Becoming a first time grandparent

Watching your child become a parent is a wonderful if surreal experience. Miriam Stoppard gives her advice on how to support your expanding family

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You don’t have to buy expensive gifts – show that you care by getting stuck into a game of footie!

Becoming a grandparent is worth waiting for. Grandparents are, or can be, the bedrock on which the rest of the family stands, adding stability and encompassing strong and lasting relationships across the generations. Grandparents encourage their grandchildren to develop their personalities and achieve their goals. By virtue of their age, grandparents can generally be more patient, philosophical, long-suffering and sympathetic than parents. Handling children with ease is a knack acquired through long practice and grandchildren love it.

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There’s a big difference between being a parent and being a grandparent. Grief lies a head if you confuse the two. Grandparents are not a grandchild’s parent: behaving as if they are will lead to trouble!

At the very least, it’s insulting to your child and their partner if you think they need parenting lessons from you. There may be areas where you think their approach needs fine-tuning, but it would be wiser to wait until asked than to jump in and undermine their confidence. If you chip away at their confidence, and I know that there are times when you can barely stop yourself from doing so, it will be construed as interfering and you’ll lose their trust. It takes one small step to destroy their trust, and it’s a mountain almost too high to climb to regain it. Instead, I’ve found it’s best to channel that critical energy into positive feedback.

Even if you can hardly keep yourself in check, look for ways in which your son is a great father and your daughter-in-law is a fantastic mum, for example. And then say so. And there are a million ways in which they are: concentrate on those. I have to admit that hearing my daughter-in-law say “Thanks, Miri…” when I compliment her on her qualities as a mother is one of the sweetest sounds I know, and I want to hear her say it again and again.

Remember, your children and their partners are feeling insecure to begin with. They’re only too aware of their failings and weaknesses. They don’t need you to point them out. But they do need reassurance that they’re doing a good job, and support for making a difficult decision. Those things aren’t hard to give if you’re alert to your children’s needs.

Sensitive issues

If you can manage it, you can be a chief helper to all the family. Your mantra should be “Granny will help” not “Granny will throw a spanner in the works”. In this way you can assume the role of teacher to your grandchildren. And you can teach them gentleness, thoughtfulness, kindness, generosity – and tidiness and cleanliness if you like – simply by example, without imposing oppressive rules. Instead of laying down the law, use the words “We usually do this,” and “We don’t usually do that,” using the “we” to include yourself and make it easy for your grandchildren to accept.

Differences of opinion

There are countless questions to which you and your children will come up with somewhat different answers. Some of these answers may arise from modern child-rearing fashions that seem outlandish to you. Others may be the result of new research and changed thinking and practise with which you’re unfamiliar.

New government guidelines on childhood vaccinations may seem unduly onerous on your baby grandchild, for example, but it’s not helpful to say so because your grandchild is going to be given them anyway, and voicing opposition will only make her parents insecure. They may have read a book on bringing up babies and swallowed the theory. You may disagree with some or all of it, but it would be unwise to air your views because doing so would undermine your child’s confidence and be tantamount to your saying you think he or she is a bad parent.

All sorts of practises have changed since you were bringing up babies, many of them with good reason, so it would be wise to bone up on any contentious issues before airing your point of view. Read the latest baby care book, go on to the sort of website that deals with childhood vaccinations. Read all you can on MMR, get a copy of the book your child seems hooked on and read it. You’ll only be doing what you wished your own mother had done when your child-rearing views clashed. And you’ll have done very well indeed if you practise what you preached to your own mother when you said, “I’ll bring up my children the way I want to without interference from you.”

Multiple grandparents

I know how it feels to be one of several sets of grandparents, and as second and third marriages are quite common these days, it’s an increasing frequent phenomenon. If both sets of parents of the couple are alive there will be at least 2 sets of grandparents, and if a couple turns to one set rather than another, sees or visits them more frequently, or is in closer proximity to one set than the other, it’s easy to understand how jealousies and rivalries come about.

It could be that one set of grandparents is better off than the other and can afford more financial support – in the form of helping with house purchase, holidays, school fees or a new car for example. Then the other grandparents may feel like the poor relatives, if they want to see themselves in that light. Another way of looking at it however is to be happy that your children have such generous benefactors who can give them a standard of living they and your grandchildren wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. You in your turn can give your grandchildren gifts which mean just as much, if not more: time, interest, outings that cost little but are enormous fun, love, focused attention and simple games that you regularly participate in.

Simple is best

Just in case you hold the mistaken belief that being good grandparents means showering your grandchild with expensive gifts, let me reassure you that it doesn’t. Far more important and meaningful to them is that you give them a simple present, and then help them play with it, or use it: that you get down on the floor and build the farm or the Lego tower and make it easy for your grandchild to let her imagination soar and show off her skills. If your grandchild wants to make a rocket out of a used paper cup, get out the tin foil, tissue paper, glue and sprinkles and pretend you’re both spacemen. She’ll play with her paper rocket for longer than her expensive toys because she made it herself with your help and because you made it together.

All these cost nothing but your time and caring interest, which are what mean most to a grandchild. To her they feel like love.

Miriam’s top tips for grandparents:

  • Visit only by invitation or by mutual arrangement
  • Keep communication open at all costs
  • Respect your children’s boundaries
  • Praise your children on being good parents
  • Keep a well-developed sense of fairness and humour
  • Never undermine your children or grandchildren
  • Offer support and advice without always expecting it to be accepted
  • Resist the temptation to get embroiled in emotional blackmail
  • Be a grandparent who’s nice to know
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From The Grandparents’ Book by Miriam Stoppard (Dorling Kindersley)

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