Monday 23 April 2018

Dear Mary: Respect the nap! And don't boast too much: tips for grandparents

Illustration: Tom Halliday.
Illustration: Tom Halliday.

Mary O'Connor

I was prepared to feel emotional when I met my granddaughter for the first time. However, I was not prepared for the torrent of emotions that were unleashed when I saw my son holding her in his arms as he looked out the window awaiting our arrival on a snowy day in Montreal. My own baby - he is our youngest - now had a baby of his own, and was setting off on the wonderful journey of discovery that is parenthood with his wife and daughter. I still get teary thinking of it.

Like many other grandparents, our granddaughter lives thousands of miles from us, and so, apart from occasional visits, we are watching her progress through Skype. I often remark that she probably thinks my husband John and I live in a little box that is opened every so often. She kisses and hugs us a lot on each Skype call, and I just long for those kisses to be real instead of virtual. But it is wonderful to have the technology to see and hear her. When John and I lived in Vienna our parents had to make do with a weekly letter and a very occasional photograph of their first grandson. Even telephone calls were too expensive in those early days.

Despite what I say about wishing to have her closer to us, one of the nicest feelings I had during a visit home by my son and his family last year was when I heard a baby crying very early in the morning while I was still in bed. For the first time ever I didn't have to get up to take care of the crying baby. Lovely!

Grandparents I know attended a Mass for grandparents in a boarding school recently and spoke of what a lovely occasion it was. The boys were encouraged to both respect their grandparents and to avail of their wisdom. This is so true, because not only have grandparents been through it all themselves with their own children and have huge experience of life, but they now have lots of time, which is such a precious commodity. Children have so many questions and grandparents have the luxury of having the time to answer them - something busy parents don't often have - and therefore the opportunity to build a special bond with their grandchildren.

As always in relationships, it's all about communication and it is always better to have a discussion about things as they come up between the parents and grandparents rather than be silently seething and allowing resentments to build up. So here are a few do's and don'ts when it comes to grandparenting:

• It is always better to check what is a good time for you to visit your grandchildren, especially if you live close by. While it may seem like a good idea to you, with lots of time at your disposal to just drop by, this may not suit the parents at all and may lead to resentment. A phone call or text is all that it takes to ensure that you will be welcome, and, if not, to arrange an alternative date.

• Do not undermine the way your children discipline their children, especially in front of the little ones. And don't butt in to discipline them when the parent is in the middle of doing it themselves

• If your grandchildren spend a lot of time indoors then take them out to play - it will be good for all of you. As they get older, introduce them to sports or activities that you are interested in, even though their parents may not share your interests.

• Wash your hands a lot when you are around small babies. Things are different now than when you had babies and it will ensure that the parents don't get stressed about this.

• Respect the fact that the parents are parenting their way, not your way. After all, there is no right way. Times have changed - who would have thought there would be a breastfeeding app - but also people parent differently. While they may welcome your advice and help - depending on your relationship with them - do not presume they are wrong because it is not the way you did it.

• Never begin a sentence to the parents with 'You should…..'

• Tell the grandchildren stories and show them photographs. Children love hearing stories, and if they involve you or their parents, so much the better. In this digital age real photographs are to be treasured and they will enjoy them much more than looking at a screen. Black and white photographs may even be a source of amusement.

• Keep a 'dressing-up' box and devise games around these, particularly for the little ones. I have great memories of playing a 'hat game' which is a variation on musical chairs when our children and their cousins were young. My sister- in- law kept a large box full of crazy hats which led to all sorts of fun. Sometimes even the adults joined in!

• Phone your grandchildren just to speak to them, rather than to their parents. They will love being made to feel special.

• Respect the nap, and anything else that your child thinks is important for their child, particularly not eating certain things.

• If you can take the time to really engage the grandchildren in imaginative play. Find out what they enjoy and do it with them. You will nurture a relationship of a kind that they won't have with anyone else. Grandparents can do this in a way that parents can't quite do because the parents have so much else going on, they are often exhausted, and they have to be the 'tough' people sometimes regarding discipline.

• Try not to have favourites among your grandchildren, even though you may secretly have a preference. They should all appear to be equal in your affections. And comparisons are never good - so don't praise one over the other no matter how good they are at a particular sport, art, music, or academically.

• Treats are fine - they are your grandchildren, after all, but be sensible and don't allow bags of sweets and tubs of ice-cream all day. The children may have a great time, but the parents will be left to deal with the resultant tummy aches or the children not sleeping because of excess sugar. Love cannot spoil them but overindulging can.

• If you want to buy your grandchild a large Christmas or birthday gift, it is a good idea to check with the parents first. They may not have the space, they may have been thinking of getting that very item themselves, they may not agree with the purchase, or they may suggest something else that is really needed that would be better.

• Be very careful regarding boundaries and be sensitive as to whether you are dealing with your daughter or your daughter- in- law. It is usually fine to help out with housekeeping, laundry etc with a daugher, but a daughter-in-law may look on it as an intrusion and implied criticism.

• Children should not be forced to kiss or hug people they don't know, such as distant relatives or friends. They don't know when they can say no to adults and they shouldn't have to do something just because the adults are telling them to. It is, after all, a very sensitive area.

• Don't boast too much about your grandchildren. Other people may not be as lucky as you are and may not have any even though they long for them.

• Engage your grandchild, if you can, by getting down on the floor with them when they are small. If you can't, then bring them up to your level so that you can have eye contact with them. Really interacting with the grandchild rather than just saying 'give me a hug' is what builds the bond for future years.

And a final word to the children of the grandparents. We have almost all been guilty in our early parenting years of taking our parents for granted in terms of babysitting. So please be sure that you don't do this and instead tell your parents how much you appreciate their help. It costs nothing and will reap rewards in ways that you haven't even thought of.

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