Parents and grandparents are confused about their roles. The conventional wisdom for grandparents is “Do not give unsolicited advice. Do not interfere.” While there is a grain of truth in this counsel, it is not the whole loaf of bread.
When grandparents babysit, the parents expect them to follow the parents’ rules. However, as any good boss knows, when delegating a task you get the best results when you also delegate responsibility.
Flexibility is Key
Interacting with babies and children does not always follow a script. Events happen, moods change. The variables are not constant. If a babysitter, whether they are a grandparent or a hired person, is to do a good job, they have to have leeway to use their judgment.
Too often, parents rage at the grandparents if they do not follow their directions to the letter, when in fact, what parents should want is their parents to follow the spirit of their advice. Thus, if a parent says “no tv,” for example, the grandparents should honor that.
However, should the grandparent hurt himself physically or perhaps if the child hurts himself, it might be necessary to assure the child’s safety by placing him in front of a TV for a short while.
When I was rearing children, the conventional wisdom was that playpens were bad. However, when one of my toddlers hurt himself, I would plunk the baby in the playpen to assure his safety. Asking grandparents to leave their judgment at the door when they babysit is a waste of resources.
Adjusting the Rules
Grandparents have the responsibility to tell their children in advance when they might need to deviate from the given instructions. For example, a grandparent might say to their adult children, “I’m happy to babysit all day, but I do need to put my feet up and relax at 5:00 pm. I have downloaded Sesame Street to entertain your toddler for half an hour while I sit next to him.”
The parent can then decide if the free babysitting is worth a half hour of screen time.
Grandparents should inform the parents when they deviate from parental rules while babysitting. This allows the adult children to understand grandparental point of view. Honesty is also the foundation of trust and confidence in others. When parents accept these confessions without freaking out, wonderful discussions can ensue.
Knowledge brings Change
On the other hand, sometimes there are studies which bring new knowledge that grandparents do need to follow religiously. It is not enough for grandparents to say “In my day…” Not everything from their days as parents still applies.
For example, in the past, parents were told to put babies to sleep on their stomachs. Studies seem to show now that putting babies to bed on their backs reduces the incidents of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Clearly, anything anyone can do to reduce the incidents of SIDS should be done, whether by grandparents or parents.
Often, however, the studies about childrearing enter the public arena in a very condensed form. For example, we hear that screen time is terrible for children and will fry their brains. But when you read the studies, they are actually more nuanced.
Long stretches of screen time may result in problems, but a minute here or there to calm a child has not been proven to be damaging. Also, television as an interactive activity which leads to learning and discussion can actually be beneficial to small children.
A Model of Respect
While parents need to respect grandparents’ judgment, grandparents must also recognize that their children have 24/7 responsibility for the grandchildren.
Therefore, the parents are the “deciders,” but the grandparents can still be “advisors.”
When grandparents do give advice, they should let their children know that they do not expect them to follow it unquestioningly. Rather, the adult children should consider the advice of others and create their own recipe for childrearing.
It seems simple, but all human relationships are complex. They need understanding, discussion and guidelines, not rigid rules. Besides, parents and grandparents model good communication skills for the grandchildren when they respect each other enough to try to understand each other’s behaviors.
By Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D.
Resident Scholar, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University