The sticky subject of giving advice to your children about how they raise your grandchildren
Many of your readers refer to difficulties with their parents or inlaws about how they are raising their children. I’m looking at it from the other side, since I’m a grandmother. I love my daughter and my daughters-in-law, and we have pretty good relationships. They don’t live nearby, but close enough that I can see them every couple of months, and we talk on the phone, more with my daughter. I have three beautiful grandchildren.
My question is what I should do when I see them doing something with their kids that really doesn’t seem like a good idea to me? Many of my friends have the same issues. We see our children making mistakes that will cause trouble later, and they don’t seem to want to hear it. What do you advise?
It’s nice to hear from a grandmother, as you bring an important perspective to the family relationships we discuss here. You help us remember that we are all in family networks that span several generations. That seems to me to be at the heart of the question you raise, as we have multiple layers of parent-child relationships operating in every interaction.
There are the actual current parent-child relationships; there are the patterns from the past that resonate in the present. Plus there are the historical connections we all carry. Your mother’s way of taking care of you was influenced by her grandmothers and her mother, so you brought a rich legacy to your parenting from the beginning. Your daughter and daughters-in-law already start out with many internal voices supporting, counseling, advising, questioning, criticizing, encouraging.
When your kids were little, I’ll assume that you wanted both to protect them and have them learn to be capable on their own. Parents never outgrow those two goals, so now you want to protect your kids and your grandkids from regret or distress or hassle. At the same time, you know they have to stand on their own two feet, make their own mistakes and will learn best from their own experience.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to stand by when you see your daughter being inconsistent and confusing her kids, for instance letting them watch TV before homework some days and not others. Or your daughter-in-law waiting on her kids, never asking them to pull their weight in the household. Since you know that they will later wish they had done it differently, how can you offer the wisdom of your experience without undermining their parental authority and identity?
When your kids were teenagers, were you able to listen with a genuinely open mind and think together with them about the dilemmas they were facing? Were you able to stand by and be available while letting them figure things out for themselves, knowing you were there as backup? If you did that, you already know how to deal with being a parent to parents. If that was hard when they were adolescents, you and your kids carry an internal image of difficulty in a parent-child relationship for sharing and supporting each other. Now you have another chance to learn how to be a companion and guide who is welcomed.
Becoming a grandparent is another stage on the lifelong journey of transforming your relationship with your children. Growing up doesn’t mean growing away. It means staying close in new ways at the new level.
Ask your daughter and her husband, your sons and daughters-in-law, how you can best help. Consider saying to them that you feel like you have useful experience to share but are committed to not pushing it on them. You might find it interesting for yourself and fascinating for them to reminisce about how your mom and your mother-in-law handled things when you first had kids. Did your mother tell you to force the kids to eat spinach? Did your mother-in-law disapprove of your asking your kids what they wanted to do on Saturday? Did your father-in-law give them ice cream right before dinner? Did you mind?
You could tell your kids what you did and didn’t appreciate in those times, making it clear that you don’t want to repeat any mistakes. The stories may be funny or wonderful, sad or maddening, but they will help everyone see that you are functioning within a long line of parents and children who all want the best for each other, however that gets expressed.
There is a bottom line that comes unanimously from all the young parents I know. Hang in there and don’t offer advice until it’s asked for. It feels great to get that call, “Mom, I’ve been wondering how you think I should handle this .” When you wait for the request, your kids won’t feel like they have to get defensive about their parenting and will increasingly welcome your ideas. Your relationship will be strengthened and your grandchildren will have the benefit of the many generations of wisdom you carry.
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local psychoanalyst, affiliated with the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council, and a family consultant at Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through AllenCreek.org, or you can e-mail her your comments and questions for future columns. The ideas and opinions in this column are Kerry Kelly Novick’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Allen Creek Preschool, MPI or MPC.