By Mike and Debra DuBose
Outside of having our own children (and gaining a great daughter-in-law), becoming grandparents has been one of the most exciting and treasured experiences of our lives. When we hear that little knock at the door and see our two-year-old granddaughter’s smile as she bounds toward us with open arms, the joy is indescribable! When she arrives, we forget about the world outside. Spending time with her is our little piece of Heaven on Earth!
Unfortunately, we see many grandparents who miss out on that great joy. In fact, a successful businessperson once stunned us by saying he didn’t spend much time with his children and grandchildren before they were two years old because they were “just blobs” at that age. This person failed to realize that, starting from the child’s earliest moments of life, we grandparents build a relationship through love, attention, teaching, and caring. Needless to say, he now has very weak relations with his adult children and grandchildren. When it comes to relationships, you get what you give!
Aristotle theorized that we are all born blank slates. As babies and children age and interact with us, we all leave our marks on them. While genetics play a role in children’s development, most of what they learn, how they think, and how they behave is influenced by those around them. Grandparents have the opportunity to help guide their grandchildren in life and become very special people to them. A 2014 Wall Street Journal article notes that grandparents not only provide “an extra source of child care and economic support,” but they “often form an alternative attachment to the child that can be very important to the child’s development,” citing Syracuse University sociology professor Merril Silverstein.
Since before Maelyn’s birth, we have fostered a strong grandparent-grandchild bond based on our personal goals, beliefs, and the positive behaviors or activities we learned from our own grandparents. We knew we would have to plant the seeds for a healthy relationship along the way, or else it wouldn’t happen. As our family grows (our second grandchild, Merrill, just arrived), our knowledge of how to cultivate healthy relationships within our extended family continues to develop, too. Although Debra and I have psychology and early childhood education degrees between us, we have pretty much thrown them out the window and are learning as we go. While it’s good to consider others’ advice, look critically at the parenting and grandparenting articles you read. Some were clearly written by professionals with a lot of credentials but no children or grandchildren! Different things work for each family, so be patient as you learn what strategies are best for you. While we will never measure up to all the suggestions listed in this article, read on for some of the things we have learned from our research and the stumbles we have made on our journey.
Grandparenting starts sooner than you think. Surprisingly, your role as a grandparent begins when your child is born. Relationships with your children will eventually influence how much you will be allowed to participate in your grandchildren’s lives. Thus, nurturing a good connection with your son or daughter is the first step. While we weren’t perfect parents and made many mistakes, we spent regular quality time with our sons and have close relationships with them now as a result. If you made some mistakes interacting with your children or have a rocky relationship, it’s never too late to mend it. Admit your wrongs, seek forgiveness, find common ground, and move on together.
Welcome your adult child’s partner with open arms. Be cautious about judging the individuals whom your children date. Any criticisms or judgments you pass may come back to bite you if that person becomes your son- or daughter-in-law!
Grandparents may mistakenly share negative feelings about their adult child’s spouse with their son or daughter, which can “poison the well.” Treat your new in-law as your own child, focusing on his or her strengths rather than weaknesses. Be very careful what you say and how you say it, and pay particular attention to your body language. People sense when others disapprove of or dislike them. In addition, spend time forging a relationship with the new in-law, including some one-on-one time. Find common interests, have some fun together, and make it a goal to find things you enjoy about him or her.
Once your child is married, your role as a parent will significantly diminish.Too many individuals inappropriately attempt to tell their adult children how to live their lives even after they marry, which creates resentment. According to the Foundation for Grandparenting, successful grandparents support their children’s marriages, refrain from criticism, and include each spouse “as a new child in the family.” Their research found that effective grandparents tend to get along relatively well with all family members and experience few major problems with their own children. When a problem surfaces, they identify and resolve the issue. Such grandparents foster love rather than conflict, and their grandchildren “felt secure because they were spared the stress of loyalty divisions between their parents and grandparents,” according to the foundation.
Research conducted by Dr. Terri Apter, author of What Do You Want from Me?: Learning to Get Along with In-laws found that 60% of daughters-in-law reported “stressful” relationships with their mothers-in-law, as opposed to only 15% for sons-in-law. Apter suggested that women are more intuitive and empathetic than men, which allows them to pick up on overt and subtle cues that males may miss. Thus, a man may be unaware that his wife feels negative vibes coming from his mother. It’s important that parents of both genders strive to address and dispel any negativity so that the family runs smoothly and happily.
Once a grandchild is born, maintaining a good relationship with your child and his or her spouse is even more important, “as the children are now the gateway to the grandchildren,” according to Grandparents.about.com. Grandparents who have been polite and friendly will generally enjoy time with their grandchildren, but “grandparents who promote conflict instead of harmony often find themselves estranged from their grandchildren, which is one of the saddest of situations.” They may be alienated from their own children as well. If you feel that you are being kept at arm’s length or restricted from visitation, this could mean that there are problems or you have overstepped some boundaries. Approach the situation in a calm, rational way and seek to repair any damage with respect and kindness. Sometimes you have to say, “Could we start over?”
