you remember from childhood. Did your grandparents live nearby? Was your grandmother at home with something yummy baking or simmering on the stove? The average age for grandparents today is 48; even if you are a good bit older than the average, you are probably still living an active lifestyle. The sixty of today is not the sixty of the past. Everyone, including young families are living much “busier” lives, but making time for grandchildren is an investment in their futures.
Grandparents offer those extra hands and unconditional love to both their children and grandchildren. Increasingly, young families are living at a distance from their families of origin or extended family. Grandparents are often left with trying to maintain a long-distance relationship: frequent skyping or use of FaceTime to ensure the youngsters “know me.” In addition to using online resources, families must travel to establish the bonds of attachment. Grandparents are even moving to where their children and grandchildren live; following the career paths of the young families in order to provide support when it’s needed.
In 2010, Met Life funded a study of 1615 parents of children birth to 3 years in age for Zero to Three, the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. Over half of the parents credited their own parents with shaping their beliefs and as the major influence on their own parenting. Grandparents are the go-to source for advice about raising children, as well as passing on family lore and traditions.
With today’s focus on technology, grandparents offer the link to the past, family connections and traditions. Share the lullabies you sang to the parents, pass down special toys or clothes that were preserved. Think about what you remember from childhood or ask your children which holiday rituals were their favorites and make a point to include the grandchildren when they are developmentally ready.
TIPS FOR BUILDING STRONG RELATIONSHIPS WITH YOUR GRANDCHILDREN
- Don’t tell your kids how to raise their children. Wait to be asked for advice; offer information and support, but respect that they are the parents. Decisions as well as mistakes are theirs to make. They will grow into their roles just as you did and you have to allow them this opportunity to move into the next stage of their adulthood.
- Always ask the parents before you buy things or make promises to the grandchildren. Respect parental rules about food, activities and the media. Don’t offer food or allow a child to have something you know are against the rules. It makes the parents have to be the “bad guys” and take it away. After all, you aren’t going to be there the when the toddler runs around the house and won’t go to bed after eating too much sugar or caffeine. Setting up a situation where parents pay the price for a grandparent’s indulgence only creates resentment.
- Learn how to share! Both sets of grandparents will want time with the grandchildren and it’s not a competition to see who gives the favorite toy at Christmas or for birthdays. I’ve learned a lot about the generosity of inclusion from my daughter-in-law’s family. When her mother visits, they always send me photos and texts keeping me in mind. Her mother was the first to arrive when our granddaughter was born and immediately started sending pictures and called me to share the experience.
- Keep development in mind. Remember that it takes a while for young children to warm up when they haven’t seen you in a while. They need frequent breaks, snacks, naps and have short attention spans. It’s been a long time since we took care of toddlers and we may idealize the time, forgetting the day-to-day routines.
- It’s exhausting; you have to be “on duty” at all times, anticipating hazards and meals because littles ones can’t wait.
- Limit Screen Time. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for kids before age 2 and then less than 1-2 hours a day. Television, phones and computers are magnets for children’s attention so that means no news shows, cartoons, or football when the babies are awake. Watching too much TV cuts down on other more active pursuits such as interacting with caregivers and playing with 3 dimensional objects which are critical for brain development and discovering how the world works.
- Practice car seat safety. Car Seat installation specialists train for a week to be able to properly install them. Be sure to have yours installed by a trained specialist. Touro holds special car seat check days throughout the year. Not a single parent has had them installed properly when showing up to have the car seat checked. There are specific guidelines for which way they should face and what a child should weigh for each type of car safety seat. Never put a child in the front seat where an airbag might deploy.
- Learn CPR. If you are going to be alone with your grand baby, be sure to be trained in Infant CPR. It’s a valuable skill and one that could save a life. There’s a “Friends and Family” class offered at Children’s and Touro that doesn’t require passing a written test.
- Connect through technology. If your children and grandchildren live at a distance, technology brings them closer! Skype, FaceTime and photo share help you stay connected and a part of their daily lives. Record yourself singing, reading or telling a story that can be part of a quiet time activity. Make a photo book with pictures of relatives. “Read” the book showing the pictures and telling stories about the people who love the child. There are easily-held, indestructible plastic books just made for little hands.
Grandparenting is a wonderful stage in life! It’s a joy NOT to be the parents – to be able to love a child, but not have the primary responsibility for a child’s upbringing. All relationships require work and grandparents come to this one ready to love!
Barbara B. LeBlanc, LCSW-BACS is the Director of The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital and grandmother to two beautiful granddaughters and eagerly awaiting one baby boy.