BY: Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D.
Let’s face it, life is one big contest. In nearly everything the law of the jungle, prevails. But nature’s fury pales in comparison with the fierce struggle to win the designation as the alpha grandparent. No one plans to compete, but when your grandchildren talk about their “real” grandma and grandpa, we want to make sure they are referring to us, not those other interlopers.
Long before any grandchildren are actually born, the maneuvering and positioning begins over things such as where the couple will live, what the baby will be named, and in whose church the baptism will take place. We tried to mark our territory early and always referred to our first grandchild as the “Stawar baby” despite her different last name. We figured the other grandparents already had one grandchild, so it wasn’t unreasonable that we should get to claim this one.
The alpha grandparent competition comes down to a test of endurance: a challenging triathlon consisting of three grueling legs: shopping, spoiling, and being the most fun.
Shopping: The goal here is simply to make sure, as the writer David Sedaris says, that your grandchild always looks like a cashmere heiress. In this leg, the grandfather is essentially worthless and grandmother has to carry the water. The major elements to consider are quality, tastefulness, and the critical cuteness quotient. At the first suspicion of pregnancy, start loading up on those adorable yellow and white outfits, shifting to blue or pink as the ultrasound dictates. Avoid being outflanked by preemptively purchasing “Baby’s First” items (such as baby’s first Christmas, Birthday Halloween, haircut, etc.) And most importantly don’t neglect the “hat factor”. Let’s face it, nothing is cuter or more endearing than a baby wearing any sort of hat. Purses, matching jacket, muffs, gloves and other accessories also score big with older kids.
To get things that allow your grandchildren’s parents to lord it over the other young couples at story hour or the annual dance recital requires constant scanning of the swankier stores for those wonderful 75% off sales.
Spoiling: Spoiling is, of course, a grandparent’s sacred duty. I remember my own mother telling our five year old son to spit out his chewing gum and take a new piece, because the old one had lost its flavor. Spoiling overlaps with shopping when it comes to toy section. In addition to getting the flashiest things possible you also have to stay one step ahead and look for items appropriate for the child’s next developmental stage, always keeping in mind your grandchild’s obvious brilliance and amazing precociousness.
It is often difficult to get ahead in this leg, since grandparental spoiling is so universal. For example once we were bringing a new Radio Flyer Wagon to our grandchildren for Christmas. The wrapped box was so big we couldn’t close the car trunk. When we pulled up in front of our daughter’s house, her neighbors assumed that we were their children’s grandparents, bringing some enormous present. I suppose it was a natural mistake, since we were driving the grandparent’s standard issue silver Grand Marquis.
Being Fun: Finally, you cannot hope to win the grandparental sweepstakes without being the most fun. This will involve a lot of getting down on the floor, playing in messy bedrooms, and generally roughhousing. Damn the lumbago, full speed ahead. Thank goodness, there is no steroid testing in this competition. The key is to cast your inhibitions aside and be prepared to do absolutely anything in the name of fun. Just go ahead and put the underwear on you head and let them take your photo.
Be ready to enthusiastically listen to the same puppet show seven or eight times or read a favorite book over and over, until you’re ready to make Yertle the Turtle soup. You will have to play lots of games (although never quite good enough to actually win) and cheerfully tolerate all the back-handed cheating that is likely to occur.
The most fun, of course, is to do things with the grandchildren that their parents aren’t exactly crazy about- things that often involves messes, permanent markers, water, and perhaps a small element of danger- things that my daughter gravely refers to as “taking liberties.” This was rather neatly portrayed in a recent television commercial for dishwashers. It features a young mother explaining just how particular and demanding her own mother is but while she’s talking, a hidden camera shows this staid grandma allowing the grandchildren to literally throw filthy dishes in the dishwasher. It ends with the immaculately groomed grandmother being summoned by two little boys who say, “The hoses and raincoats are ready, grandma.”
So break out your tattered copy of the Hungry Hungry Caterpillar, the bent Old Maid cards, and your extra-strength Bengay and go for it. You have everything to gain –and only your dignity to lose.
Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. has three brilliant and adorable grandchildren and is a free-lance writer and CEO of a community mental health center in Southern Indiana .