Should grandparents be seen and not heard? Lord knows, we get in trouble every time we open our mouths. You thought a hormone-crazed teenage daughter was touchy? Try a nervous new mother trying to prove she knows what she's doing, to whom the mildest remark ("Do you have another baby blanket?") comes across as the harshest criticism ("Why don't you just lay the baby down on a snowbank, since you don't care if she freezes to death?").
So I said nothing when my daughter Morgan e-mailed me a picture of her six-year-old, Ryan, on the girl's first day of first grade, wearing a sort of ... surprising outfit. Naturally, a granny doesn't want to follow the family around every day, wringing her hands and pointing out that this or that grandchild is flushed, sweaty, too short, too tall, breathing too noisily, or seems not to have brushed her hair for a week.
When You Know Something's Wrong
But there are times when we should speak up, aren't there? When we're worried about something and can't keep quiet? Yes, there are.
Case in point: Years ago, my sister Robin's three-year-old daughter, Katie, was walking around a family backyard barbecue in just a pair of shorts. My mother kept staring at Katie and remarking, "There's something wrong with that child's chest." That's the kind of grandmother-remark everybody tends to ignore, but my mother kept saying it. Finally, Robin took Katie to the doctor, maybe just to shut my mother up. A month later, Katie underwent an operation to repair a heart defect.
I was talking to my friend Marie about this recently. She told me that her mother was the one who noticed that Marie's younger daughter, Julia, seemed to be having an awful lot of stomach aches — an observation that led to Julia being treated for celiac disease, a severe intestinal problem. That same alert grandmother once noticed that another grandchild's cheeks were flushed and wondered if it might be appendicitis. It was. "Grandmothers seem to observe more closely," Marie said after relating these stories.
How to Broach the Subject
We do observe closely, but when is it safe for us to share our observations? This question has been on my mind since last year, when I began worrying that Ryan had a reading problem. After lots of drilling in preschool and in kindergarten, she still could recognize only a few words, though she pretended to read stories she'd memorized. I got on the Web to do some research and then, feeling like an alarmist and a buttinsky, I dared to send Ryan's parents (my daughter and my ex-son-in-law) an e-mail with these signposts:
AGES 5 to 6: DOES YOUR KINDERGARTNER ...
1. Fail to recognize and write letters, write his or her name or use invented spelling for words?
2. Have trouble breaking spoken words into syllables, such as cowboy into cow and boy?, etc.
Notice that I used an e-mail to raise my concern. That might seem cowardly, but I think it's a good way to do it. The kids' parents can digest (or stew over) your remarks at their leisure, while you're at a safe distance away from them and any projectile that might be handy.
To my relief, neither parent was offended by my message, although neither thought Ryan had a reading problem, either. Her dad added, "My mom, who is dyslexic, also doesn't think Ryan has a learning disability." That only made me worry more, as dyslexia can be inherited. But Ryan brings books home from her first-grade classroom now, so I hope I was worrying for nothing.
Still, I'm not sorry I brought it up. Dyslexia should be recognized and dealt with early, before a kid finds herself in third grade wondering why all her friends can read Harry Potter books and she can't. There's a balance we grannies must find, between bombarding parents with unwanted advice and being the extra pairs of eyes and ears every grandkid and her mother benefits from. The grandmother who never meddles, I've noticed, is often the grandmother who never helps, either. So I mentioned the reading, and also suggested a specialist for Ryan's crossed eyes.
When in Doubt ...
In my book, The Granny Diaries (Chronicle), I suggest a list of things not to say to your grandchildren's parents, including:
* "We put you in the backseat on the floor in a laundry hamper, and you loved it!"
* "What's she wearing? What happened to the red pants I gave her?"
* "A little snack will do no harm."
* "Does she really need that pacifier?"
* "Just turn out the light and tell her to go to sleep."
* "She'll lose that weight when she starts to walk."
Following my own advice, I haven't asked why my granddaughter was decked out in some sort of bag-lady dress for the first day of school.
Although, really, what was up with that?
Want more? Read our suggestions for 6 more things you should never say.
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.