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Grandma with grandchild

The role of a grandparent seems to have changed quite a lot in the past few years. Nowadays, it's often all about being a regular childminder, or else working out how to avoid upsetting your children and their spouses.

We've come up with 5 key areas where problems can arise and how to go about being that great grandparent.

Times have changed

Of course, far fewer families live in the same town as their relatives and, in the past, there were fewer working mums, so it was quite unusual for grandparents to be involved in the day-to-day nitty gritty of raising children, much less providing free childcare or regular babysitting as so many of us do today.

But times have changed, and that’s no bad thing. Many of us like to be involved as much as possible, and we have close relationships with our grandchildren as a result.

However, this does mean that being a ‘good’ or even ‘great’ grandparent has become a much more complicated business, and sometimes it feels like it’s all too easy to get it wrong and inadvertently cause offense.

So we asked Anita Naik, parenting expert and mum-of-two, for some advice on how to handle the 5 main stumbling blocks that are most likely to trip up today’s grandparents...

1. Giving advice

It’s perfectly normal to want to share your experience and help out when and where you can. But remember that offering advice - particularly unsolicited advice - can also be seen as interfering.

A great deal has changed in the world since your own children were small, so the way that you did things then just might not be relevant or realistic today. Unfortunately, too many critical comments could make you seem disapproving and judgmental.

Anita says...

'This is a guaranteed way to alienate yourself from your grandkids’ parents. Unfortunately, although you may mean well, unsolicited advice tends to come across as criticism, which can make parents feel that they are under attack.

If your aim is to be helpful then empathy works better here. If there is an area that you feel needs to be addressed, such as discipline, bear in mind that modern parenting is going to be different from your experience. Ask if they would like some advice first, but be willing to stand back and not be offended if the answer is, "no, thank you".'

2. Food and drink

Most parents try very hard to teach their children to eat healthily, but some are more strict than others. So if parents say that fizzy drinks, sweets, chocolates or chips are off-limits, then it’s important to respect this.

You might think it’s fine to have the odd treat, but it’s best to clear it with their parents first. Remember, if your grandchildren have allergies, giving them foods that they shouldn’t have will almost certainly make them ill.

Anita says...

'Giving children foods that their parents don’t allow is an absolute no-no, and is likely to be seen as meddling and annoying.

Many parents have rules about food and if you break them you are basically telling your grandkids that it’s ok for them not to listen to their parents.

If you want to treat them check first. This makes it clear that you’re on the parents’ side and means that you should be able to find a compromise that suits everyone.'

3. Competitive grandparents

It’s not unusual for one set of grandparents to feel that they have been ‘left out’ and the general consensus seems to be that it’s the mum's grandparents who get the best deal.

While it’s understandable that new mums like to have their own mum around when they have a new baby, over time it can be upsetting if you’re made to feel second best.

Although it might be tempting to sulk, or try and win over your grandchildren with expensive presents or elaborate day trips, try not to compete - or compare.

Anita says...

'This is very common and can be very upsetting for all concerned. It’s easier said than done, but the best way to deal with this type of scenario is to ignore it.

Grandparenting isn’t a competition, so focus on what you can bring to your relationship. Some grandparents can afford to be generous with their money. Others, especially if they live nearby, can be more generous with their time.

So play to your strengths, be consistent and don’t get drawn into petty squabbles.'

4. Babysitting

While we all look forward to spending time with our grandchildren, none of us want to feel like we’re being taken for granted or treated like an unpaid childminder.

It can be hard to say no when you’re asked to babysit, but young children - and the responsibility that goes with taking care of them - can be very tiring. Take on too much childcare, and it may begin to feel like a chore, rather than a pleasure.

Anita says...

'Being asked to babysit can be a nice thing. However, being used as an unpaid babysitter all the time is not on.

You've already raised your own family, so it’s up to you to decide what to do with your spare time. If you feel taken for granted, you must speak up for yourself.

Make it clear how much you’re prepared to take on, but try to give plenty of notice if your plans change, as it’s difficult, not to mention expensive, to find last-minute childcare.'

5. Buying presents

Treating our grandchildren is one of life’s pleasures. Sometimes the temptation to buy them a fun toy or a cute outfit is impossible to resist and there are so many more things in the shops than when our own children were small, that’s it’s easy to go overboard.

Anita says...

It’s almost inevitable that you’ll want to spoil your grandkids, and most parents don’t have a problem with this - up to a point.

Problems arise when you splash out on toys or electrical gadgets that their parents don’t approve of or can’t afford, and there’s also the risk that your grandkids could come to expect presents without really appreciating them.

Avoid this by asking parents what the kids need and like, and resisting the urge to go OTT. You want them to associate granny with love, not with presents.

Further information

For more information: Call Age UK Advice: 0800 678 1174