Grandparent vs. Grandparent

During the holidays, it's tempting to try to prove that the kids love you best.

By Geoff Williams

You may feel as if you have a special bond with your grandchildren. But the grandparents on "the other side" of the family feel the same way. So when the two sides come together during the holidays, it can sometimes be awkward, especially if the grandparents don't get along. Even if you're friendly with the other set of grandparents, it can still hurt if the kids rush to play with the "cooler" grandma. You may give in to the urge to compete for the children's attention and affection, but that can go awry as well.

The Grandparent Bake-Off

Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem, 65, is a registered marriage and family therapist in Burlington, Ontario. She's also the grandmother or step-grandmother of 11 children. Despite her credentials, however, she couldn't resist the urge to compete with her first granddaughter's other grandmother when the little girl was a toddler. At the time, Belleghem had a vacation cottage that her granddaughter loved to visit, and so the girl started calling her "Cottage Grandma." Belleghem loved that, until she found out that the other grandmother had become "Cupcake Grandma," because she always brought the girl homemade cupcakes.

I can make cupcakes, too, Belleghem thought. But her baking skills were rusty, so she began buying cupcakes instead. Still, her granddaughter ruled that even those were not as good as the ones her other grandmother made.

Belleghem soon recognized that the bake-off was futile, and instead learned to embrace her own grandmother skills. "So one grandparent is the best for singing or playing a musical instrument like the piano, while another may be the best butter-tart maker in the world. One grandpa may be the best at sports while another may be the best storyteller. Grandparents competing with other grandparents is a sign of insecurity," she now realizes. "By the time adults are old enough to be grandparents, hopefully they have learned to be their own personal best and know that competing with others is best left for games."

Shopping 'til They Drop

Buying big-ticket presents for your grandchildren can upset grandparents on the other side of the family, who may think you're trying to buy the kids' affection. "It used to go like this," says Shirley VanScoyk, 55, a real estate agent in West Chester, Pa. "My husband and I would give the kids a gift, maybe a golf cart or a computer. The other side of the family would give the kids nice, but less expensive toys, and then we would hear that our gifts were 'over the top' or 'unnecessary,' or that we were just 'showing off.' In reality, it was just that we could afford it because we only had two grandchildren and they had more.” The criticism, VanScoyk says, "hurt my feelings, and then there would be a war of words — and also, more gifts."

But now, she and her extended family have moved past the rancor. "What happens when you are playing tug-of-war and one side drops the rope?" she says. "The game is over." The perceived competition among grandparents to buy the kids bigger gifts, she realized, was really a sign of common ground — that they all loved their grandchildren. "I worked hard to see the value in the experiences my co-grandparent could offer which I could not, and I said complimentary and supportive things in earshot of the grandchildren about the other grandparents," she says, and eventually, "I started to notice the same things coming back to me."

Celebrating Differences

Janyce Granoff, 61, of Coconut Grove, Fla., is the first to admit that she and her husband are very different from her granddaughters’ other grandparents. But instead of making their differences a source of conflict, the four grandparents make it a source of celebration.

"We are thrilled that we all have something to contribute," Granoff says. She happens to own an online business selling wedding-reception supplies, so "I teach the kids about distribution of manufactured goods and services, and music and art. My husband has taught them about all the tools in his tool box and their purposes, and how boats work. Their other Nana teaches them about the weather, the earth, and expressing their feelings, and their other granddad teaches about digestion and teeth," she says. "It always amazes me when I hear about competition between grandparents. One would assume that one would just be thrilled that the other grandparents have something unique to offer and that they care enough to offer it!"



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