5 Times We Feel Guilty As Grandparents

... and why you shouldn't beat yourself up

By Georgia Witkin, Ph.D.

The Modern Grandparent's Handbook © 2011 by Dr. Georgia Witkin

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Here's an excerpt from Georgia's chapter on major grandparent guilt trips:

There is a Welsh saying: "Perfect love does not come along until the first grandchild." Most grandparents say it's absolutely true. Unfortunately, the thing that comes along right behind it is... guilt. 

That's because we're human. We're not perfect, yet we want to be — even more so for our grandchildren. But we can't be perfect — so don't even try. The Number One thing to keep in mind is that it's our turn to enjoy the fun; it's our turn to skip the midnight feedings and toilet training; and it's our turn to kiss and hug and laugh and leave. So if you sometimes feel guilty about certain aspects of grandparenting, don't give in and don't give up. You can counteract it. Here's what you need to know:

Guilt Trip 1: You Play Favorites

A British study recently found that one in six mothers admit that they have a favorite child, and close to 60 percent of our grandparents say they have a favorite grandchild — although they'll never admit to it!

[bluebox dilemma]Sometimes the favorite is the very first grandchild. Sometimes it's the only girl or the only boy. Sometimes the favorite is the one whose personality is most similar to the your own. Sometimes the favorite is the one who's least similar to you.

So don't feel guilty. Feeling like you have a favorite doesn't make you a bad grandparent — it makes you human. Besides, you may recognize that one is funnier, one is more athletic, one is more easygoing, and so forth, but — and this is critical — you have to let them know that you love them all equally. And that's the message for your children or grandchildren if they are accusing you of having a favorite... that they are all favorites in different ways! Let them know how they're each special to you. Children love to feel special, and making them feel special in different ways is better than pretending that they are all special in the same way. They aren't. And they know it.

At the same time, remember that seemingly innocent actions may make it seem like you're playing favorites. Here are some situations to watch for:

  • Cuddly infants often get more attention than older grandchildren. When fawning over a delightful baby, let the older kids share in the spotlight.
  • Try not to shy away from difficult grandkids — they're the ones who may need you the most. Encourage positive behavioral changes instead.
  • Stay away from stereotypes. Ask a grandson if he wants to bake brownies with you or a granddaughter if she wants to toss the football. They may surprise you.
  • Give each grandchild the same number of gifts. Even little kids know how to count!

If you had more than one child or have more than one grandchild, you know very well that all kids are different. Some are huggy-kissy and some are more standoffish. Some are sunny and others are shy. If your relationship with your grandchild isn't firing on all cylinders every minute, that's normal. And if another relationship is going great guns, don't feel guilty. Do something about it. Spend some one-on-one time with each grandchild, and praise the one you're with. After all, you know each one has unique and delightful qualities worth praising.

Guilt Trip 2: You Get Bored

Grandparents.com asked readers: Are your grandchildren ever boring?
The response:
Sometimes, but I don't care: 42%
No, they're endlessly fascinating every second: 41%
Yes, but don't tell them I said so: 16%

You miss them like crazy when they're not around, but after a full day together, you can't wait to check your e-mail, read the paper, or talk to a grown-up. It doesn't mean you don't love them, but you can only push a swing for so long before it gets tedious. If you're totally honest, you'll have to admit this happens sometimes. After you've read the same story 16 times in a row, it does tend to lose a little of the magic.

But don't feel guilty about it. Instead, try these tips:

  • Shake it up a bit. Go to a different park — one without swings. Bring a kite. Buy a new book. Don't be surprised, however, if the little one still wants to hear the favorite story afterward.
  • Remember, it's your grandkids' job to slow you down: To make you notice that the roots of the tree look like an octopus. To remind you that swinging really high can feel like flying. To introduce you to Angry Birds and take you through six levels on your iPad. So take a deep breath and try to see these things through your grandkids' eyes. The e-mail's not really that important, is it?
  • Keep in mind how fast time zips by. It wasn't so long ago you were pushing your own kids on the swing and reading them the same story over and over. Pretty soon, your precious grandchild will be packing up the car for college.

Guilt Trip 3: You Love Them Too Much

You think about your grandkids endlessly. You tell everybody you meet — including cashiers and cabdrivers — how cute it is when they suck spaghetti through their missing teeth. You post pictures of them all over your house, your office, and your Facebook page. (Well, who doesn't?) You just can't spend enough time with them.

Are you abnormal? Is it unhealthy? Should you be worried?

