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How To Be a Terrific Grandparent --
Without Stepping on Anybody's Toes

The role of grandparent comes in all shapes and sizes. Grandparents can be fountainheads of wisdom or wellsprings of irritation to parents. Whether you are helpful or critical depends on how you view your own children in their roles as parents today, and on the role you establish for yourself.

There's no doubt that you as a grandparent can be an invaluable resource! The key is to find your place in the family. A satisfying role means you must fit into the family culture, rather than challenging it. And that means grandparents must take a back seat when it comes to parental decision-making.

This doesn't always come naturally. Times have changed, and families must adapt to far different situations than we may have coped with as parents. More is known today, too, about child development. Such changes in culture can create differences in childrearing approaches that may be misunderstood.

For example, more than half of children today have two parents working outside the home. This statistic alone changes the way the family operates. In turn, grandparents may observe changes in the manner in which children are raised. Small children may attend preschool, stay up later to be with their parents, appear at late-night hours in restaurants, use computers ... the list goes on. And if that isn't enough, discipline may appear to evaporate; the old adage "Children should be seen and not heard" has definitely gone out the window. Our own children are more concerned about empowering their young than we may have been.

As grandparents we want to offer our knowledge, but when the situations in which we see our grandchildren are foreign to us, we may find ourselves critical instead of supportive. We may also feel hurt at the implication that our own children believe the way we raised them was not the right way after all.

To be a great grandparent means we must allow and forgive our own mistakes and be open to learning from our children. It also means that we accept that our adult children will also make their own mistakes. It is vital that we adopt a nonjudgmental approach to the parents of our grandchildren when we see them doing things we would not have done. It is wise to find out why they do things differently than we did, rather than feel defensive about our past decisions as parents or critical about their different practices. After all, we had our turn, and now it is their time to be in charge!

And what can we really say about how we would raise our own children today? We are not experiencing the same pressures that our children experience as adults and parents. Each generation has its own unique challenges. Work toward understanding the differences when they come up, rather than simply reacting to them.

You can be a positive force in your grandchild's life by fitting into the family culture, rather than bucking it. Following are some "do's and don'ts" to help you accomplish this.


  • Don't criticize how your grandchild is parented in front of your grandchild. For example: Your grandchild is having a tantrum and you believe the mother should be firmer in her approach. Instead of saying "He needs you to be more firm," allow the parent room to struggle with the situation. Offer your support: "Can I hold these grocery bags for you so you can deal with him?" And don't undermine the parent's authority in front of your grandchildren -- for example, by saying "Poor child, give him what he wants," when the parent has taken a toy or privilege away as a measure of discipline. If you have something to say you believe could be helpful, consider bringing it up when your grandchild is out of earshot.

  • Don't speak negatively about your grandchild's character. Consider your role in creating a positive atmosphere for your grandchild. When she or he does something you do not like, comment on the behavior in a neutral tone. Teach manners rather than condemn character. For example, you might say "I don't like it when you take food from my refrigerator without asking. That is not polite." That's better than "My, he is such an obstinate child!"


  • Do choose a time when your grandchild is not present to bring up an alternative view on parenting. If there is something you want to bring up, ask first if the parent would like your suggestions or input about the situation. If the answer is "no," respect that, and be as supportive as possible. Parents get stressed, and sometimes the best thing a grandparent can do is to nurture the parent. Let your child know you are available as a sounding board if she or he does eventually want your input.

  • Do take a soft approach. Phrase your feedback as an observation or a possibility, not as an instruction. Try "I am not sure if this would make a difference or not, but I noticed that you sometimes do not follow through on your statements. I wonder if he believes you when you tell him he will not get to watch his favorite television program...." rather than, "You really need to follow through on consequences with your child. No wonder he doesn't listen to you!"

  • Do be willing to learn a childrearing philosophy that differs from how you raised your children. Before assuming incompetence, consider that parents have a good reason for doing something the way they are doing it. Approach discussions about childrearing with the understanding that values about raising children have changed over the last 20 years. For example, a high priority on developing a child's self-esteem has changed parental approaches to dealing with younger children and may look overly permissive to people who raised their children in a different era. You might find yourself frustrated when a parent gives your grandchild choices, because it slows things down. Yet a discussion about this approach will illuminate that there really is a method behind the madness!

  • Do defer decision-making to the parents, and follow their rules. When your grandchild asks if she can have a cookie before dinner, consider telling her to ask her mother if it is all right first. This conveys respect for your grandchild's parents, and keeps you out of the middle of any parent-child conflict. Similarly, if your grandchild asks you to buy him a toy that is controversial (a gun or sword, for example) and you believe it may be off-limits, let him know you will have to check with his parents first.

  • Do have regular contact with your grandchild. If possible, arrange to have regular visits if you live nearby, or else phone calls on a regular basis, to keep contact with your grandchildren. Letters, e-mail, and of course appropriate gifts are ways to stay connected and establish your grandparental role.

  • Do share your struggles as a parent or child. Approaching difficult situations with a story of your own similar troubles as a child or parent can go a long way in endearing you not only to your grandchildren, but to their parents. We all want to know that we are not alone in our struggles. Consider telling parents stories about times you failed as a parent or doubted yourself. Sharing your own struggles as a parent may be the single most helpful thing you can do in trying times. And grandchildren love to hear stories about the ways you may have felt misunderstood by your parents as a child!

Parenting can be hard, so let the parents of your grandchildren know when they are doing a great job and what you admire about their parenting style. But above all else, enjoy your grandchildren! The grandparent role is one to relish, not to sweat over. Leave the parenting to the parents.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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