Grandparenting: The Rules of Engagement: How to develop GRAND relationships with your kids & grandkids
BY DR. BOB WRIGHT AND DR. JUDITH WRIGHT
When you think back to your own grandparents, what comes to mind? Knitting, aprons, and rocking chairs? Phone calls on holidays? Pop-pop reading the paper and offering you a stick of gum? Granny serving up a roast for Sunday dinner? How about sitting on Grandpa’s knee, Grandma’s hugs, or the smell of cookies baking in the kitchen?
Nowadays, as Baby Boomers and even Gen-Xers reach middle age, Grandpa rides a Harley and gets his news from Google, while Grandma has a tattoo and cooks kale and quinoa instead of ham. We’ve gone from rocking chairs to rock and roll…and a lot has changed about how we grandparent.
And a lot hasn’t, yet . . .
While we might be more open than our own parents or grandparents, many of us have learned the hard lesson that texting is the only way to contact the grandkids, yet we still may not overshare on social media or feel as comfortable with electronic communications. In turn, our kids have stopped turning to us (or Dr. Spock) for parenting advice. Now it’s all about “mommy blogs” and “parenting hacks” they’ve found on Pinterest. And anyone who’s seen a four-year-old open an iPhone app knows most of our grandkids can run circles around us when it comes to navigating tech.
It can make our advice feel unwanted or even obsolete. Many of us walk on eggshells. We’re afraid of coming on too strong or saying the wrong thing. We see a lot—and caring without being able to do anything is painful. Many grandparents we talk to express a deep fear of ruining their relationships with their adult children and facing limited access to their grandchildren.
What can you do to open up your relationships with your adult children and grandchildren? How can you keep from overstepping your boundaries as Grandma or Grandpa, yet still be an active and involved grandparent? And how can you continue to live a GRAND life—fully engaged in every moment and every relationship, risking being real, and living courageously and with purpose?
Learn, Reflect and Live the Grand Life
There’s always something new to explore in life. Living a grand life means becoming more full and vibrant as you collect new experiences. It’s about striving toward new goals and reaching new heights with a greater sense of fulfillment and purpose.
What it comes down to is we’re all still growing and evolving, too—just like our kids and grandkids. We’re learning to grandparent, constantly discovering who we are as adults, as parents, and now as grandparents. We’ve moved past a time when grandparenting meant sitting back in your chair and tsk-tsking at “those darn kids today.” Most of us still feel like we’re not quite fully grown ourselves. We’re still learning and changing and that’s a great thing!
But learning and growing also requires reflection. It might mean working through mistakes in your past and facing the tough challenges you’re still working to overcome head-on. Just as no one is a perfect parent, we aren’t perfect grandparents in the eyes of the children we imperfectly parented. It can be difficult—even painful—to think back on some of our own parenting missteps. It can be even more challenging as we look at our children’s parenting styles now and see them mirroring our slip ups.
When it comes to reexamining tough times in the past, for many of us, our first reaction is resistance or avoidance. But really reflecting on how we raised our children can bring great clarity to our relationships with our adult kids—and working toward that clarity is a big part of living a grand life.
Open a Real Dialogue to Get to the Heart of your Relationship
Part of evolving and growing means facing the hard questions. There’s no time like the present to get things out on the table. Many of us spend a great deal of time avoiding conflict with our adult children because we want to be part of their lives and fear rocking the boat. For some of us, really becoming re-engaged and closer to our kids means we need to air out the dirty laundry. This may cause some tension, even conflict.
Here’s the good news: Conflict helps us grow and become closer. It’s true!
So how do you begin?
How do we find how far we can go?
t starts with establishing clear boundaries for us with the kids. This means you’re going to need to ask for guidelines. Do a gut-check before you begin, prepare to really listen, and be ready to get some answers that may be difficult to hear.
Ask your kids these questions and carefully consider each answer:
• In an ideal world, how would you like our relationship to be?
• How involved would you like me to be in your children’s lives?
• What kind of advice do you most appreciate from me?
• What kind of advice from me ticks you off?
• In short, what are our rules of engagement?
In advance, ask yourself:
• On a scale of 1 to 10, how eager is your son or daughter to hear your advice?
• How much do they want you involved?
• How much do they want to hear your feelings and thoughts about their parenting?
You might read these questions and cringe. You might feel afraid to hear their answers. But these questions are a starting point to ensure you’re offering a listening ear.
Conversations are a two-way street.