Stop it.

You love your grandkids. That's great! They're lucky to have someone so loving in their lives. And you're lucky to have people in your life that give you so much joy. On the other hand, watch out for these pitfalls:

  • Make sure you're not so focused on the time you won't get to spend with your grandkids that you don't enjoy the time you do.
  • Don't rely on your grandkids to satisfy all your emotional needs. That's not their job.
  • Be careful not to alienate the parents. They may not love the idea of providing you with endless grandchild time at the expense of their own family time.
  • Consider the feelings of your husband or partner. Does he feel like he's losing out on your companionship because so much of your energy is devoted to the grandkids?

If you should find your focus getting out of whack, follow these three rules:

  1. Keep up with your friends, your interests and activities. Let your life be broad and expansive, not narrow and constrained.
  2. Enjoy the time with your grandkids, and the time you spend with your other loved ones.
  3. Remember that our hearts are stretchy — there's room in there for many people.

Guilt Trip 4: You Don't Live Close Enough

Some grandparents have to move to be close to their grandchildren because they are needed by their adult child — to help with child care, special needs, divorce transitions, or financial emergencies. But most grandparents have a choice. They also have an established life where they live, with work, friends, and other children and grandchildren nearby. Besides, it's often your children who have moved away from you, not the reverse. Having your grandchildren far away is hard, but giving up the life you know and love can be hard too.

If you are considering moving to be nearer to your grandchildren, consider these factors:

  • Is your child or his/her spouse likely to be relocated for work? In other words, could frequent moves be ahead?
  • Would a move uproot you from your social network? Do you make new friends easily, and how much would you miss the support network you currently have? Will you really e-mail and Skype everyone?
  • If you're still working, will you be able to find a job in the new location?
  • If you're single, will you be able to pursue your interests and favorite activities in your new home? Will you be able to meet people and find companionship?
  • Your adult children are going to have a life of their own. Will you feel resentful that you moved to be near them and then they don't include you in everything? But what if you can't move or don't want to?

And consider the upside of being a long-distance grandparent:

  1. You won't feel guilty because you can't babysit at the last minute.
  2. Your children can't blame you for hovering . . . or not hovering enough.
  3. The grandkids don't take you for granted. Your visits are always special.
  4. The parents are so thrilled when you visit (because they get some time off), they give you lots of alone time with the grandchildren.
  5. You're insulated from the day-to-day stresses, disappointments, and details of the complicated, hectic world of parenting. And after all, you already went through it yourself.

Guilt Trip 5: You're Not Perfect

You know this, right? It's obvious. But you still feel guilty about every little thing you do "wrong" anyway. Whether you're too strict or too lax, overprotective or too lenient, you may think you're the only one out there struggling. You're wrong — you are not alone!

Just to prove it to you, here are 5 mistakes even good grandparents make:

  1. Encouraging tantrums. The first thing we do when our grandchildren melt down is to comfort them. Don't. Experts agree that when children have tantrums, trying to distract them, baby them, or bribe them, or worse, giving in to them, sends the message that it's not only okay to lose control, it's a good idea. That won't go over too well in the office when they are adults. Instead, let them know you understand that they're upset and you'll be happy to talk to them — when they calm down.
  2. Agreeing to do too much. If you're exhausted, you already have plans, or you just don't feel like it, it's okay to let the parents know that you'll have to pass on that last-minute babysitting assignment. You won't be any good to your grandkids unless you're 100 percent in the moment, anyway.
  3. Getting frustrated. Trying to teach a six-year-old to ride a bike is not always easy. And no matter how many times you say, "Just keep pedaling," that doesn't mean he will. But keep it loose; otherwise you'll ruin the moment and lose out on a potentially wonderful memory.
  4. Falling for the hype. If the guy at the toy store says it's the toy with the most advanced electronics, the most profound educational benefits, and the biggest price tag, we fall right in line. But blocks and crayons really let your grandchildren's imaginations soar.
  5. Breaking too many rules. We spoil them — we do — and it's our prerogative to bend the rules a little. Just don't ignore the nonnegotiable rules set by the parents... and by common sense.

We all make these mistakes, and many others. But that does not mean we have to punish ourselves, or think that everyone else is grandparenting so much better. They're not! Some moments are memorable, some are forgettable, but we're all on this journey together.

Read an excerpt from Georgia Witkin's introduction to The Modern Grandparent's Handbook, and check out other insights from the author here on Grandparents.com:

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