Questions Regarding Grandparenting
Empty Nest Parenting
by Richard and Linda Eyre
During the past three columns we have discussed common questions of empty nest parents and regarding 1. when kids first leave home, 2. when they start jobs or careers, and 3. when they marry. This column deals with the questions that come up when our children have children and when we enter the glorious (but not without challenge) stage of GRANDPARENTING!
As in earlier columns, we will state the question and then give some responses from empty nest grandparents (first name and last initial) and then from first-time parents (first name only). Our own comments will be labeled “R&L” and our co-author daughter Saren’s comments will be under her name. Remember, there are no common “right” answers here – just a lot of ideas and opinions to think about as you form your own strategy.
Remember as you read that this is the time when the vertical and diagonal relationship really seems to become horizontal. Those who made you a parent are now parents themselves. Suddenly they understand certain things and can relate to you with a new commonality. But with grandchildren comes a whole host of new questions.
How will our relationship change once our kids have their own children?
Marilyn J.: I think you should just be their cheerleader now. They’re at the most hectic and busy time of their lives when they have little kids, and they just need to know that we went through it and that it’s okay!
Carolyn M.: I think this is the biggest of all the changes. Now our kids are really like us. They understand what we went through with them. It’s neat! It opens up whole new areas of commonality and conversation.
Aja: Even though I don’t have kids of my own yet, I’m sure my mom will answer my questions and give me advice when I need it, but I hope she will give me (for I think I will dearly need it) unending support and affirmation of my potential for being a good parent. It is when I really love myself that I feel most receptive to the positive influences of my life, current and past.
Saren: In some ways, once they have their first child, your adult children will need you more than they have in years. They’ll have questions about diaper rashes and spitting up and sleeping schedules. They’ll want you to be on hand frequently to ooh and ahh over the most beautiful children in the world. They’ll want you to approve of them as parents, and they’ll probably want to help you define your role as a grandparent as the role evolves. They’ll ask for quite a bit of advice, and you’ll doubtless think of lots of unsolicited advice you could give. You may find that you talk more frequently and have a closer relationship than you have in years. But it’s also important to continue to show interest in and encourage your children’s interests and abilities and activities that are not child-related. When you talk or get together, I think it’s a good idea to always ask at least a few questions of your kids that have to do with something other than your grandchildren!
How much should I help with my grandchildren? Can we draw appropriate boundaries on our involvement and dependency on each other if my kids live near me and we see each other a lot?
Kate P.: You have to set boundaries. Otherwise you’ll be babysitting the grandkids every day, and you won’t have a life. Just tell them what days you’re available and what days you’re not, or set up a schedule in advance. Don’t allow the kids to just be dropped off at Grandma’s whenever!
Betty T.: Wow, I can’t believe I’m ever going to worry about that. No grandkids yet, but I think I’m going to have to fight for my time with them. I want to be there for them whenever they need me. Nothing I’d like better than to be the surrogate mom!
Saren: Again, it’s about expectations and communication. After reassuring your kids about how much you love them and your grandkids, explain any concerns you have about grandparenting. Don’t get taken advantage of, and don’t get taken for granted. But also, don’t miss chances to be with those kids! Ask about any concerns your children have about your new role. Decide together what the bounds will be.
How can I be involved in my grandkids’ lives if they live far away from me?
Katelin J.: That’s our vacation nowadays. I don’t want to see beaches or volcanoes; I just want to go see my grandkids.
Carolyn M.: I think grandparents have a special license to spoil their grandkids. I try to send them some little thing every month and to write little notes and just constantly tell them how fantastic and perfect they are!
Peter J.: We take grandkids on vacation with us. Their parents can’t afford to go some of the places we do, and since we’re retired, we go pretty often. We like to take the grandkids one or two at a time so we can really get to know them.
Saren: It’s wonderful to see the bond that my parents have with my little one-year-old son. He’s just a baby, and we live far from my parents, but when we get together, I can just tell that Ashton is so happy with his grandparents. He’ll just sit there in my dad’s arms and stare at him with this look of interest and love on his face – I’ve never seen Ashton look at anyone else that long or that hard. My dad loves playing with him and carefully observing all his little personality traits and interests. I love hearing my dad tell me about his observations after spending a few hours with Ashton. And when we’re at their house, Ashton adores the way my mom talks to him and lets him play with all the big spoons and “safe” utensils in her kitchen. She’s always giving him a little extra love and attention and buying him great little things that quickly become his favorite things. My parents make the most of every little bit of time they get with my son. Plus, they ask about him all the time, “talk” to him on the phone when they call, and send him nice little things he might like. It’s so early in my son’s life, but already he’s got a firm foundation of a good relationship with his grandparents.
