“Grandpa, I want to tell you something, but don’t tell my parents.”
BY JERRY WITKOVSKY
“And so I asked my daughter-in-law flat out. Are there lines of trust? How can I have a special bond with your child while respecting your role as a parent?”
For years I was adamant that if my grandchild asked me not to tell, I would respond “absolutely not.” But after talking to grandparents across the country and hearing their yearning to be close to grandchildren, to strengthen their bond, I realized this wasn’t a question with a simple “yes” or “no” response.
The parent child trust factor
Trust is critical in the parent-child relationship – that is the grandparent-adult child relationship. Our adult children are the gatekeepers to the grandest love. They must trust that we will respect and honor their values and rules (maybe with an extra sweet or treat thrown in) when we are with their children. And, I emphasize that our grandchildren are their children.
The opportunity is to build a special and close bond with grandchildren while not jeopardizing our relationship with their parents, our own children.
Ask parents first
Anytime I have implemented a new idea with my grandchildren I have always approached their parents first. As a longtime, non-profit CEO during my professional years, this was Business 101, respecting the hierarchy of an organization and getting a buy-in from stakeholders before moving forward with a new initiative. That approach has made signature “grandpa” programs be successful in my family, like giving each grandchild “The Four Jars” to teach values around money and kindness, or setting up the Witkovsky Living Legacy Foundation to support my grandchildren’s dreams and passions while I’m still around to beam with pride and learn from their experiences.
So why hadn’t I done this around the issue of trust?
My firm “no secrets from parents” policy clearly did not resonate with other grandparents. “Why are you so firm? You are wrong! If a grandchild brings a special issue to you, why don’t you listen?” they asked me.
I realized that my position had gone against even my own “good CEO” practices. When problem solving in business you find success by tracking “who owns the problem,” or “who is accountable for the decision.” In simply saying, “no, you must tell your parents,” I had acted autocratically, and not involved the key player in this equation: the parents!
My grandchildren now range in age from 13 to 33. In all those years I had never asked that question of my adult child “what would you want me to do if your son or daughter came to me and asked me to keep a secret from you?”
And so I asked my daughter-in-law flat out. Are there lines of trust? How can I have a special bond with your child while respecting your role as a parent? “If there are issues of alcohol, drugs, self-harm, or thoughts of suicide, I need to know right away,” she answered. “But, “if my daughter (now 15) said, ‘Grandpa, I got a tattoo and put it on my butt,’ I don’t need to know that.” And that is the whole point of asking, to know where their threshold lies. (I’m sure there are other parents who would want to know about the tattoo.)
If I had to do it again, I would have this discussion from the get go, while the parents were pregnant, the children not even born yet, to ask permission, and to know their wishes.
Now that I have the parents’ blessing, what’s next?
What happens when a grandchild says “Grandpa, don’t tell my mom and dad?” Now I will listen, but with some parameters, and with a yearning to understand why they don’t want their parents to know. Are they afraid to tell their parents? Then I can help them strategize how to tell their parents, or offer to go with them when they have the conversation.
And if it’s one of the “must tell” subjects, I want us to create a time frame together as to when they will tell their parents. My comfort time frame is 24 hours. But I will offer to be there for them to support them and provide strength and guidance.
How does it work in your family?
In the coming of age movie Keeping up with the Steins, Grandpa finds that his grandson has gotten into the parents’ liquor cabinet. As the boy lies in bed with a sick stomach, narrowly getting caught by his mom, grandpa says, “Once, you are experimenting…twice, I tell.” It lets grandchildren know that they have a team of cheerleaders behind them, rooting for their success, together.
Parents and grandparents are on the same team. We all want our sweet babies to grow up happy, healthy, and safe. In the world of “it takes a village,” the more we can align and support one another, build trust across the generations, the stronger we all will be.
About the Author, Jerry Witkovsky
What ideas have you implemented in your family? How do you unleash your creativity and unique gifts to transform your family? Please share with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author of The Grandest Love and a long-time social work professional, grandparenting activist, and passionate grandpa, author Jerry Witkovsky offers fresh approaches to help grandparents enter their grandchild’s world, to leave values, not just valuables and create a living legacy.www.thegrandestlove.com