When your kids are all grown up, eventually your thoughts turn to what life might be like as a grandparent. And seen from the outside, doesn’t grandparenting look like all fun and games?

After so many years filled with not-so-fun responsibilities as a parent – like having to nag your kids about homework, or coerce them into the dentist’s chair – becoming a grandparent can seem like a free pass to simply have fun with some adorable grandkids.

As so many grandparents will tell you, grandparenting truly is a hoot – a wonderful time of life. But at the same time, it’s more complicated than parenting. There are more relationships to navigate.

Keeping your grandkids happy might not be a problem; however, you also have to ensure that your adult child and their spouse are happy with how you are grandparenting their kids.

Understanding and respecting some general “rules of engagement” for grandparents will help you be a dream grandparent – a grandma or grandpa whose involvement in your child’s family is always welcomed and appreciated.

Accept the limitations of your role

Being a grandparent may bring back your wonderful memories of parenting, but it doesn’t bring back your parenting role. And it’s important to always keep that in mind.

Karin Gregory, Focus on the Family Canada’s director of counselling, notes that it’s easy for grandparents to forget themselves and overstep some important boundaries. “Problems begin,” notes Gregory, “when a grandparent tries to parent a grandchild vicariously, through the child’s parents.”

Often that happens when the grandparent perceives a problem with the way the grandchild is being raised. “The grandparent may be concerned about the grandchild’s friend group, the music they’re listening too, or the fact that they’re not attending church. So they’ll step in and give advice. It’s well intended, but often the child’s parents do not take it well,” says Gregory.

What grandparents intend as good advice, their child and child-in-law will very often perceive as interfering, criticism of their parenting, and an attempt to control their family. And to young parents, attempts to control send the demeaning message, I don't see you as a capable, independent adult.

“The role of a grandparent is different from that of a parent,” says Larry Fowler. In his book Overcoming Grandparenting Barriers, he writes, “As a grandparent, you have already released control, and you shouldn’t be trying to take it back. It is certainly a temptation when things go wrong, but you mustn't do so – unless you are invited. . . . When you ‘up’ the control . . . your son or daughter will resent the approach.”

Grandparents can exhibit more controlling behaviour than they realize says Fowler. “On the adult level, it looks like criticism, sharing our opinion even though it is not asked for, or trying to ‘guilt’ the other person.”

Giving adult kids the silent treatment or offering money with strings attached can be tools to try to control them too.

Keep guilt and obligation out of the equation

Sometimes controlling behaviour stems from a false sense of entitlement. Grandparents mistakenly think, Our child should listen to us because we are their parent. And after all the sacrifices we made for them, surely we earned the right to speak into their life and their parenting.

In today’s world though, asserting “parental authority” or guilt tripping adult kids can backfire. According to psychologist Joshua Coleman, today’s young adults don’t have the same sense of obligation to their parents that earlier generations once had.

In fact, warns Coleman, today’s young adults abhor the insincerity created by obligation. To them, pleasing their parents out of a sense of duty can feel like a form of personal dishonesty. In other words, they don’t like faking family loyalty if genuine feelings just aren’t there.

In his secular book, Rules of Estrangement, Coleman writes, “There’s a very strong sense in our culture that if a relationship doesn’t make you feel good about yourself or makes you feel guilty or bad, then completely cutting that person – even a parent – out of your life is not only a reasonable decision, it’s a courageous decision. So from that perspective, guilt is your enemy.”

Show that you are trustworthy

In so many ways, grandparenting is about earning – and maintaining – your adult child’s trust. Savvy grandparents understand that they can lose that trust over what may seem, on the surface, to be relatively small issues.

“Don’t ever sneak sweets when the parents say no, or in other ways undercut their rules,” says Fowler. “It is a guaranteed relationship-killer when the parents find out – and they will.”

Times have changed since grandparents were parents, says Gregory, and today’s young parents have a new understanding of what constitutes good parenting. “Many issues – like raising children on soy milk or a vegan diet, or limiting sugar or TV time, or concerns around how children are disciplined – are non-negotiable to today’s parents. And even more so where a child has underlying issues like ADHD that need to be managed carefully.”

Ignoring the parents’ instructions can do more damage to the relationship than a grandparent realizes. “In many cases,” warns Gregory, “the parents will start to think Our kids are not safe with you.”

Even in gift-giving – where grandparents often want to wow a grandchild with a very special birthday or Christmas gift – it’s important for grandparents to recognize the parents’ authority by running the gift idea by the parents first. As a rule of thumb, surprise the child, but not the parents.

Where gifts are extravagant or come with extra responsibilities – for example a gift of a hamster, bicycle, cell phone or a vacation with extended family – it’s especially important that the parents have an opportunity to decide whether the child is ready, or whether their family can accommodate the gift.

Invite feedback – and respond well

Some degree of conflict and disappointment is normal in all relationships – and the parent/grandparent relationship is no different. What is different for grandparents, however, is the vulnerability of their position whenever there is a disagreement.

Like it or not, the parents control access to your grandkids, so you’ll want to ensure that any problems can be resolved quickly and amicably. The command from Romans 12:18, “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone,” has special relevance for grandparents.

When complaints come up, wise grandparents recognize there’s not much to gain by reacting defensively, insensitively pushing their point of view, or holding grudges.

To be a trusted grandparent, you’ll want to show that you are teachable, rather than inflexible.

“Grandparents should adopt a strategy of leading with grace,” advises Larry Fowler. Often that means being quick to ask for forgiveness for what you contributed to the problem, and sincerely seeking to understand the parents’ point of view.

With the benefit of maturity, savvy grandparents recognize that it can be awkward for others to initiate hard conversations, so they regularly open a door for those important discussions to take place. For example, by asking questions like:

  • I know I made mistakes as a parent. What do you wish I had done differently? I don't want to make the same mistakes as a grandparent.

  • I wanted to check in with you, because I realize that things change over time and as kids grow. Is there anything you'd like me to do differently now?

Sometimes the feedback you get will hurt – really hurt. But inviting conversation is always better than sensing a chilly silence and growing distance in your relationship, without knowing what went wrong.

And it’s worth stressing again, you need to show that you respect your child and child-in-law’s feedback, rather than dismissing their perspective by defending, rationalizing or blaming circumstances. That’s even when you hear comments like:

  • When I was a kid, I knew you loved me. But when I did something wrong, you disciplined me by shaming me and humiliating me. I don't want you doing that to our kids.

  • After that car accident you had, we're not comfortable with you driving the kids around.

  • We're really busy with the kids and with work. We want to hear from you – but please don't call us every day.

Accepting criticism well doesn’t mean you have no say about your own boundaries. The respect you show to your adult kids hopefully will be shown to you when you need to have a frank discussion about your own limits. For example, if you are being called on to babysit more often than you would like.

When you are blocked from sharing your faith with your grandkids

Few things distress a grandparent more than being told that they are not permitted to share their faith with their grandkids in any way. But even here, you do need to respect your child and child-in-law’s authority over their own children.

Right now, it may feel like you are contributing nothing to your grandkids’ spiritual growth. But you are doing something very significant when you set about laying the groundwork to reaching your grandchildren in the future. You can be praying fervently for your kids and grandkids, working on your personal righteousness, and rebuilding whatever is broken in your relationship with your child and child-in-law.

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Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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