Just as grown children don’t want parental advice on how to run their marriages, they also don’t seek guidance on how to raise their children. Grandparents.com’s simple recommendation: “Seal your lips.” We had to tell our parents in no uncertain terms, “You had your chance at raising children; now it’s our turn!” Don’t provide your advice or opinions unless they are directly solicited, and even then, you must accept that your child and their spouse may not follow your recommendations.
We agreed not to offer advice on raising our grandchildren, other than on minor things like what might help a rash. Raising good, happy children and maintaining a healthy marriage are two of the toughest jobs a person will face, and they simply don’t need others meddling or trying to control their lives!
Don’t push your children for grandchildren. US Census Bureau data now puts the average age of first marriage at 27 for women and 29 for men (seven years later for both genders than it was in 1960). People are waiting longer to get married, which means that many are waiting longer to have children, too. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, 14% of births are now to women age 35 or older. It’s reasonable to expect that this trend will continue in the future.
Because it is taking longer for their children to marry and have babies, people are becoming grandparents at an older age as well. According to a March 2014 Wall Street Journal article, in 2015, the average age for becoming a grandparent will be 64 years old. Although people typically live longer now than they did years ago, many still worry that they will not have as many years with their grandchildren as they would like. This perceived “time crunch” has inspired some to pressure their adult children to have babies sooner rather than later!
However, as with other issues like marriage and childrearing styles, when (or if) a couple has children or adopts should be their decision only. Procreating early in a relationship can add significant, unexpected, and complicated stress to a marriage. Partners must develop their own timeline that gives them some space to learn how to live as a couple, figure out where they want to go together, and when or if they will have children. Although you may desperately want grandchildren, don’t pressure them! Be supportive of their marriage and don’t interfere. If they decide to have children, the names are also their choice. You could make a list of some family names you like, but don’t mention it again after you provide the information.
When the grandchild is born, remember that it is the parents’ news to tell. While you will be dying to let your friends, relatives, and colleagues know about your new grandchild, ask the parents when you can “spill the beans” about the birth. You don’t want to spoil one of the highlights of your adult child’s life by prematurely blasting out a Facebook notice, texting, e-mailing, or calling friends! The parents will need a chance to recover from the stressful childbearing event before announcing their wonderful news. Also, when the child arrives, be sure to give the new parents time to themselves for this special moment and remember that there are other grandparents, friends, and relatives who want to share in their joy. Don’t force your way in right after the birth; instead, ask the parents about a good time to visit and how you can help when the couple is in the hospital or returns home.
Make time for yourself and your own life. Psychologist and parenting columnist John Rosemond recommends that a husband and wife prioritize their marriage first and children second to build a stable marriage and raise well-adjusted children. Often, however, this is not the case in our busy, success-driven society. Many parents focus all their attention and energy on their children and their activities, becoming totally exhausted by the end of the day. Grandparents, too, must create healthy divisions between family and personal time.
Being an effective grandparent means balancing travel, hobbies, and adult fun with family interactions. While it may seem selfish, grandparents aren’t there to provide babysitting, daycare, or errand-running on demand for their children. Grandparents should set friendly boundaries early on and establish some parameters to guide their grandchildren’s parents on how they will help them (i.e. saying, “We will need notice if you need us to watch the baby.”). You don’t want to cancel your plans to accommodate them, and it’s okay to say, “No, it’s not a good time for us” or “Sorry, we have made another commitment.” There will be plenty of occasions where you will be able to help them and love on your grandchildren.
Each set of grandparents will have a different definition of how much help they can provide. Some actively volunteer to serve as childcare because they want to, and others may need to take over some parenting duties due to their child’s death or other circumstances. In any scenario, the most important factor is communication. The parents and grandparents simply must work together as a team to find a reasonable and mutual balance.
Respect the other grandparents. Grandparents on both sides of the family should not be competitive, jealous, or dominating. They must avoid saying anything derogatory about each other, especially in front of the adult children or grandchildren. Both sides should strive to be cordial and friendly to promote a healthy family. Adult children and grandchildren alike pick up on conflict more than we realize!
Provide both planned and unplanned activities. When your grandchild is visiting, you may want to schedule some basic activities, but also factor in some unstructured time as well. In our relationship with our grandchild, we see ourselves as her fun-loving teachers sharing the world, nature, love, values, heritage, and traditions. Find your own special niche to relate to your grandchild in a unique way. For example, Debra loves to cook with our granddaughter Maelyn. We are also constantly teaching her (in a fun way) about colors, numbers, household items, dangers, body parts, music, and other basic, age-appropriate concepts. That may include Mike putting a bunch of girls’ hair clips in his hair, playing peek-a-boo, or simply taking strolls to explain to her the wonders of God and nature.
