American humorist Sam Levenson once wrote: “The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy.”
Although his quote does bring a smile to many a grandparent’s face, the underlying message is snarky because it’s disrespectful and hurtful to the parents. This popular quote portrays the parents as the “bad guys” and the grandparents as conspirators with their grandchildren against the parents.
Parents are allies not enemies
Calling the parents the “enemy,” even in jest, discourages team building and mutual respect, which is crucial to establish a solid relationship with your grandchild’s parents. I think a friendlier quote would be: “The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is because they have a common ally.”
When we think of our adult children as allies rather than enemies, we send them a positive message. We’re implying that we understand how hard it is to be the enforcers and we respect you for taking that role. We support you and want to be on your team but we’ve already been parents. Now we’d like to be the “funmeisters” with our grandchildren and spoil them a little. We’ll respect your rules and we won’t undermine the hard work you’re doing to raise your children, but don’t make us the disciplinarians.
I confess I’ve been guilty of wanting to roll my eyes when I’ve been issued instructions that seemed too strict. For example, my daughter used to allow my two granddaughters 15 minutes of video games on my iPhone. Maintaining that time limit was a challenge but I tried my best and sometimes we did exceed the limit. But then she completely forbid video games and I thought that was carrying things too far. That mandate also put me in an awkward position of having to enforce a rule I didn’t believe in.
Nurture your relationship with the parents
Being a grandparent is complicated. I realized that fourteen years ago after witnessing the birth of my first grandchild. Witnessing that miraculous moment made me completely “gaga.” When I came back down to earth, I discovered one of the great misconceptions about grandparenthood. It’s not just about you and your grandchild. Your relationship with your grandchild is embedded in the relationship with your adult child and his or her spouse. They are the “gatekeepers” to a successful relationship with your grandchildren.
The most important lesson I’ve learned since becoming a grandma is to nurture the relationship with your adult children as much as you do with your grandchildren. Simply put, you earn their trust by following their rules and respecting their decisions. And when you earn their trust, you earn the privilege of spending time alone with your grandchildren, which most grandparents will agree is the best way to spend time with grandchildren.
In the early stages of your relationship, it’s especially important to be mindful of the parents’ rules. Everyone is learning their new roles as well as the boundaries between these roles and you can establish credibility as a trusted team member. We grandparents have to step back and respect the parents’ right to make decisions and not make judgments as they learn from their successes and mistakes.
If you sneak around and conspire with your grandchildren, telling them not to say anything to mommy, it will come back to haunt you. I know — once I gave my 3-year old granddaughter a cookie and the first thing she did when we got home was to run and tell her mommy how excited she was that Baba gave her a cookie!
It takes time to build trust between the generations and to realize that our adult children are our allies, not enemies. If grandparents and parents make a commitment to sit down and talk about their shared purpose—nurturing our grandchildren, those precious human beings who share our DNA—it will be a win-win-win for all three generations.