Whenever my parents come for a weekend visit, my toddler Steven and his Grandpa George do the Ice Cream Ritual. On Saturday afternoon, Steven jumps into his red wagon and his grandfather pulls him to the local ice-cream stand. Steven decides what he wants -- usually a bowl of vanilla soft-serve with rainbow sprinkles. As Grandpa George pulls him home, Steven savors his treat.
Steven loves this tradition, and not just because my father wouldn't dream of trying to persuade him to choose an oatmeal-raisin snack bar instead of ice cream. He's basking in a concentrated dose of his grandfather's undivided attention -- a relationship that began when my dad first pushed Steven's stroller on long walks around the neighborhood and that will last a lot longer than the little wagon.
As much as I appreciate the break when they spend time together, research shows the long-term benefits for Steven are even greater. "A child senses an unconditional love and spiritual peace with grandparents," says Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., president of the Santa Fe-based Foundation for Grandparenting. "Grandparents are crazy about grandchildren simply because they exist, while parents are more conscious of raising a child, setting limits, and enforcing discipline."
Setting the stage for your parents and in-laws to have an ongoing role in your child's life isn't always easy. But because of the tremendous benefits of a strong grandchild-grandparent relationship, helping them build a lasting bond is worth the effort.
Gone are the days when generations of the same family lived within a block or two of each other. Some 53 percent of grandparents see their grandchildren less than once a month, often because they don't live nearby. A relationship with a baby is built on a foundation of repetition and interaction, so the more time grandparents can spend with baby the better.
The first step may be to invite grandparents to be nearby when the child is born, as a welcoming committee for the new arrival and as support for you. Lauren Rosen, a New York City social worker and mother of 3-month-old Ethan, relied on her mother enormously the first week after she gave birth. "She stocked the refrigerator, cooked meals, and did laundry so I could really focus on Ethan," she recalls.
Visits aren't just for special occasions, either. As your baby gets older, invite grandparents to come over and share in a typical day in the life of your baby. Lorette Gross, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and 11-month-old son Bennett, found that traveling was easy during Bennett's first five months, when the family made numerous trips to the East Coast to see her parents. "Now it's easier when they come here. He has his toys and friends and they can see what his life is really like. At their house it can be harder to put him to sleep and he's crankier," admits Gross.
Closing the generation gap
Whether your child's grandparents are local or far-flung, you'll probably have some heated disagreements over the course of bringing up baby. You must remember that they almost certainly have the child's best interests at heart, even when you think they are being unreasonable. The best solution: Talk about conflicts openly and calmly. "Say, 'I know you don't mean to, but it hurts me when you do this,'" says Dr. Kornhaber.
The more involved with your family grandparents are, the more opportunity there is for friction. "Clearly spell out the rules and morals you want to raise your baby with. Grandparents should agree to act similarly on big issues like beliefs and values, and parents should accept that there will be diversity in other areas," explains Dr. Kornhaber. "Grandparents don't need to be as rigid disciplinarians as parents. Parents need to overlook the too much candy and too many presents situations."
Indulgences can't be as frequent when grandparents are providing childcare. This was an issue for Anita Borovilas, of Staten Island, New York, whose mother cared for baby Christina for 12 hours a day beginning when she was 3 months old. Borovilas says that her mother sometimes did things she disapproved of, such as letting Christina sleep with a juice bottle. Although they could usuually talk through their differences, says Borovilas, "It wasn't easy. A grandparent is always more lax than a parent is."
To add to the generational rift, child-rearing practices are dramatically different than when your baby's grandparents were parents. Try not to take your parents' suggestions as criticism. Gross's mom frequently suggests offering Bennett a bottle of water when he gets fussy. "They did that with me, but my doctor doesn't believe in it," says Gross. Sharing books and articles that explain current thinking in child development may help close the gap.
If family chats and gentle persuasion don't work, you must insist that your parents respect your parenting decisions. If there is still tension, it may be best for some families to take a short breather from each other. But as long as safety isn't an issue, don't give up. "The reality is that some relationships are hopeless, but usually the situation is more salvageable than you think," says psychologist Ira Heilveil, Ph.D., author of When Families Feud: Understanding and Resolving Family Conflicts.
Once the stage is set properly, the benefits of a strong grandparent connection are limitless. Here are some ideas on how to get the party started.
If you've effectively played middleman and maturely handled any differences, your parents and kids will be as well matched as children and little red wagons, your baby will have the wonderful sensation of knowing he's unconditionally adored, and you'll have an enthusiastic babysitter for when you need a little adults-only time.
Alice Lesch Kelly is a freelance writer who lives in Newton, MA.
Spanning the miles
Alice Lesch Kelly
If your child's grandparents live far away, you can still take steps to help them feel close to the baby, while letting your child get to know some of the other people who love him. Here are some ideas to help you stay close.