The grandchild needs to feel warmth, care, protection, and love radiating from his or her grandparents. Above all, don’t be too serious—just go with the flow and get down on their level. Understanding all of the gadgets that kids are growing up around now may be one of the hardest tasks facing grandparents today, but if you want to bond with your grandchildren, you must get into their world, no matter how much you may dislike or disapprove of some aspects of their lives. You have to see through their eyes and hear through their ears! For example, if your grandson is playing a game, ask him to teach you how to play. Mike transitions from serving as the president of four companies to playing pretend with his granddaughter—even letting her put makeup and stickers on his face!
Follow the parents’ rules. Whether you’re on the maternal or paternal side, remember that your role has now changed. You are no longer the parent and do not set all the rules. See yourself as a relief pitcher in a baseball game. The parents manage the team, so if you want to be called on to pitch, play by their rules, even if you disagree with them. Remember: you had your chance, and now it’s their turn. Their failures and mistakes will help them to learn and improve as parents, as yours did for you. Let go of your expectations and loosen up. With the heavy-duty parenting out of the way, you can enjoy the “dessert”—being a grandparent!
Imperfections are normal. Grandchildren are growing little humans trying to figure out their world while their bodies and minds go through numerous changes. Thus, expect occasionally irritable moods, rebellious phases, or insistence on having their way. React calmly and patiently while reinforcing the parents’ disciplinary guidelines and explaining the rules of your home. According to Grandparents.com, “A grandparent’s first impulse when grandchildren have tantrums is to comfort them. Don’t. Experts agree that when children have meltdowns, trying to soothe—or worse, giving in to what they want—sends the message that it’s ok to lose control.” Be patient and let the child know you will wait for him or her to calm down before resuming communication. “Time out” or walking away can also be an effective tool for grandparents.
It’s also helpful to learn your grandchild’s traits and “warning signs” for when he or she is becoming upset. From watching and listening to Maelyn, we can tell when she’s hungry, sleepy, frustrated, etc. and take steps to avoid problems. Grandparents are human too, and on some occasions can be just as moody, stressful, and irritable as their grandchildren. If you find yourself getting frustrated, it’s time for your “time out!” We take turns watching our granddaughter to give each other some relief and time to catch up on chores, business, and personal items. Plus, it allows each of us to spend some quality one-on-one time with Maelyn and keeps her from getting overstimulated. If you find yourself “out of sorts” when you are scheduled to spend time with your grandchild, ask to reschedule. You don’t want the bad side of you coming out when you’re with your grandchildren!
Look out for grandchildren’s safety. Children are naturally curious, which helps with learning—but can also spell danger. Case in point: when Mike was two years old, he found a hairpin on the floor and decided to see what would happen if he stuck it in the electrical socket. You can still see its imprint on his thumb today, more than 60 years after he got shocked! When your grandchildren are under your care, their parents trust you to guard them from harm. Before they visit, go around your home and look for anything that could possibly prove dangerous, such as sharp objects, unlocked doors, poisonous cleaners or chemicals, stairs, pets, or access to swimming pools. Particularly when they’re young, don’t let them out of your sight for more than a few moments or get distracted by telephone calls, texts, television, e-mails, or unexpected visitors. According to the National Center for Child Death, about 14% of child deaths are caused by unintentional injury from sources like traffic accidents (especially children not wearing safety devices like seat belts), drowning, fire, poisoning, suffocation, and access to firearms. It only takes a few minutes to lose a child, but the guilt would last a lifetime!
Set reasonable house rules. While you want to follow the parents’ guidelines and use similar disciplinary techniques (such as “time out”), you should also teach grandchildren your expectations for their behavior at your place. Don’t be an obsessive perfectionist, but it is necessary to set reasonable boundaries specific to visits at your home and then enforce them. (Of course, you may still have to place some breakables or dangerous items out of reach before grandchildren visit. Accidents will happen!)
Share your time. The Foundation for Grandparenting conducted a study on the characteristics of good grandparents, and simply spending time with grandchildren was at the top of the list. Research cited in the report found that a grandparent’s presence promotes the grandchild’s emotional security. Show your grandchildren that you are there for them by connecting in variety of ways: in person; using technology like Skype or Facetime; or by telephone calls, notes, letters, e-mails, or texts. This lets grandchildren know that you love them and are thinking about them.
