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Grandparents and Young Children

Does the following aphorism strike you as cynical or enlightened? Grandparents are close to their grandchildren because they share a common enemy.

I didn’t much appreciate this irony until I became a grandparent myself. The middle generation is the reason the grandkids exist in the first place, but they are also the ‘common enemy’ against which the forces of wisdom (grandparent) and immortality (grandchild) are arrayed. Grandparenthood enjoys the privileges of age and experience, and grandchildren (seeming) agelessness and inexperience. Only the ‘middlers’ bear the ultimate responsibility for damage control, missed bedtimes and nutritional excesses. Everything else is just plain old fun seasoned with pride.

But is this traditional view of grandparenting changing along with the American family? About 10% of all grandparents are caring for their grandchildren over 30 hours a week and/or 90+ sleepovers a year. Does this take a toll? Interestingly, caring for the young seems not only to have few negative effects on the older generation’s health, babysitting for them may be especially beneficial for grandmothers (grandfathers – as usual – await study).  This is not to say it’s always a piece of cake to smoothly manage all these needs spanning three generations.

Having two sets of grandparents should be a blessing, right? More helping hands, assets, etc.? But what if the styles and values of the grandparents differ significantly? For example-one pair childproofs the house for young visitors while the other refuses to do so ‘because it’s not good to teach children that the world can be changed to accommodate their needs.’ One routinely takes them shopping and the other insists that when they come to visit, they bring their own toys ‘since they don’t intend to spoil anyone.’

The effects of such variations on the grandparenting theme are less toxic to kids than to their parents since they learn early that it’s ‘G’Mom/Dad’s loving that matters; the goods and services are nice, but it’s being adored so unconditionally that feels so great. Not that the latter can’t be taken to the extreme occasionally. When my wife and I were recently consulting to an owner of multiple childcare centers in Shanghai and Peking, we heard, with troubling frequency, of young children ‘behaving so imperiously, defying teacher authority repeatedly’ because – according his head teachers – they are ‘treated like little emperors/empresses by four doting grandparents’ per child (given China’s one child policy).

Some suggestions to avoid such pitfalls while establishing lasting closeness through unique grandparent/child activities are listed below:

  • pick a series of picture or chapter books that are shared only between grandparent and grandchild
  • chose a particular destination for the skipped generation pairing –a manageable museum, a public park, breakfast/desert outings
  • apprentice the grandchild to a grandparent’s passion – dominoes, cooking, card games, fishing, a team sport (fan or participant)
  • memory moments stimulated by old photos, or recollections of parental childhood, or just ‘when I was your age…’
  • a ‘treasure box’ of things kept at grandparent’s house that are only played with, or worn, there