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Diplomatic Guide for Grandparents

Grandparents have a role in the lives of their grandchildren, but what exactly is that role? Let your adult children take the lead and discuss your expectations with them.

No One Can Exploit You Without Your Permission

Feel like you retired to a new career as babysitter? If you're putting your own life on hold and resenting every minute of it, the grandkids probably aren't seeing you at your best. It's time to talk with the parents. Better yet, talk about expectations before the child is born, says Bosak. "How involved do grandparents want to be? How involved do parents want the grandparents to be? See whether you can all start on the same page, and keep the lines of communication open as the grandchildren and relationships grow."

Gross rarely turns down an opportunity to babysit, but at the same time she is busy with her work as a personal historian. She and her husband own Legacy Prose, a service that turns personal narratives into memoirs in books and videos. "I've told my daughter-in-law that if there is an emergency, I'll drop anything because there's nothing more important to me than you and those kids. But if you'd just rather take one kid to the doctor and not drag the other one, I might say 'no.'"

Arthur Kornhaber, MD, is a psychiatrist, researcher, founder and president of The Foundation for Grandparenting in Ojai, Calif., and author of several books on intergenerational relationships. These include The Grandparent Guide, for grandparents, and The Grandparent Solution, for parents. On the foundation's web site, Kornhaber lists 20 questions to help grandparents understand and define their role. Among these are seven questions regarding the indirect relationship you have with your grandchild as a result of supporting the parents:

  • Have you talked with the parents about what kind of grandparent they would like for you to be for their child?
  • How you can be supportive of them?
  • Have you told them what kind of grandparent you would like to be?
  • Can you communicate openly and freely with them?
  • Can you listen to what they say with an open mind?
  • Are you making an effort to be up-to-date with parents and grandchildren, being familiar with the world they live in?
  • Is your advice well received?

These are questions that deserve to be revisited from time to time. Grandchildren get older, parents divorce, your financial situation changes -- multiple factors will affect the relationships, and your role will change based on your family's needs and your abilities.

Bosak says if there's one thing she would like to impress on parents and grandparents, it is, "If in doubt, listen. It takes empathy, skill, and self-control to listen well. Grandparents can take a leadership role in their family by demonstrating and modeling effective listening skills to deal with the inevitable family problems and differences in perspectives that come up. Don't rush in with advice, comments, or solutions, even if they seem obvious. Don't criticize, moralize, or psychoanalyze. Don't let emotion-laden words throw you. Focus your attention on the central ideas and feelings."

If building and sustaining these close relationships seem complicated, they are. But Bosak says it's all worthwhile, that intergenerational relationships are vitally important. "They make us feel connected not only to each other, but to something bigger, to the flow of life, to the past and to the future. You have to want to overcome the obstacles because you see that there is something bigger and more important at stake."

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