In surveys cited by the Wall Street Journal, 59% of grandparents interviewed felt that they play an important role in their grandchild’s lives, and 58% spoke with their grandchildren at least once a week. Don’t let technology serve as a barrier between you and your grandchildren. If your technology skills are limited, take classes on using e-mail, Skype, and Facetime or hire a teenager to teach you about them. Secure the proper equipment and consider using technology specialists like the Geek Squad at Best Buy to install it (if needed). If you are concerned about costs for long distance phone calls, there are online telephone services you can purchase from vendors like Time Warner that allow unlimited long distance calls using the Internet. If your adult children cannot afford the technology but you can, consider providing them with communications technology such as an iPhone and wireless Internet so you can Facetime with your loved ones.
Don’t wait for your adult children and grandchildren to come to or build a relationship with you. It’s your job to keep visitations and communications active, and to be the one reaching out to create solid, loving relations.
When it comes to gifts, it’s not always about the money. Most grandparents love to delight their grandchildren with gifts, but we must be cautious. You don’t want to overindulge the child or start a competition with the parents or other grandparents. Some of the most thoughtful gifts are free or low-cost (like a freshly picked flower or beautiful leaf from a tree, blowing bubbles, a hand-drawn picture, a toy or blanket that belonged to the grandchild’s parent, or a basic set of crayons or building blocks). Often, we can be tempted to waste a lot of money on expensive items that grandchildren could care less about, like fancy clothes. In fact, a 2014 Wall Street Journal article notes that 25% of grandparents surveyed spent more than $1,000 on their grandchildren in the past year. Many times, however, spending time with them would make a much greater impact. For example, Debra and Maelyn cook together and then share the meal, a gift they both enjoy immensely!
Treat grandchildren equally. When we had our two boys, we agreed that we would love both of them equally and would not play favorites. From observing it in other families, we knew that favoritism creates permanent wounds! Adult children and grandchildren alike can detect quickly when you favor one of them over the other. We will continue this tradition of equality with our grandchildren. To us, our children and grandchildren all have a special place in our hearts reserved only for each of them.
Look for each person’s strengths and celebrate them equally for their individual successes, no matter how small or insignificant. To that child, it may be one of the most important things he or she will ever do! If you have more than one grandchild, seek every opportunity to divide your time equally between them and make each one feel special. This applies not only to biological grandchildren, but to step-grandchildren as well.
Build traditions. As grandparents, you want to create traditions that your grandchildren will cherish and look forward to throughout their lives. This may include activities like celebrating birthdays, holiday activities, preparing and eating special meals, and spending time together.
Pray for your grandchildren. If you are spiritual, regularly pray for your grandchildren and their parents that they may come to know the Lord, model His ways, and gain wisdom as they grow older.
Respect your adult children’s (and their spouses’) privacy. Grandparents need to allow their children and grandchildren time to bond and build their lives together as a family. Some tips that both parties should consider:
If you don’t have grandchildren or they live far away, don’t give up! Some people choose not to have children or are unable to do so. If you lack grandchildren but feel like you’re missing out, it’s not the end of the world. There are probably many young families near you who don’t have parents nearby and would welcome a grandparent figure in their children’s lives. In fact, when we first lived on our own, we had no support system other than our friends and church. Our parents were a long distance away.
Houses of worship, daycare centers, hospitals, and shelters need volunteers to spend time with children and serve as role models. Many schools also have hurting, at-risk children who would love for an adult to come see them at school and make them feel special. If you are pining for a grandparent-grandchild bond, consider contacting the guidance counselor at a local elementary school and informally adopting a few students. You can spend time with them as they progress through the grades and make a huge positive impact on their lives!
The bottom line: No two grandparents are the same, but good grandparenting is a deliberate process that doesn’t happen overnight: it takes work, planning, and lots of love. The relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is mutually rewarding, and the more you invest into it, the greater the joy you will reap. Love is earned and built over time. Simply saying or writing the words “I love you” is meaningless unless you have backed it up with consistent, loving actions. Love can’t be bought, created overnight, or explained in words. It’s an everlasting seed that is often passed down from one generation to the next and whose light should never be extinguished. That’s our role as grandparents!
In conclusion, we often chuckle that it’s wonderful to see the headlights of the car bringing our granddaughter to see us—but the taillights are also a welcome sign when the parents take her home after a long visit! Overall, being a grandparent is a wonderful, rewarding, and priceless journey you don’t want to miss.
About the Authors: Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, experience, success, research, and mistakes.
Mike DuBose has been in business since 1981 and authored the bookThe Art of Building a Great Business. He is a USC alumnus and is a field instructor with USC’s graduate school. He is the owner of four debt-free corporations, including Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates, and The Evaluation Group. He is also partners with his two sons (Blake with DuBose Web Group and Joel with DuBose Fitness Center). Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and other useful articles.
Debra DuBose has been married to Mike for 42 years and co-writes articles with him. She holds college and graduate degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University. She is a former elementary and middle school teacher.
Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.
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