June 18, 2024

I became a father at 20. I was a little nervous about the whole thing, being not much more than a kid myself; it wasn’t lost on me what my 19-year-old (first) wife and I were taking on. But then my grandmother (pictured above), who had raised six kids during the Depression (and would remind you of that fact at every opportunity), gave me the best advice I’ve ever received on parenting: “Hug them, kiss them, and feed them, and they’ll turn out fine.”

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I became a grandfather at 41. I had a lot more experience by this point, but my Dad, who by then had been a grandfather and a great-grandfather for some time, again gave me some great advice on grand-parenting: “Don’t overthink it, and never, ever forget that you’re not the parent.”

All good advice, which is why I was interested to see some thoughts this morning on “optimizing your experience” in grand-parenting.

The honor and opportunity of being a grandparent is one of the greatest joys of life. Not everyone gets to experience this privilege. Following are some tips for optimizing this experience. These suggestions are derived from the experience of many grandparents, some of whom were satisfied and fulfilled by the opportunity, while others were disappointed.

Honestly, the three essentials named here aren’t unreasonable:

Take responsibility for your relationship with your grandchild.

Many grandparents take a passive approach to their relationship with their grandchildren. They wait for the parents to arrange a get together. Some do this because they don’t want to be intrusive. An active approach to grandparenting is more likely to yield a good result.

This makes sense because, these days, an increasing number of grandparents are at some distance from their grandchildren. In our case, it’s thousands of miles and a whole country in between, but we also live in a time where cellular phones with video capability and the internet make it easier than ever to stay in touch. It’s not the same thing, of course, as being there in person, but electronic contact is better than none; it still involves you in the children’s day-to-day lives.

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Respect the sovereignty of the parents.

Your child will not parent exactly the way you did or would. You can make suggestions to the parents and provide guidance when appropriate. Do not undermine the parenting of your grandchild.

As my father told me, it’s always important to remember that you’re not the parent. I’ve been aware of families where the parents were incapable for some reason or another and the grandparents had to step in, but barring those circumstances, things like discipline should be deferred to the parents.

Do not compete for the child’s attention or affection with other family members.

Competing with other grandparents or aunts and uncles for the child’s time or efforts to become more important to the child than other relatives is another way of triangulating the child.

Competing with the child’s affection is just passive-aggressive BS fought over a child. Not all children will relate to their grandparents the same way; as with any human relationship, different people will get along or not get along with other people in the same way, grandparents and children included. Accept what is, build on the good parts, and let the not-so-good parts go.

But there’s another thing to consider: Don’t overthink the whole thing.

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Relationships between people, even old people and little kids, will develop naturally. You can’t force them, and you can definitely overthink them or try too hard. That, at least in my thinking, will damage any relationship, not enhance it. Don’t depend on pop psychology, the latest trend, or well-meaning but likely in-experienced authors or ‘life coaches.’ Be yourself. Love can’t be forced. It can be nurtured, it can grow, but it shouldn’t be pushed. 

A bit of care, a big dose of love, and a good leavening of knowing when to mind your own business can yield big returns not only with your grandchildren but also with their parents. Like me, plenty of folks I know, including my siblings, take a lot of joy in their families. One of the greater things about growing older is seeing your kids launch, start their own lives, and then start their own families. And grand-parenting is just fantastic. It’s one of the most rewarding things in life; it’s one of the reasons that these times are known as one’s golden years.

Also, being a grandparent, after all, is the revenge we get for having been parents. Don’t feel bad for your child when they let out a squawk of dismay and call out, “…the baby pooped in the bathtub!” On these occasions, it’s OK to laugh.

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Hug them. Kiss them. Feed them. Don’t overthink it, and don’t try too hard. Things will turn out fine.

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