What I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Grandparent
The last thing a new parent needs is a vocal backseat driver.
Meet Nancy and Tom Biracree. Together, the New York couple has decades of parenting under their belt, which they’ve turned into and several parenting books—including the exalted 1990 tome, The Parents’ Book of Facts. But none of this was any help when their first grandchild was introduced into the world three-and-a-half years ago. Of course, Nancy and Tom thought that they were going to be the best grandparents in the world—given the fact that, you know, they’d kind of done it before—but as soon as their granddaughter was born, they quickly realized how different being a grandparent is than being a parent.
Now that Nancy and Tom have a few years of experience with their first grandchild, they’re not only ready to be the best grandparents possible to their second one arriving in December, they’re also here to share they’re well-earned sage wisdom with any and all grandparents-to-be. So keep reading for some tried-and-true advice.
Your opinions aren’t always welcome.
For Tom and Nancy, one of the biggest revelations that came with grandchild number one was that being a grandparent requires you to take a back seat while your child becomes a parent on their own terms. Of course, you can—and certainly should—offer up your expertise when it’s asked for, but the last thing a new parent needs is a vocal backseat driver. “[Being a grandparent is] about being in a supportive but dependent relationship with your child,” says Tom. “In other words, it’s about helping them establish their parenting goals.”
Your number-one job is to assist.
When you become a grandparent for the first time, all you want to do is spend every waking moment with your new grandchild. However, there is a fine line between being helpful and being a nuisance, and, as Tom explained, “it should be a relief to have you there, rather than a stressor.”
Consistency is key.
Something that came as a surprise to Tom and Nancy was the fact that they couldn’t just freely enter and exit their grandchild’s life as they pleased. “You’re gonna get into a lot of conflict if you try and move in and out of a grandchild’s life without providing the same kind of consistency and support,” explains Tom. When it comes to being a good grandparent, the duo says that you have to be consistent about how frequently you visit, both for the sake of your grandchild and for your own children.
Things should never be taken personally.
Of course, it’s natural to bristle when you’re reprimanded for doing something wrong. But a key part of being a grandparent is learning to take your ego out of the equation. “We don’t resent it when we’re told that we’ve gone a little bit too far,” says Tom. Adds Nancy: “This is their baby and they have to do what they think is best. I will respect that.”
The kid’s not yours.
As a grandparent, your job is to support your child as a parent and assist them with whatever they need—and the sooner you understand that, the sooner you’ll be the best grandparent possible. Nancy says: “Your baby’s baby is not your baby.”
No, you can’t spoil them.
Grandparents look forward to showering their grandchildren with gifts, but what Nancy and Tom learned the hard way is that not all parents want their kids being spoiled all the time. “The way you reward the child and the way you discipline the child is something you’ll have to get on the same page about,” says Tom. “We can get our granddaughter a special treat every once in a while and occasionally do things, but we don’t wanna go too far.” Of course, each parent is going to feel differently about this, but in every situation it’s always best to ask before you buy something.
Your child will have different parenting tactics than you.
As people who have successfully raised children of their own, grandparents tend to think that they are parenting pros, and they’re not afraid to make that known when it comes to how their grandchildren are being raised. However, what Nancy and Tom quickly learned as grandparents was that even though they are literal parenting experts, their way of doing things with their own child wasn’t necessarily their child’s way of doing things—and that’s absolutely fine.
“Right from the beginning, we had to understand that our way of parenting thirty-something years ago was totally different than what they’re doing now,” said Nancy. “And so we have to step back and find out what they need and what their purposes are for their child and go along with that.”
The opinion of both parents matters.
Every week, Nancy and Tom make a point of sitting down to dinner with Sarah, their son’s wife and the mother of their granddaughter. As they’ve come to learn, her parenting practices are sometimes quite different from their son’s, and so they have found it helpful to talk to her one-on-one and make sure that everything they’re doing with their grandchild is well within reason.
“You wanna make sure that you get the perspective of both parents,” explains Tom. “We arrange to have dinner with Sarah once a week so that we can get her viewpoint and talk to her about issues so that we make sure that we understand her and keep things on the same page.”
Making assumptions is about the worst thing you can do.
Something that Nancy and Tom realized early on is that parenting nowadays is drastically different from what it was thirty or even twenty years ago. For instance, Tom says that, when feeding his granddaughter, “we have to be very careful about whole grain bread instead of white bread and all kinds of things like that. The whole idea of nutrition has changed an enormous amount.” Remember: Just because you let your child eat dessert before dinner or watch TV whenever they pleased doesn’t mean that your grandchild is allowed to as well.
Your kid deserves your trust.
It’s not going to be easy to keep your mouth shut when you feel like your child is doing something wrong, but “it’s important to know that you need to be able to respect [your child and their spouse] as parents,” says Nancy. If they do try and fail, what you can do is console them as a parent and continue to support them as they try again.
Your house should be equipped with safety precautions.
Back when Nancy and Tom were parents to a toddler, the suggested household safety precautions for a child were little more than “blocking off the stairwells and covering electrical outlets.” But today, safety is far more complicated, and grandparents might be surprised to find that parents won’t let their children into their house until everything is set up accordingly. If you aren’t sure how to properly baby-proof your house, talk to your child about what they’ve done in their own home and follow suit.
Your vaccinations need to be up-to-date.
A baby’s immune system is at its most vulnerable, and so most new parents will require everyone visiting a newborn—even the grandparents—to be up-to-date on vaccinations. “[Nancy and I] weren’t even allowed to see the baby until we got our vaccinations,” says Tom. “These were things we never even thought about as parents that are routine today.”
All of your familial relationships will change.
“Understanding the relationship of a grandparent for me has helped relationships through our entire family,” says Tom. “We’ve learned a lot about and have come to appreciate and fine-tune more the relationships with the rest of our family by working really hard at this grandparent-child relationship.”