Grandparenting and the art of negotiation

older man and granddaughter

Being the kind of grandparent that fits what you, your children and your grandchildren want, involves compromise concession and conciliation on all sides.

Becoming a grandparent can offer the best of both worlds – all the love and fun, without the ultimate responsibility for raising the kids. Yet it can also trigger a minefield of emotions. After all, you can’t choose precisely when you’ll become one. This is an almighty life change, which confers on you a new status and role in your family.

When it happens to you, you’ll inevitably need to consider what kind of grandparent you want to be. Do your expectations match those of your son or daughter? Careful discussion may be required as you all adjust to your new roles and the level of involvement you have in the lives of your grandchildren.

"It has been wonderful to see my own parents and late mother-in-law flourish in their differing approaches to grandparenting – from chief storyteller to creative powerhouse to dispenser of goodies and treats – but we’ve had our fair share of hiccups along the way."

Here are some of the more common grandparenting sticking points – and some tips on how to negotiate to achieve the happiest outcome for everyone.

‘We’re involved with out grandchildren but would like to do more. Our daughter and son-in-law have a six-month-old baby. We love spending time with them but whenever we offer advice, it’s rebuffed. What can we do?’

It’s understandable that you’re keen to pitch in, but new mums and dads are bombarded with advice – from friends, from fellow novice parents, health visitors, even strangers in the park. It can be overwhelming. Plus, unfairly or otherwise, your daughter and son-in-law may feel that times have moved on and that your suggestions are out of date. Of course, although trends in child-rearing change constantly, babies’ needs haven’t altered. You won’t convince new parents of this and why should you try? It’s not worth causing a rift that could get in the way of you enjoying your new grandchild. Tough though it is, try to keep schtum and allow them to find their own way.

‘Recently, we suggested moving nearer to our son and his partner so we could see more of our grandchildren. So far, their reaction had been decidedly lukewarm.’

If there’s been physical distance between you for some time, this is probably due to a fear of change. They could be worrying that, having arrived in a new town and being far away from your friends, you’ll fill your time by constantly dropping in uninvited. An honest chat really can allay their fears. Make it clear that you would continue to lead your own lives, respect their boundaries (for instance, that you’d always phone before popping round) and simply wish to enjoy your grandchildren while they are still, well, children. Hopefully, your son and his partner will realise what an asset you could be to his young family.

‘We value that our 14-year-old granddaughter confides in us – but are we overstepping the mark in taking this role?’

Let your own judgement guide you. When I was a teenager, it was hugely comforting to tell my grandma about tricky issues at school when I didn’t want the almighty hoo-ha that would have arisen had I involved Mum and Dad. Grandparents often act as a buffer, fulfilling the role of listener and confidante. It’s flattering that your granddaughter feels close enough to share her secrets. Obviously though, if it’s something serious – if, say, her health or safety are at risk – her parents should be involved too. 

‘Our son and his wife divorced last year. He has limited access to his children and we have virtually none. What can we do?’

This is unquestionable a tough situation. Sadly, grandparents don’t have an automatic right to apply for contact and taking a legal route can be stressful and costly. The first port of call should be your son who, hopefully, will want – and try – to ensure that you remain an important part of the children’s lives. Could you see them during part of his access times or offer to babysit? Whether their mother is amenable to you visiting occasionally depends on your relationship with her. In an ideal scenario, she will understand that the relationship between children and their grandparents is special and that they have lots to gain from spending time with you. If it’s too difficult at present, keep in touch by sending letters and photos or by chatting to them online. 

'We enjoy seeing our grandchildren, but not necessarily all at once. Having one of our grandchildren to stay at a time is fine, but sometimes we’re asked to have all three at once, which is just too much of a handful.’

Naturally, you dont want anyone to assume that favouritism is at play. A quiet word might be all that’s needed to explain that three little ones are rather a lot for you to manage. Try suggesting that, with just one child to stay at a time, you’re able to give them undivided attention as well as a breather from their brothers or sisters, and what could possibly please a child more than that?

‘We’re a bit overwhelmed by the amount of involvement. Our daughter-in-law has taken to dropping off our granddaughter whenever she’s meeting friends for lunch. She doesn’t even phone to check if it’s convenient.’

No one likes being taken for granted. Try to tackle this diplomatically before it erodes your relationship with your daughter-in-law and possibly even your son and granddaughter. Explain that casual drop-offs aren’t in your granddaughters best interests. What if you’re busy and can’t give her your full attention, or if you happen to be out when they descend on your doorstep? Your daughter-in-law would be faced with one very disappointed little girl. It’s reasonable to expect that these visits are prearranged for times that suit all of you. 

‘Our daughter’s childcare has fallen through, so she has asked us to look after our toddler grandson two days a week. How will we fill the time?’

Gaking your grandson out or popping round for visits is very different from providing regular childcare for what amounts to almost hald of the working week – it’s natual to feel daunted. First establish between yourselves whether you’re both willing to step into this role, either for the long term, or until a specific date – perhaps when a nursery or childminder’s place becomes available. If not, explain that, while you’re delighted to offer your support in other ways, regular childcare is too much to take on. If you do agree, enlist your daughter’s help in planning her son’s time with you. A structured day will be far less hair raising.

‘Our son has asked us to go on holiday with his family. We imagine they’ll expect lots of babysitting but we need a break too!’

Your son and his partner are likely to be desperate for a breather – so yes, you’ll probably find youself babysitting for the odd evening. But, before you step on that plane, make it clear thet you’re looking forward to having time out as well. If you’re staying in a hotel, there may be babysitting services so all of you can enjoy an evening or two out together.

‘Our son and his girlfriend have just had a baby boy. While we are more than happy to help with chores, we’re not so sure about holding and handling a tiny newborn.’

When several decades have elapsed since you raised your own babies, it’s natural to feel nervous around a small wriggling bundle. But remember that babies are pretty robust – the more you pick him up for cuddles and songs, the more relaxed he’ll be in your arms and you’ll all start to feel less anxious. Happiness is infectious! Don’t feel pressired to cradle him for hours – little and often works best. You’ll soon find it’s more rewarding than doing the cleaning.

‘I like to bake cookies for my grandchildren but my daughter-in-law thinks I give them too many sweet treats.’

You may think that your daughter-in-law is overreacting, but it’s easier all round to respect her views. Would she be happy with a more limited supply of baked goodies? Could you find recipes for healthier alternatives? If ‘cookie-gate’ still causes a rumpus, try putting together small gifts such as craft packs instead. That way, you can enjoy the role of treat-giver without generating any disapproval.



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