Dear grandparents: Learn to draw the line



BECOMING a grandparent can be a wonderful thing – you get to enjoy spending time with a small child but without the responsibilities that come with parenting.

But, it can also be tricky when you find yourself taking on more responsibilities than you want, or having to bite your tongue instead of criticising your daughter or son for their parenting skills.

Sound familiar? Where exactly should you draw the line?

Counselling psychologist Cathie Wu, of Rekindle Centre for Systemic Therapy ( says grandparents should respect the parents’ roles in being the primary agents of parenting to their own kids.

“Likewise, parents should respect grandparents’ desire to be involved in the children’s lives. I always advocate open communication and discussion as to each’s role involving the taking care of the third generation.

“I think grandparents can make suggestions and enter into discussions with parents as to how best to raise their kids, but they need to respect that parents themselves have the primary authority and ultimate say. Sometimes grandparents need to understand not to interfere or prevent parents from raising their own children. If an aspect of parenting continues to be problematic, keep communication open and give gentle reminders,” says Wu.

She warns grandparents to be careful not to judge too quickly or overgeneralise a few incidents to the overall ability and skill of parenting.

After all, parenting today is very different from what it was 20-30 years ago. Parents today face many more challenges that did not exist in the past, such as security and safety, technology, media and peer pressure.

While the challenges have become more diverse, the matter of discipline has remained a constant issue when it comes to parenting.

Often parents have their own rules and this may be in conflict with what the grandparents believe should be done.

Wu advises grandparents to talk to their own children to understand their rules and boundaries so that parenting and disciplining can be congruent from both sets of adults.

“This would both reduce conflicts in childrearing and promote consistent behaviours in children. Very different sets of expectations between parents and grandparents can confuse children and make it hard to reinforce good behaviour.

Cathie Wu.
Cathie Wu.

“When grandparents can demonstrate repeatedly that their rules and boundaries are the same as the parents’, kids will learn they cannot manipulate grandparents into bending rules or sidestepping boundaries,” says Wu.

Grandparents should also avoid spoiling their grandchildren by showering them with gifts. The gifts should be thought of as material tokens of love and appreciation and should not serve as replacement to spending time together and communication with grandkids.

Wu reminds grandparents that love and emotional bonds are deepened by time, understanding, and support, not by material gifts.

It is important that grandparents stay connected physically and emotionally with their grandchildren.

If they reside in the same city, grandparents and grandchildren should make regular time to meet during meals or other activities and outings. Regular physical proximity creates more opportunities for emotional bonding, says Wu.

This creates healthy relationships.

“When a regular schedule can be established, there is a clear boundary with spending time together. Often grandparents become more ‘clingy’ because visiting times are few, far-in-between, and the schedule is unpredictable; it may be a long time before they get to see their grandchildren again.

“Therefore having a regular schedule to meet and spend time together decreases the chances for ‘clingy’ behaviour because both are clear on when they will be able to meet again,” says Wu.

For those who are not in the same city, attempts should be made to remain connected using regular phone calls. Technology should also be used – Skype and chatting over the Internet can help grandparents stay in touch and connected with their grandchildren, as well as their children.

Grandparents who are retired may find they have more time to spend at home and with their family, including the grandchildren. At this age and without the stresses of earning an income, they may also seem more relaxed.

This could lead to feelings of jealousy from their children, and situations where the grandparents are accused of being more accessible and doting as grandparents than they were as parents.

Wu explains that these “complaints” about unequal treatment usually stem out of a sense of unfairness and a longing by adult children for their parents to affirm their love for them.

“Grandparents can affirm their love for their adult children and explain that often the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is different from the parent-child relationship. Social norms is one reason, whereby parents are usually expected to be the disciplinarians and grandparents more doting. Many parents also grow into more mature grandparents and have over time and experience, learned to express love more readily.

“Rather than being defensive, grandparents need to see this as a reminder to express their love and affection to both their own children as well as their grandchildren,” says Wu.

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