Reasons Your Parents Might Be Lousy Grandparents
“I wish my parents were as involved with their grandkids as you are,” Marta said when I told her we were driving two hours to my granddaughter’s ballet recital. “They don’t seem to care.”
I’ve heard from people on both sides of the grandparent issue: adult children who complain that their parents never offer to babysit or spend time with the kids, and grandparents who feel left out and ignored by their grown children and grandchildren.
“When she found out I was pregnant, my mom was so excited,” Marta continued. “While I was still in the hospital, she could hardly wait to hold her grandchild. But after that, something happened. Now she hardly ever comes over.”
When Marta asked her parents if they could babysit so she and her husband could have a much-needed weekend away, her parents declined, saying they were too busy. “They told me the kids exhausted them too much,” she said.
At first, I felt sorry for Marta and wondered how her mother could pass up an opportunity to be close to her grandchildren. But the more Marta talked, the more I began to see her mother’s point of view.
The problem of overindulgent grandparents
Early on, Marta, in her words, “laid down the law” to her parents. She provided them with a long list of grandparenting instructions that included, among other things, not giving the children treats, not buying them toys and not allowing them to watch television.
“We limit screen time and sweets, and too many toys because toys limit their imagination,” Marta explained. “We don’t want the good habits we’ve tried to instill to be ruined by overindulgence.”
The first time Marta went to pick them up after a weekend at Grandma’s, the kids were sticky from treats and running amok in a roomful of toys while the TV blared. In other words, they were having a ball. Marta was livid, and the kids kept asking when they could visit Grandma again.
My own daughter resembles Marta in some respects. She limits screen time and doesn’t allow her kids to eat junk food. But when she leaves them with me, she knows I’m not going to be as strict and she accepts the tradeoff. She gets some free time, the kids get some grandparent time, and I can enjoy them without the responsibilities that went along with rearing my own children. I already did the hard part of parenting, and I don’t relish doing it again.
I also don’t have the stamina I had in my twenties and thirties. Plopping the kids in front of TV with cookies after a morning at the park is a much-needed break from the ongoing demands of an energetic toddler.
Maybe a grown child’s expectations are too high for the grandparent-grandchild interaction if they don’t take their parent’s age, health and energy levels into consideration.
Advice about what grandparents shouldn’t do
When I researched articles on grandparenting, I discovered a lot of advice about what grandparents shouldn’t do. One article criticized grandparents for insisting on holding a crying baby instead of letting them cry.
Other criticisms included buying noisy toys and doing things with the kids that might be considered important life experiences. Activities such as taking the grandkids on their first trip to the zoo could deprive parents of experiencing those things with their kids first, according to the article.
For the most part, my children are happy for me to expose their kids to new experiences. There have been a few exceptions. Once when I asked my daughter if I could invite her children to Discovery Cove in Florida, she said, “I would really love to experience that with them!” So we took the entire family and everybody had a blast.
Another article I read advised grandparents not to buy the kids pricey, designer clothes or too many gifts and not to take them on expensive vacations they wouldn’t remember later.
I agree with the author’s premise that kids can have just as much fun without a major financial investment. I’ve created good memories with my grandchildren that didn’t cost anything; activities like hiding Easter eggs, hiking in the woods, and baking together.
But if a grandparent is financially able and wants to take the kids on a special vacation, why not? Our Discovery Cove trip was special, and not something their parents could afford.
The same goes for buying them expensive clothes and gifts. I’ve noticed that kids are just as happy playing with the box a gift came in, but if a grandparent wants to be indulgent, where’s the problem? It’s the grandparent’s money, and it’s harmless.
Reasons for not spending time with grandkids
Naturally there are grandparents who don’t spend time with their grandchildren for other reasons. One of my friends said, “My grandkids tear the house apart and their parents don’t reprimand them. The last time they were here, they punched a hole in the wall and broke a window.”
Some refuse to babysit because they still work and feel they don’t have time. Others say they’re finally free enough to travel and do their own thing. Some grandparents suffer from ill health and lack the energy it takes to keep up with young children.
As a grandmother of 12, I try to hit a happy medium between involvement and continuing to enjoy adult activities. I attend the children’s events, host their birthday parties and invite them to sleep over from time to time. But I don’t babysit much and sometimes go several weeks without seeing them.
One of my children invites me to everything her kids are involved in and brings the kids over frequently. Another child doesn’t contact me unless I contact them first, and we could go months without seeing the grandkids if I didn’t make the effort. When I do reach out, they’re happy to come over.
I try to cut my children some slack and allow for their different personalities and preferences. This means not taking it personally if I’m always the one who initiates contact. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to see me. It means they’re busy with their own lives.
I also believe adult children should cut their parents some slack by allowing for different grandparenting styles. It might be important to lower stringent standards, because everybody benefits when grandkids and grandparents spend time together.
There are exceptions, of course. Toxic or abusive relationships should never be tolerated. Grandparents shouldn’t undermine a parent’s authority or discuss the child’s parents in a negative way.
Sometimes if the parent-child relationship wasn’t a good one, forgiveness is important. This goes for in-law relationships, too.
A couple of my friends have been cut off by daughters-in-law who don’t allow them to see their grandkids. I don’t know all the reasons behind those decisions and I’m sure there are two sides, but it’s a heart-breaking situation. All sides lose out when perceived grudges and rifts separate families.
The benefits of time together
Research by Professor Ann Buchanan from the Department of Social Policy and Intervention showed that a high level of grandparental involvement increases the well-being of children.
Emotional closeness between adult grandchildren and their grandparents protects against depression for both, according to a June 2016 study from Boston University.
Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of “Little Things Mean a Lot: Creating Happy Memories with Your Grandchildren,” cited a 2014 study from the Journal of the American Gerontological Society that links having more bonding moments with grandchildren to lower risk of depression.
As Marta and I continued our conversation, she said, “Why wouldn’t my parents want to follow my instructions? Don’t they want healthy grandkids?”
I thought about her question from a grandparent’s point of view. Of course we want healthy grandchildren, but by the time we’re old enough to be grandparents, we’ve gained a new perspective on the fleeting nature of time. The children will grow up soon enough, so we enjoy them while we can. In the grand scheme of things, a few extra treats never hurt anybody.
We also realize they will be told No more times than Yes and a competitive world will judge them for many things. They need the discipline and correction of caring parents and teachers, but they also need a haven from life’s demands.
A grandparent can provide that haven. We already did the hard job of parenting. Now we’re ready for the fun and flexibility of grandparenting. Do we spoil them? Sure. But it’s only for a little while.