When three-year-old Mia looked up at her grandmother with her big baby blues, Jen just knew she was going to cave in. “Nana can I just have one more piece of chocolate pleeeease?”
Before long the happy duo had nibbled their way through the whole block.
When Mia’s mum popped in to collect her offspring, with hands on hips she watched as Mia zoomed around the loungeroom on a sugar high.
“Mum not again,” she lamented.
Oops. For some, it’s an all too familiar scenario.
The older generation getting into strife for over-indulging their grandchildren, while the grandparents are thinking “why can’t I spoil them just a little bit?”
With sweet chocolate-covered kisses, sticky tiny hands tightly holding yours, and lots of heartfelt hugs, grandchildren are in fact one of life’s greatest joys. You want to protect them, to love them, and to tickle them until their belly hurts.
Grandparents do play a cool role in their grandchildren’s lives. They do the fun stuff; they don’t have to worry about discipline, or setting boundaries or rules – that’s the parent’s job.
But according to those in the know, grandparents should be respecting them.
Trish Carroll, a psychologist from Elder Matters, says shared, open and honest conversations between parent and grandparent is key.
“Clear communication and mutual respect in discussing the grandparent’s role is therefore really important,” she says.
Psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien from The Quirky Kid Clinic, agrees, saying grandparents should be aligned with the wishes of their child.
“Even if it goes against what you would do,” she says. “Your child has a right to create a parenting style their way, just like you probably did when you were parenting them.”
In other words, if certain boundaries have been discussed, or laid down, grandparents really should honour them.
But not everyone thinks they should toe the line. Some grandparents believe it’s their right to indulge their grandkids – if they’re on their turf, or in their care while parents work, they call the shots.
They know what they are doing. After all they’ve done the hard yards, and raised their own children, and they turned out ok, didn’t they?
In the past, parents looked to the next generation for parental guidance, and advice – what do I do if my child shoves a pea up his nose? Or what do those tiny spots on her tummy mean?
With the proliferation of social media and the internet, many parents jump online and consult Dr Google or mummy bloggers for answers which can potentially leave grandparents feeling a little surplus to requirements when it comes to the practical side of parenting.
It’s little wonder they want to enjoy their grandchildren and do the fun stuff.
There is also a host of reasons why it’s beneficial for grandparents to spend time with their grandkids. They’re more engaged with life, it gives them a sense of connectedness, and it can put a spring in their step. It benefits grandchildren too.
Trish says grandparents are story tellers; they can share tales about lives lived in different times.
“Grandchildren can discover where they came from, and the bond they share with grandparents creates a sense of belonging for the child and can contribute positively to the child’s psycho-social development,” she says.
By connecting with grandkids, it’s also fulfilling an instinctive desire that grandparents have to nurture and care for grandchildren.
Trish says the term “generativity” was coined by Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst in the 1950s-60s.
“It refers to an innate need that grandparents have, to guide and care for the next generations,” she says.
While it might be tempting to say “yes” to an extra couple of stories which will push out bedtime, Kimberley says if grandparents want to do things their way, they need to consider the implications.
“It can be unpleasant for the child when old boundaries are restored,” she says. “The child’s parent could also begin to resent the grandparent.”
Keep the communication open with the parent and they with you, so everybody can be on the same page, and there is consistency.
The reality is, you could also argue, that everywhere your grandchild goes different rules apply; at friend’s houses, school, and daycare.
What is considered off limits in one place, is allowed in another. Should it be that what happens at grandma’s place stays at grandma’s place?
And can that mean playing by the rules, also means maybe bending them, just a little bit, from time to time? If your adult child is sending a message that you are overstepping, perhaps be more open to negotiation and compromise. For example, waffles as a treat for breakfast, but only on a Sunday. Or an hour extra bedtime extension on a Friday night.
Don’t be fooled by a heart-melting smile: “Poppy, can we play this computer game I like. Dad lets me.”
Some clever grandkids become master manipulators, asking their parents for something – and when mum and dad say no, they’ll try it on with the grandparents.
Trish suggests, if in doubt, ask the question, “have you asked your parents?
Be watchful if they have a little glint in their eye. They may be testing the limits.
Grandparents have worked hard, and many want to lavish presents on their grandkids; gifts their own parents may not be able to afford. It can be a point of contention for some parents.
Instead of a monetary gift or whizz-bang new toy, the most precious gift you can give your grandchild is the gift of your time. Show them the world as you make precious memories together.
Kimberley suggests shared experiences enrich their lives more than monetary gifts.
“Family time is a really rare and special thing – a day at the zoo, wandering through botanical gardens, or playing in the park will keep the kids engaged,” she says.
Sadly, not all grandparents have the opportunity to create a loving bond with their grandchildren, whether that is through distance, or a rift with your adult child or their spouse.
According to The Family Law Act, the law recognises the importance of a child having a relationship with grandparents, whether the child’s parents are together or not.
As long as it is in their best interests, a child has the right to spend time and communicate not only with their parents, but other people important to them, such as grandparents, relatives and members of extended families.
If you have been denied access to your grandkids, work to have an honest conversation with your children.
Trish says, let them know how much your grandchildren are loved, and that even though you might not have been the parent they wanted, you want to be there for your grandchild. “It’s an opportunity to work through sadness or grief, to address any issues from the past, so you can establish mutual respect with your children,” she says.
Then there’s the issue of granny day care.
Caroline was looking forward to retirement — morning coffee catchups with friends, lazy days sitting in the sun reading books, and packing up the caravan and exploring this wide brown land.
That was until her daughter Gabby asked her to look after her twins four days a week, rather than using day care.
Caroline loved her grandchildren to bits so she agonised for weeks, but in the end, she said no.
That might elicit some mixed responses from grandparents. Some of you will be fist bumping the air and thinking, “you go girl.” Others might feel Caroline is missing out.
According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, 39 per cent of grandparents provide regular childcare for their grandkids.
For some it’s helping to ease the strain on the family budget. For others it’s because they don’t want their children left with strangers, or they like the idea of having on-call care.
As a grandparent you’ve raised your kids, and earned the right to spend your retirement, or your golden years, however you please. The reality is that for some parents, a request for grandparents to care for their children may not always elicit the response they want.
According to Trish, there may be a parental expectation that grandparents will step in and take care of their childcare needs.
“The difficulty with having expectations, is that we are often disappointed,” she says.
There are grandparents who love caring for their grandchildren – they have the time, resources, and desire to do so.
Others heed the call, but it comes at a cost.
Some cut back on their own work to support the needs of parents for childcare, potentially adding to their own financial duress. Others can become stressed and tired with boisterous toddlers, at times pushing grandparents to breaking point.
If you aren’t coping, your next move should be to convey to the parent how you are feeling.
“It’s a tough conversation to have,” says Kimberley. “Be crystal clear about what you can offer your child, then there is no expectation that you’ll drop what you are doing and be available more often.
“For example, I can look after the kids every Wednesday, and when you get called in to do overtime.”
It’s an arrangement that requires regular check-ins, as care needs will change over time.
Trish says minding one child might become two or three, as more grandkids come along.
“It’s about having the conversation ahead of time, to let them know what you can and can’t do,” she says.
The changing roles of grandparenting need to be negotiated with love, care, and mutual respect.
In the not-too-distant past grandparents would see their grandkids for a Sunday roast, cheer them on at a sporting match, or watch a school play, with a little babysitting thrown in, while mum and dad went out to a function.
In this millennium, there is an expectation that grandparents will be more involved in their grandchildren’s lives.
What that looks like needs to be negotiated by all, with no prejudice or bias, and no expectations – but with lots of love and laughter and heartfelt hugs.