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The Informed Parent

When Grandparents Raise the Kids

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Apr. 01, 2002

Most of us know at least one family where the grandparents are the primary caregivers. Perhaps you are a grandparent who has assumed the role of parenting your grandchildren. The new data from the Census 2000 Supplementary Survey of 700,000 United States households shows that 2.3 million grandparents in our country have the primary responsibility for their grandchildren.

Some grandparents who have become parents face serious concerns such as their own declining health, lack of financial resources, and poor access to housing and medical care. Many have feelings of isolation and needs for child care and support systems. Most grieve, to some degree, their loss of freedom. Nearly all want information on current parenting practices including discipline and communication.

The world has changed radically between the time grandparents were raised and today. There are major societal differences from when grandparents raised their own children. These differences make relearning to parent difficult for many older people. This article focuses on how to bridge the communication gap that can occur between grandparents and their grandchildren.

  1. Listen. Don’t lecture. With their years of life and experiences, many older people like to share what they have learned with the younger generation. Unless done sensitively, this can come across as lecturing. To keep the doors of communication open, learn the skills of effective listening. Many articles in The Informed Parent archives will be helpful. Learn to hear and respond to the feeling behind the words that the child uses. For example, if a child says, “I hate school. My teacher’s a jerk,” what they may really be saying is, “The schoolwork is too hard, and I don’t understand when my teacher tells us what to do.” The feeling behind those words is one of discouragement or frustration. By addressing the feeling, you are likely to get a more accurate description of what is happening in the child’s life.
  2. Ask questions carefully. Effective questions show interest and elicit information. Often, however, questions do not result in constructive communication. They are disguised accusations or attempts to seek information that the child doesn’t know. For example, when someone says to a child, “Why did you...(break the dish, spill the milk, forget your homework),” they are setting themselves up for an unacceptable answer. Most of the time the child doesn’t know why he did whatever the infraction may be. So he makes up an answer that he thinks will appease the questioner. In a situation like the above, it is better to say, “I see that you broke the dish. I’d like you to clean up the mess with me. I know you’ll be more careful next time.” Avoid questions that start with why unless you are asking for factual information such as, “Why do birds migrate in the winter?” Many what questions are also useless in eliciting information. Asking a teenager “What time did you come in last night?” will probably result in an answer the teen thinks you want to hear. What questions are best used when a choice is being offered such as “What would you like to do on Saturday?”
  3. Watch your language and tone. Children are sensitive to language and tones of voice that are condescending. Use age appropriate words and phrases for the child, and speak in the tones of voice that you use with your peers.
  4. Stick to the here and now. It is tempting to tell children about how life was when you were young. Unless asked, avoid the temptation. It’s a sure way to lose children’s attention.
  5. Learn the jargon. While it’s inappropriate for those in the parenting role to use current kid and teen jargon in their own conversation, it is important to be aware of what some of the “in” words mean. Listen for the words that crop up in daily conversation, and find out their meaning.
    Recently I was talking with a seven-year-old who was in trouble at school. He had been sent to the office for “corn dogging” a boy at the drinking fountain. I had no idea what that meant. When I asked him, he looked at me like I was a very stupid old woman! “It’s when you hit the kid who’s in front of you with your knee in his butt.” He looked embarrassed. Had I known the term, I could have saved him his embarrassment.
  6. Resist rescuing. Caregivers don’t want to see their children hurting. It’s difficult not to try and soften or take their pain away. If you are raising your grandchild, this desire may be especially strong since he has already suffered the loss of a parent. Growing up is hard. Life brings many challenges. When your grandchild experiences adversity and you say, “It’s okay,” or “You’ll feel better soon,” or “Don’t worry,” it does not lessen the hurt. Instead the child feels like you don’t understand his situation. It is better to acknowledge what you see. Saying “I can see that you are sad,” or “It must have hurt when Susan said she’d call and didn’t,” supports the child. When he feels supported, he is more likely to accept your help in solving his problem.
  7. Show interest. Children want to talk about themselves and their lives. Showing genuine interest in what they want to tell you helps build powerful relationships. The more open and less judgmental you can be to what the children have to say, the more they talk. And the more they talk, the more you learn about them, their joys, their concerns, and their friendships.

Parents who are only one generation removed from their children can find it difficult to understand their offspring. For grandparents, who are two generations away from the children, the ability to understand is magnified. Many churches offer support groups for grandparents raising children. Most communities have programs provided through social service agencies. If you are a grandparent raising the kids, take advantage of whatever resources your community has to assist you. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Attend parenting classes to learn current best parenting practices. Invest in one or two good parenting books. Use the communication skills suggested in this article. Read The Informed Parent for current medical and parenting information. And perhaps most of all, acknowledge yourself daily for stepping into this role so that your grandchild has the security of knowing that he or she is loved and wanted.

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