Don’t be afraid to speak up and paint the picture of what YOU would like the relationship to look like. It’s easy to acquiesce to their wishes, bite your tongue, and live in fear of being extricated or estranged from your grandchild’s life. (This is especially true if your relationship has thus far not gone as smoothly as you’d hoped.)
However, if you’re harboring hurt, anger, or resentment about your current relationship, don’t forget this is a conversation designed to help you both learn and grow together.
Sit down with your daughter and spend some one-on-one time. Ask what she’s finding best works for her as a parent. Don’t assume you know her. Ensure she feels you’re truly interested in her responses and listen (don’t just tell) when you ask if she’d like to hear about the challenges you faced as a mother or father—and be honest. Ask where or whom she looks to for parenting advice. If she tells you about resources she’s found helpful, check them out! Read her favorite mommy blogs to gain a better understanding of what’s driving her parenting style.
Respect implicit boundaries, establish and assume goodwill, avoid assumptions, and ask your daughter to what extent she’s willing to let you co-voyage with her in the adventures of parenting. Approach each moment with a desire to learn more and gain mutual understanding.
Stick with these 7 Rules of Engagement
When you approach your child on these tough topics, don’t expect a full-out fight—but don’t shy away from conflict. We have to learn to respect the adulthood and autonomy of our grown children and understand they have a right to differing opinions and styles. Does it mean we can’t become friends with our adult children and enjoy a close relationship? No, of course not, but it does mean we may no longer play the role of rescuer, unsolicited advice-giver, or even “parental figure.”
To truly grow, we have to face new challenges and stretch our limits. Conflict can be painful, but it’s part of the process. Instead of avoiding expressing our feelings and building up silent resentments and frustrations, we must learn to get it all out on the table, start a genuine (if tough) conversation, and fight fair.
The Seven Rules for Fighting Fair from The Heart of the Fight:
Build a “savings account” of goodwill with these first two rules:
1. Minimize the negative. Minimize the destructive, contemptuous fighting tactics like blaming, attacking, name-calling, sarcasm, and mocking. No fight is perfect but low blows don’t get you anywhere.
2. Accentuate the positive. Be open, vulnerable, genuine, and truthful, and tell your child why they truly matter to you.
Whether you’re arbitrating a conflict or you’re in it yourself: Use the goodwill you’ve stocked up on from the first two rules, and keep it responsible, clean and loving…
3. Never take or give more than 50% of the blame. It takes two to tango! Maybe your son or daughter started an argument, but you were the one who responded poorly. In any fight, the highest percentage of blame any one person can have is 50%. It may not be easy, but if you can stick to this rule, you’ll be amazed how much more productive your fight will be.
4. Take 100% responsibility for your own happiness. It’s your job to make yourself happy and yours alone. Don’t expect your son or daughter to understand what makes you happy. If you want something specific, ask for it. Be direct.
5. Express and agree with the truth, always. Every time your son or daughter says something that’s true (for him or her), acknowledge it. Really practice saying, “You’re right”…”Good point”…”Hadn’t thought of it that way,” and so on. And if you were wrong, fess up. The truth goes a long way.
6. Fight FOR, not against. Most of us fight against something we don’t want vs. fighting for what we do want. What are you fighting for? Do you want to be heard, affirmed, or to matter? Do you want to be closer? Get a certain result? Go for it directly. And watch the complaining, as that’s never fighting for something.
7. Assume goodwill. Always assume the other person has good will, rather than ill will for you. By assuming your son or daughter has positive intentions, rather than assuming they have it out for you, your fight will more likely get resolved.
Apply these rules to ensure productive conversations with your adult children (especially when mom and dad are in conflict) and keep the lines of communication with your grandchildren open. Don’t forget: growth is fraught with challenges. When a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis, it struggles. The struggle of hatching from the cocoon strengthens and builds its wings. To fly, survive and thrive, it must go through the emerging process—and you, the kids, and the grandkids are all emerging.
How have you successfully (or unsuccessfully attempted to) set workable parenting boundaries with your adult children? How do you plan to talk to your kids about your role as grandparent? Have you come to agreement and established ground rules with your kids and grandkids?
Please tell us about your successes and challenges in the comments, so we can share your formulas for setting boundaries and expectations.
About the Authors
Dr. Judith Wright and Dr. Bob Wright, are a husband/wife duo and Chicago-based relationship counselors. They are award-winning authors and trainers and have appeared on numerous TV and radio programs including ABC’s 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, the Today Show, the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Marie Claire, Better Homes and Gardens, and Vanity Fair. They are the co-authors of “The Heart of the Fight: A Couples Guide to 15 Common Fights, What They Really Mean & How They Can Bring You Closer.