Some grandparents have the means and the desire to do a lot of traveling, so it’s easy for them to visit their grandchildren quite often. Some young families (but not many) have the means and the ability (depending on the ages of the children and how well the kids travel) to take their kids to visit grandparents a few times a year. But no matter what the situation may be, everyone I talked to agreed that nothing can replace “face time” with grandkids – especially when they’re little. There’s an almost magical bond that can develop very easily between grandparents and their grandkids – with even just a few weekends a year spent together.
I guess the biggest suggestions to grandparents that I heard was simply to visit as often as possible (within reason) and to make visits really count by spending quality one-on-one time with grandkids (reading stories, sharing memories, doing crafts, going on little outings) and planning special, memorable activities to do with the grandkids, both with and without the parents. (A “special, memorable” activity can be something as simple as a trip to the ice cream shop or the zoo.)
What sort of financial support (if any) should I offer my children and grandchildren?
Tom M.: I think anything you do for the grandkids has got to be in coordination and agreement with your kids (their parents). You’ve got to support them in their stewardships of their own family. Let them ask for what they need. Or, if you have an idea, clear it with them.
Lonnie P.: Vacations are the best idea, if you can afford it. They don’t injure your kids’ pride or undermine their independence. Nice vacations aren’t a feasible expenditure for your kids at this point, so they are so appreciative, and they can use their own funds for more practical things. Plus, vacations are the most relaxed atmosphere to really communicate and to have quality time with grandkids.
Saren: In talking about this question, most people agreed that kids should be financially independent of their parents once they’ve established their own family. But most agreed that financial help with the following was helpful and quite common:
Down payment on a home.
Trust funds/college funds for grandchildren.
Help with graduate school tuition.
Paying for vacations with parents.
Helping in a time of crisis.
Other than these things, most felt they shouldn’t expect or ask for financial help.
How can I help my kids be better parents to my grandkids (without offending them or making them feel like I’m forcing my ideas on them?)
Kenneth W.: Don’t even offer advice unless you are asked. This is such a sensitive area.
Winifred R.: Your kids are going to follow the example you set as a parent whether they want to or not – that’s just how it seems to go. So if there is something specific you wish you’d done differently, tell them about it. Then you are criticizing yourself and not them!
Shawni: Each new catastrophe I faced with my children seemed to be something my parents could have done blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs. I got so frustrated at first, wondering how they just naturally had all the answers. But my parents were so sweet about it when I got frustrated. They always treated me like I was my own expert and like I was just doing a phenomenal job as a parent. They were quick to explain that they have been parents for thirty years and claim to be amazed at what I have been able to do in only three years. Of course, this is pure flattery, because I have so very much to learn, but it sure made me feel better! Their unquestioning approval of me as a parent has meant so much to me. Let’s face it, all parents of children with children are going to know much more about a lot of things and are going to have so many answers for their kids in the parenting area. I just think it’s so great when parents can build up their new-parent child by not pushing too much advice on them and helping them realize their ultimate parenting potential.
Saren: Ask questions a lot. As you ask and listen, your kids may ask you for your ideas and advice. The best time to offer advice is when you’re asked! Assume the best of your kids – they’re probably trying to do the very best they can for their kids, just as you tried to do your best for them. Praise your kids for everything good you see in their parenting. Model child-care techniques that you think might help them while you’re with them and their kids. Respect the fact that they’re the parents, and they have the final say. Realize that what worked for you may not be right for them and their children.
What is the biggest difference between parenting and grandparenting?
Peter J.: The biggest single difference is that you can send the kids home!
Kate P.: One big difference I’m hoping for, although it hasn’t happened to me yet, is that grandparents have more time and don’t have to be in a hurry. I want to be able to sit down and just be with my grandkids – really listen to them and not have to rush off to the next thing!
