But perhaps things haven't turned out to be quite so idyllic. I hear questions all the time from grandparents who wonder why they're getting a cool response instead of boundless enthusiasm from their own kids — and their grandkids. Here are five pieces of advice that I'd like to share.
1. Don't tell your kids how to raise their children. Avoid judging their parenting style and bite your tongue unless they ask for your advice. If you disagree with their decisions — and you will, sooner or later — keep quiet. Your job is to be the grandparent, not the parent. Instead, respect their parenting efforts and look for reasons to complement them. Accept that the approaches to raising children vary from one generation to the next and your kids may do things differently from the way you did. Being a parent is hard work, and most parents are unsure of their parenting skills, whether they admit it or not. The parents of your grandchildren don't need you harping on their biggest fears and making them feel worse. The more they see you as criticizing, the more defensive they will feel and a rift can quickly form. The more they see you as supportive, the more open they will be to establishing a strong relationship.
2. Don't forget how to say no. Never commit to babysitting or ongoing child care if you really don't want to do it. You will end up feeling resentment. Remember, you're entitled to have a life, too. When you offer or accept the request to care for grandchildren, go in with your eyes wide open and set some boundaries. You may be willing to make some sacrifices for your grandchildren and welcome the opportunity to care for them, but don't feel you have to spend every possible moment with them. Live your own life with balance and you'll be a great role model. When it comes to gifts for grandchildren, the same rules apply. Don't allow yourself to be "guilted" into spending more money on grandkids than you can afford. If their parents rely on you to pay for extras or even basics, consider your own financial security and remember that even the little things add up. Have the intention of generosity, but be prudent. Otherwise, you may end up needing their help. Grandparents often say the difference between a grandparent and a parent is that what they do for grandchildren is a choice, not an obligation. Make good choices with your time and finances.
3. Don't compete. Many grandparents fall into the deep dark "I'm the best grandma or grandpa" abyss. Competing grandparents only alienate their children and can ultimately make their grandchildren feel pressured and uncomfortable. When you set up relationships as competition, you're setting a dangerous precedent for your family and, quite frankly, being a lousy role model. Families have all kinds of varied relationships these days, which may result in kids having multiple grandparents. The good news is that the more loving adults there are in children's lives, the better chances they have for success. So be glad there are other grandparents in the picture and know that your grandchildren can be close to all their grandparents. You are all different people and will be different kinds of grandparents. One grandma may be the outdoor enthusiast; another may be the one to teach a grandchild how to paint her nails. One may have more money to spend, but another may have more time. Celebrate your differences and enjoy what you have in common.
4. Don't disregard parental rules. Ideas about discipline, snack foods and TV time can be hot button issues. Be careful not to stretch the limits. Talk over the non-negotiable rules that are important to your children. But also introduce the idea that in your home, you should be able to have some rules of your own. For example, your grandchildren may not be allowed to eat in front of the TV at their house, but in your home you permit it. Make sure parents are aware, and also make sure grandkids know that you respect their parents' decisions. Grandparents love to spoil their grandchildren now and then — it's one of the perks of the role, right? If it's all "up front," and non-negotiable rules are honored, parents are much more likely to smile and look the other way.
5. Don't be too pushy. Resist the urge to insist on seeing your grandchildren all the time. Instead, let your kids — and later on your grandkids — come to you. Always communicate your availability, but don't insist on unwanted or inconvenient get-togethers. Understand that you won't always be a top priority for your grandkids. They will inevitably go through times when they are more interested in their activities and friends than in spending time with you. Let it be, but also let them know you love them no matter what. Remember that part of growing up is learning about setting boundaries, so when grandkids withdraw, pushing them is the worst approach. Listen, don't lecture. Be their safe place and they will come around eventually. Your grandchildren may not let on that you're having an impact on them, but in the long run most adults will say their best memories of grandparents are of always feeling wanted and accepted. Focus on being positive and supportive, not invasive, and you'll be a big hit as a grandparent.