Grandparenting: Supporting Strong Family Relationships
7 Ground Rules from Kidpower
Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Loving, happy, and healthy relationships with grandparents, parents, and other family members are good for kids. Unfortunately, differences between the generations can lead to misunderstandings, frustration, and hurt feelings that can cause problems if they are not addressed.
These seven ground rules from Kidpower can help prevent conflict, increase understanding, and develop trust so that extended families can enjoy each other more and bother each other less.
1. Accept that parents are in charge of the well-being and safety of their children. Beliefs about childrearing change. When grandparents gracefully accept that parents will be making choices for their children in terms of diet, discipline, possessions, health care, and activities, parents will feel less stressed and more confident. When parents feel relaxed and confident that their right to make these choices will be respected in the family, they are more likely to be open to hearing thoughtful suggestions, as long as these are respectfully and sparingly offered. Of course, if a parent’s behavior is abusive or putting a child into immediate danger, all adult family members should be working together to get help.
2. Accept that grandparents have the right to choose how much time, money, or other resources they will make available for their grandchildren – and parents have the right to put limits on how much and what kind. Parents might wish for their own parents to provide more support in terms of time or money, but these resources are gifts, not obligations. Taking for granted or failing to appreciate the amount grandparents are comfortable giving can damage important relationships. The more appreciated and less pressured grandparents feel, the more likely they are to be generous. At the same time, parents’ limits on the kinds and amounts of gifts, treats, activities, and money that anyone, including grandparents, gives their children should be respected.
3. Make respectful communication a high priority, because it is the foundation of all healthy relationships. Even if you have an important concern or feel very frustrated, don’t speak badly about each other in front of the children. Instead, take the time to discuss concerns privately with compassion, love, and respect. Remember that old habits, unrealistic expectations, and past hurts can get in the way of being our best selves and of using positive communication skills. Sometimes we have to disappoint each other, but we do not have to blame each other for wishing that things were different. The past cannot be changed, but when everyone is committed to working issues out in mutually supportive way, relationships can grow stronger long into the future.
4. Follow the Kidpower boundary rules about touch so that children will build safe habits that can protect them from abuse throughout their lives. Touch, play, and games for fun and affection should be the choice of each person, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and not a secret. Most adults did not grow up with this rule, even in households deeply committed to safety, well-being, and respect, because the long-term impact of common, well-intentioned behaviors such as forced hugs or roughhousing were not yet understood. Because touch should be allowed by the adults in charge, then even if both grandparents and kids want to do something, this activity must be allowed by the parents in order for it to happen. As one father said, “Even though kissing on the lips was normal with family and friends when I was growing up, I don’t want my kids doing it because I think it is unsanitary.” As one grandfather said, “At first I was offended, but I accepted the boundary out of respect for my family. Over time, the benefits of the boundary rules got much clearer. I wish I’d had those benefits myself.”
5. Don’t ask kids to keep secrets about problems, touch, presents or treats given to them, activities, or favors. This means that parents and grandparents should not complain about other people in front of kids, since their repeating a negative comment is likely to be uncomfortable and embarrassing. This means that grandparents should not sneak a treat or gift to a child and ask that child not to tell. Older kids can with guidance learn the nuances between secrets, surprise, and privacy, and should always be able to talk with their adults about anything that worries them.
6. Accept that we all make mistakes. Consider the benefits of apologizing, forgiving, and making amends swiftly. In a thoughtless or careless moment, any of us might say or do something hurtful or upsetting to someone we care about deeply. Instead of trying to deny what happened or to justify our behavior, we can do our best to understand the other person’s point of view, apologize, and show by our actions that we will act differently in the future.
Instead of blaming each other for mistakes, we can point out what the specific behavior was, state factually why it was hurtful without attacking someone’s intentions or character, and ask for a change. As one mother said, “I insisted that my husband sit next to me while I told his parents that, although we love and respect them, we do not want them to threaten to spank our children. Although they got upset for a while, our relationship improved immensely, and our kids started to look forward to seeing their grandparents instead of feeling worried.”
Speaking up instead of blaming others or enduring hurtful behavior towards ourselves or our children takes time, effort, and courage – and often leads to a negative reaction at first, because most people do not like being told that they did something wrong. We can persist in stating our boundaries in a positive way instead of taking someone’s behavior personally. If setting boundaries doesn’t work, we can decide to restructure the relationship in ways that avoid potential problems instead of wishing that things would be different and then being disappointed.
7. Seek positive ways to connect that work well for everyone. Grandparents will have more fun if they let go of expectations and the ways things used to be and look for ways to appreciate and enjoy both their children and grandchildren the way they are. Remember that love grows from meaningful connections. Meaningful connections are not based on forced affection, food, money, or criticism. Sometimes just watching appreciatively and listening with full attention with NO lecturing, NO getting distracted by texting, and NO asking probing questions can be the most powerful way to show love.
When grandparents do not see their grandkids often, parents can give kids ways to show respect and caring that do not involve hugging and kissing, such as making a special drawing or card. Instead of blaming grandparents who don’t know how to connect with young children, encourage them to do something interesting near the child without focusing on the child, such as playing with toys or building with blocks. If teens hate to be asked questions and given lectures by grandparents, teach them how to cheerfully change the subject and not answer the question while expressing caring. For example, “I’m glad to see you, Grandpa. I don’t want to talk about school right now. Have you seen any good movies lately?”
As kids get older, parents and long-distance grandparents can foster connections using tools like Skype, phone, texting, or mail. Find activities and subjects that are mutually interesting, such as reading or telling stories, sharing photos, and playing games.
We can also be realistic about what does and does not work well. As one grandfather explained, “I found that staying in a motel instead of at their house when I came to visit made me less tired and everyone more relaxed. I found a place with a swimming pool, and now my grandkids can’t wait to come over and see me as soon as I arrive.”
Most adults care deeply about their parents, and most parents with adult children care deeply about both their own kids and their grandkids. If all adults in a family make a commitment to having the best relationships possible their top priority, everyone will be happier, and the children will have loving, joyful relationships that will enrich their lives.