Saren: Many of the LTNs (Leaving the Nesters) I talked to vehemently stated that grandparents should never disagree with something that they (the parents) have said in front of the children. They should do everything they can to be on the children’s side and on the parents’ side when there’s a disagreement, helping kids to see both sides of an issue and understand what their parents are trying to do. If grandparents have issues with the way their children are handling or not handling certain things, they should bring up these issues by asking questions in a caring way and in a private setting.
Most LTNs also agreed that it’s great if grandparents want to help out with some of the needs and wants of their grandchildren (i.e. paying for lessons or college, buying them clothes sometimes, setting up a trust fund for them), but they should always coordinate any help they offer with them. The parents are in charge. The grandparents are loving helpers who step in as needed and requested and desired.
What should I do if my kids don’t want to do the things I’d like to do for their kids?
Kenneth W.: Clear everything with your kids. If they don’t want you to do it, don’t!
Carolyn M.: Like I said, I think I have a license to spoil my grandkids, and I just can’t help myself. I guess I’ll just keep doing it and repent later.
Karen (by Saren): My friend Karen was complaining to me the other day about her in-laws. Karen has three kids, ages five, three, and one. She and her husband, Dan, are really health-conscious people – they exercise a lot, and they try to eat right. They limit the amount of sugar and empty calories their kids get in their diet – focusing instead on whole grains, fruits and vegetables. On Saturdays or on holidays, the kids can have candy. Karen was saying that it’s really hard when they visit Dan’s parents because his parents love candy and treats. They always stock their house with candy – especially when they know the grandkids are coming. Dan’s dad always has pockets full of butterscotch candies and loves handing out candy every time a kid gets near him. Dan’s mom puts candy dishes full of treats on every available surface in the house and offers the kids candy whenever they do something for her or whenever she wants them to read a book with her. After a day at Dan’s parents’ house, the kids are on serious sugar highs, and it’s hard to get them to settle down and go to bed. Plus, it really bothers Karen that Dan’s parents seem to be using candy as a way to “buy” the kids’ affection and bribe them to do things. They want their kids to spend time with their grandparents because it’s fun, not because they get treats for doing it.
Karen said that she really doesn’t know what to do. She wants the kids to spend time with their grandparents, but she’s really uncomfortable with her kids having all that sugar and associating their grandparents so strongly with candy. Dan did try to talk to his parents a while back. It was a short conversation because Dan felt that he offended his parents right off the bat by even bringing up the subject. His parents said they felt it was good for kids to get special treats when they’re with their grandparents and that the candy made their visit more special. Besides, “a little sugar can’t really hurt kids, Son.”
After recently coming home from a four-day stay with Dan’s parents, the kids kept on begging for candy every day. Karen said, “It really bothers me that we’ve worked so hard to help these kids be healthy and enjoy healthy foods and do things without bribes and all that – and Dan’s parents just don’t care. They’re so set in their ways!”
Saren: From stories like this, it’s clear how important it is to talk to your kids about virtually anything you want to give your grandkids. Your kids have the final say about what’s best for their children. Don’t assume that anything is “no big deal.” It’s much safer to ask.
How often should I talk and write to my grandchildren?
Carolyn M.: In many cultures of the world the grandparents teach and influence children more than the parents. This is not a bad idea – grandparents are probably wiser and more experienced. Just communicate and coordinate with your kids about what you’ll each do for the grandkids.
Shawni: It means the world to them and to us. I think it’s good to set up a regular time every week when you talk to your kids and grandkids B that way everyone has their expectations straight and it really happens.
John: My grandparents never seemed to want to talk to me. They’d always try to get off the phone as quickly as possible, and I thought it was because they didn’t want to talk. But now I realize it was because they were worried about the expense of long-distance calls – they were very frugal people. When we’d get together, they had all the time in the world for me, and I loved being with them. But we only got to see them a couple of times a year, and it would have been nice to be able to talk to them and connect with them on the phone during the many months we were apart.
Now that I have kids of my own, I want them to be able to talk to their grandparents on a regular basis. My wife and I have set up a time every Sunday evening when we’ll talk to her parents and my parents and have the kids talk to them. Just before the call is due, we talk to our kids about what they want to tell Grandma and Grandpa this week and have them come up with some good questions to ask them. I think these calls have been great for the kids B they’re sharing their lives with their grandparents and practicing good conversation skills.
