By Mary Ellen Christy
“Having someone in children’s lives that they think hung the moon is important for development. That’s one thing that grandparents do for grandchildren. And of course when you get really tired you can return them to their parents.”—Parenting expert Mary Ellen Christy.
In the first of her series on the positive impact of grandparenting, Mary Ellen Christy answered Classic Chicago Magazine’s questions.
CCM: How important are intergenerational relationships for children?
These relationships can be extremely important. One of the unfortunate things about life is that the time you parent often coincides with the most productive time of your life in terms of your work and career. It is wonderful to have a grandparent or aunt or uncle who thinks you are very special and who makes time for you. Young children are beginning to discover the universe, and older people, realizing that life doesn’t last forever. Children want to do well for their parents at school. If things don’t go well at school, it is great to have the solace a grandparent can provide and to have an opportunity to confide in someone.
“I remember when my son was a baby the first person who came to visit was a 97-year-old neighbor. They fell in love instantly. Children have a tendency to respond to an older person as they do to animals.”
CCM: We know that grandparents love breaking a few rules and it seems to work. What do you think?
“Parents feel so responsible, particularly in contemporary culture where everything is so achievement oriented. One thing I love to do with my grandchildren is to take all the cushions off all my furniture and my blankets everywhere to make a tent with them. Then they crawl from room to room. It is fun sometimes to stay up late and watch cartoons, and maybe eat a little popcorn in bed. When one of my grandchildren was told that it was bedtime, mom said I was going to bed, too. My grandchild said: “oh, no she’s not”. There is something fun and very conspiratorial being busted together.
“It’s fun to watch how their little minds are working. Grandchildren often want to know what you were like as a child. One asked me recently if, when I was little, was I naughty? I said definitely yes, and I probably turned out ok.
CCM: What are the pluses of grandparent involvement?
A grandparent can be such a relief for parents. It seems harder post COVID to find an appropriate babysitter, and it is so great to have someone they know and trust who can be present. It gives you great joy to watch your own child who you struggled to raise and now give them encouraging words. Parenting is just hard. Children learn what they live. Very few set out to be naughty, but they can have sleeping issues and possibly behavior problems. I don’t have to be present seven days a week. I can give the parent and child a little bit of a break. Children will be very honest with their grandparents.
“When you get older, you want to feel you can meet expectations both of the parents and of yourself. By a little planning you can really accomplish what the parent needs you to do such as getting the child to all those after school destinations which can be a challenge. Being with a grandchild also gives you a chance to relive your old childhood. I found some of my childhood books, including Horace, about a little girl who meets a dinosaur, Winkie and the Gypsies, The Borrowers, and Brighty of Grand Canyon. It gives you this continuum in life. They are enjoying what I loved to read, as I read these books to them. The soothing sound of a grandparent’s voice definitely helps open the child’s mind to language- based activity.
CCM: How should grandparents best communicate with a grandchild’s parents so as to not send mixed messages?
“I often say to my daughters: ’She reminds me of you at that age, look how you turned out’. Grandparenting gives you a peer relationship with your children. We all know how temper tantrums often happen in a small and isolated space at a difficult moment. A grandparent can say: “This is hard work, Rome wasn’t built in a day”, and recall that things almost always get better. It can’t be ‘I’m going to fix this’ but rather it is ‘let me take a load off’. Very few people set out with the idea that they are going to be lazy about parenting. Babies arrive without a user’s manual: some talk, some don’t, some sleep and some don’t. This is an opportunity to get your own child through it.”
CCM: Are there areas that grandparents should watch out for?
“Number one, grandparents should be supportive without being critical of their children’s parenting. You have to be very careful. You don’t want to criticize; you want to be there as a resource. Just as it is really nice for children to have good friends that go attend the same school, if there is a little friction at home, a grandparent is a safe place to go. When my husband was dying, one of my daughters called her grandmother every day. A grandparent can give a child courage.”
CCM: How do children react to older people, and how can grandparents best use their years of experience in helping grandchildren?
This depends on what a grandparent is like. If a grandparent has difficulty walking, what a wonderful opportunity for a grandchild to take her arm and help her negotiate. They are then learning reciprocity of care.
CCM: How can parents best communicate with their own parents to facilitate this relationship?
One thing they can do is share what their father or mother was like as a parent. How they were so proud to go to my baseball games, like I am to go to yours now. If a grandparent seems a little abrupt, a parent might explain that they might be tired. If grandpa talks loudly, he doesn’t mean to shout but has trouble hearing.
“Being a grandparent is a very wonderful and special experience. You hear so frequently people say something like: If I had known how fabulous grandchildren were, I would have started with that. I think of the delightful book Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes the 2008 children’s picture book by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury. It is about babies, who, although they are from around the world, all share the common trait of having the same number of digits.
“Being a grandparent is a worldwide beloved experience.”
If you have questions about parenting or grandparenting please contact Mary Ellen Christy at firstname.lastname@example.org and anticipate her next column on grandparenting.