The Good-Enough Grandparent

Following rules is important but there's more to being a great grandparent

By Susan Davis Sherwin

You're not a bad grandparent. Neither am I. But, honestly, is either of us the best grandma or grandpa in the world? Come on, own up. I know I’m not the best. If I were, I'd have the patience of a saint, I'd have the energy of a teenager (I wish), and I’d never, ever sneak Maggie an extra cookie when no one is looking. Come to think of it, being the best would be exhausting; being good enough is good enough.

Nobody's Perfect

My 2-year-old granddaughter and her newborn brother are still so young that I haven't had enough time to do too much damage. I will, however, admit to one subversive act: We are New Yorkers and diehard Yankees fans, but my daughter-in-law, from Massachusetts, roots for the Red Sox. (It's a mixed marriage.) So one day I taught then-20-month-old Maggie to say, "Mommy, Yankees rule!" My husband, my son, and I all thought this was hilarious. My daughter-in-law? Not so much. And, okay, if I'm being perfectly honest, one time I also raided Maggie's "college-fund penny jar" when I ran out of change while playing poker.

But I'm not the only good-enough grandparent out there. Diane Cohen, a grandmother of six in Queens, N.Y., admits that one day when two of her grandkids were visiting, someone sang "Puff the Magic Dragon" and she said to the children, "Do you know what that song is about? Smoking pot!" Their mother said, "We won't go there!" and changed the subject fast.

Why Good Enough Can Be Great for Kids

If you ask many moms and dads, the perfect grandparent (aside from avoiding references to pot) would be available whenever they call, always engage the kids in constructive activities, and stick strictly to the parents' rules when they babysit. But some experts say that good-enough grandparents, who have lives of their own, who sometimes sit on the couch and read the newspaper while babysitting, and who don't mind breaking some sacred house rules, are just fine, too.

"Children need to learn how to interact appropriately in different settings," says Dove Pressnall, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in working with families and enhancing multigenerational connections. "Their grandparents' relative permissiveness gives children the opportunity to practice social skills and explore boundaries in a safe and loving setting."

If you're a good-enough grandparent, Pressnall says, your grandkids' parents should embrace you, flaws and all: "Parents who allow their children's grandparents to do things differently, and appreciate their efforts, can have better relationships with their parents or in-laws, enjoy the benefits of more support, and even occasionally learn from their elders' more relaxed style."

Sherry Dworsky, a grandmother of three in New York City, loves seeing her grandkids but she doesn't love kids' movies, video games, or Happy Meals, so when the children visit, they have to do what she likes — going to museums and eating at nice restaurants. All of which certainly has some benefits for the children. On the other hand, the kids also get to watch TV as late as they like at Dworsky's, raid the fridge, and drink soft drinks, because, she says, "Grandma's house means different rules, and balanced meals are not my problem."

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And then there's Sheila Abrams, a grandmother of five, in Michigan who tells about watching her then 18-month-old granddaughter, Sarah, for a weekend several years ago. "We were very much afraid to screw up so we followed my daughter’s directions precisely, with only one minor infraction," Abrams says. "Curly-haired Sarah had one pesky curlicue that was forever falling into her eyes and no amount of brushing alleviated the problem. So I took scissors in hand and did the deed — just one little curl! My daughter returned, and hissed, ‘What did you do to Sarah's hair?' But I've been vindicated; Sarah’s younger brother and sister both wear glasses, and she does not. But she does straighten her hair!"

Look Who's Good Enough

Rules are important, but "enforcing every rule parents attempt to enforce is not the real crux of your relationship with grandchildren," says Ingrid Schweiger, a psychologist, author, and grandmother of two in New York City who points out that even Bill Gates has said that his father bribes his children with TV time and soft drinks when he watches them, even though both are off-limits when Bill and his wife are home.

So are there any truly perfect grandparents out there? I doubt it. And that's probably a good thing.

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