Saren: Set up regular times to talk to your grandkids. Ask your kids what’s going on in their lives so you can think of appropriate questions to ask them. Write them regularly. Getting mail or e-mail can be such a highlight in a child’s life. Coordinate with your kids about how often you should communicate so that everyone’s comfortable and knows what to expect.
How often should I get together with my married kids? How often should I encourage them to come home? How should we handle family reunions and holiday get-togethers once our family gets bigger and more spread out? What if they want to have Christmas on their own with their spouse and kids?
Peter J.: At time goes by, the only reliable way to get them all together is to make the reunion so compelling and attractive that they choose to come to it over their other vacation or holiday alternatives.
Pam J.: You’ve got to try to be flexible here and to leave a lot of initiative to the kids.
Saren: Here are the top responses I got in a discussion with those who have left the nest on this question:
Talk with your kids well in advance about dates for weddings, reunions, and other family events. Try to accommodate their schedules when possible. Be understanding if they can’t make it to every family event.
Decide together how often you will all be able to count on seeing each other. Will you have a reunion every summer? When? How long will it be?
Make expectations clear and be consistent about helping to pay for airfare to get them home.
Well in advance, invite your kids to everything important – extended family reunions, graduations of younger kids in you family and cousins, and so on. It’s important that they feel included and informed. Understand, however, that they will not be able to attend many of these events, even if they live nearby. If they know about things in advance, though, there’s a better chance they might be able to come even if they live far away. You never know when your kids are going to be able to get some time off, or when they may have other things going on with friends or business in your area. Don’t expect them to be there for every extended family event! Help them figure out which events are most important, and don’t hold it against them if they can’t make it to everything. Just because they live nearby doesn’t mean they should be able to come to everything!
Acknowledge the importance of their spending time with their in-laws.
Acknowledge the importance of their having their own family time and vacation time with just their spouse and kids.
When they do come home, make it special for them. Plan favorite meals and activities. Don’t just sit around together in the same house and make them wonder why they came. Always ask them in advance about some of the things they hope to do while they are home.
Understand that they will probably want to spend time with friends and other family members in the area when they come to visit. Don’t expect them to spend every minute with you.
Try to set a time every year when everyone will do their best to get together (often summer reunions work best since most families trade off which parents to spend Christmas with).
R&L: Have a schedule and an agenda so your time spent together really counts. If possible, have a special, traditional place to gather each year. Isn’t it interesting to see how much the grown children want the identity of an extended family reunion!
Nowhere in scriptures is the word “family” used to describe a two-generation household. “Family” always means more than that – three generations or more. As an empty-nest parent and a grandparent, you are now the patriarch or matriarch of a real three-generation family. You have the opportunity to create a beautiful family culture that will bless and enrich your own life and the lives of every family member.
The time and mental energy you used to use to read bedtime stories or pick up car pools or help with high school homework can now be used to plan family reunions or to visit new grandchildren or to orchestrate family e-mail updates or family chat rooms where you develop an extended family mission statement.
The point is that if we think of families as two generations only, then your grandchildren replace you as the other generation in your children’s family. It’s like odd man out or a game of musical chairs with only two chairs. And you are the one left standing, left out, labeled as redundant or past the point of usefulness or relevance.
But if we learn, together with our children, to think of families as three or four generations, then we are the respected matriarchs and patriarchs, useful and important in countless ways, enriching the lives of our children and grandchildren by our advice, assistance, and support even as they enrich ours by their respect, love, and friendship. The perspective of the premortal existence is such a powerful prism through which to see more accurately the whole process and flow of expanding families.
Our children came to us as stewardships from God (their true Father). They could have just as well been our parents but for the birth order that heaven ordained. So we try to respect them and to raise them the way their true Father would want them to be raised.
Then they themselves take their turn as parents and we watch them welcome their own little stewardships. What a joy to now see more clearly how it all fits together. And what a privilege to be there on the sidelines, getting into the action when we are asked or prompted, watching their family expand within ours, even as ours expands within His.
Good luck in developing your own strategy for grandparenting. Join us next column for some important general conclusions about Empty Nest Parenting! And remember to visit us at emptynestparenting.com
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