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Be an Equal Opportunity Grandparent

Don't forget about your adult kids — or play favorites among grandkids

Be an Equal Opportunity Grandparent

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To keep them happy, spread the grandparent love around.

It's an all-too-familiar scenario: Coming for a visit, grandparents sideswipe the parents and sweep up the grandkids with hugs and kisses. If we do turn to our adult children at all, it's an afterthought.

Who can blame us in our excitement? Apparently our adult children do, as San Francisco Bay Area resident Donne Davis discovered. During a visit with her two granddaughters over several days, Davis noticed that her daughter was annoyed. To clear the air, the two women took a walk together, and Davis learned that her daughter felt like a second-class citizen compared with the attention being given to the kids. Lesson learned, says Davis, founder of the GaGa Sisterhood, a grandparenting organization. "Don't forget to hug your grandchildren's parents before you rush past them to grab your grandchildren."

That's also advice offered by Sue Johnson of Richmond, Va., who cowrote Grandloving: Making Memories With Your Grandchildren with her daughter and daughter-in-law. With five children and seven grandchildren, ages 5 to 23, Johnson has learned that adult children's feelings can be unintentionally hurt. She offers some advice:

  • Prioritize time with adult children. "It might have to wait until the children are in school or in bed, but turn the TV off, put down that book and really talk with your children."
  • Praise how your children are raising your grandchildren. "They value your approval. Remind them that they are doing a super job raising that grandchild you love so much!"
  • Keep open communication. "Try not to breeze in and take the grandchildren out for ice cream or an outing without first consulting their parents. You probably already know the house 'rules,' but giving the parents the opportunity to give you permission is important."
  • Remember you're not the parent. By honoring your children's role, "you can avoid some jealousy when they see you lavish hugs and time on their children."

Adult children can also become resentful when they see grandparents playing favorites among the youngest generation. Too often it's obvious that we dote on some grandkids more than others. Research pinpoints several reasons: Sometimes the firstborn is the favorite, followed by the next born of the opposite sex. We favor our daughter's children because mothers are often closer to daughters. Chemistry kicks in when a grandchild shares personality traits, talents or temperament.

Other reasons include geography, as closeness builds stronger bonds. A well-off adult child who includes grandparents on trips tightens family ties, while another sibling may not be able to afford such luxuries. Age also plays a factor: It's more fun to hang out with an adorable toddler than a sulky teenager.

While the favoritism might not be apparent to young grandchildren, their parents are certainly aware.

Equality is key to avoiding the appearance of playing favorites. Davis, the author of When Being a Grandma Isn't So Grand, was given ground rules by her daughter after the birth of her second child. Davis had established a deep bond with the oldest, as she was the only child for four years. "My daughter told me, 'I want you to treat them both equally.'" She finds activities that appeal to their different personalities. And she makes sure to include her husband, so "instead of them both fighting for my attention, we include him."

Johnson recently redecorated her home, and before hanging framed photographs, she counted to make sure each family was equally represented. Equality is also the rule when it comes to gifts, whether the number or the value, and for visits with each grandchild. That's often difficult because kids live around the country, and some are busier with activities than others. That's where technology comes in. "We have to go where the kids are, especially the teenagers, so we Skype and text."

Johnson urges grandparents to examine their relationships. "There's a lot at stake for all three generations. Playing favorites can ruin your relationship with the entire family."

Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. An NYU journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at