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The good grandparenting guide

The good grandparenting guide

When your children have children of their own you enter an exciting new stage in your life. Ideally, there should be a subtle change from a child/adult relationship to one of adults supporting one another. But it's not always this easy.

Suddenly, your children are the adults, and one of the keys to great grandparenting is learning to support your children as they raise their own. For some, this means lending a hand with practical help, or offering a sympathetic ear. In other cases, grandparents take a very active role caring for their grandchildren on a regular basis.

While there's no right or wrong way to do things, it is worth remembering that parents today always respond better to an approach that doesn't lecture, but subtly 'suggests'. They are surrounded by lots of choices and can get their information from many different sources ??far more than were available 20 or 30 years ago.

You'll keep things sweet ??and see more of your grandchildren - if you can keep the kids thinking you're a great person to turn to for guidance and advice.

Clever strategies

  • Never tell your children how to parent. Offer encouragement, but leave it to them to make the decisions.
  • If they ask your advice, suggest options, but don't weight the one YOU'D chose too heavily
  • Give your children extra time to be with a new baby by helping them with practical things: cooking, cleaning, laundry or running errands.
  • Sometimes the reverse works better ??offer to sit and hold the baby so they can get on and do things about the house without having to worry.
  • Offer to buy a piece of equipment for the baby and, if you can manage it, buy something similar for you to keep at home for visits. The parents will really appreciate not having to lug half their home over to you each time they come to stay. And the baby/toddler will love seeing something familiar in your home.
  • Offer to babysit on a regular basis (if you're not already helping out with childcare), so the parents get a break.
  • When you stay, be prepared to get up early with the baby. You might enjoy your lie-ins but your son or daughter won't be having a lie-in for many years to come, and this could be precious bonding time for you and baby alone.
  • If distance is an issue, come and stay for a few days at a time, although not at first (see below). When children are a little older, offer to come and collect them for a night's sleepover or a weekend at your place. It will give the parents time off and they'll love you for it.

What the expert says

Leading obstetrician, Dr Yehudi Gordon - author of Birth And Beyond (Vermilion) - says: 'There is a very special bond between children and their grandparents, who hold promise and mystery, hide a wealth of surprises in their pockets, offer warm embraces and allow secret treats. Even tiny babies recognise the unique quality of a grandparent's love.

However, even in the sunniest of parent-child relationships there may be differences of opinion. Grandparents ??most often it's grandmothers ??can have difficulty settling in to an advisory role, particularly if this is the first grandchild. The line between advice and criticism can be thin, and your parents may find it hard to be sensitive and sit back as you find your feet.'

Childcare choices

Before you decide what sort of childcare will suit you best, go through all the options. If your parents are still young, they might like to get involved - it's cheaper and often more reassuring if granny is looking after your one and only. A few big employers, such as hospitals and government offices, offer workplace cr癡ches, which are good value for money and have the added benefit of enabling you to pop down to see your child during your lunch break. Childminders and daycare nurseries are cheaper than nannies but may not offer your child one-to-one care, which you may feel your baby needs, particularly when so small.

Once you have decided what childcare arrangements you are going to use, you could spend time with the new carer before you have to leave for work so you get used to another person looking after your baby. You could leave the baby for an hour or so with the new carer while you go to get your hair cut, go shopping or pamper yourself by having a massage or a beauty treatment.

Above all, don't feel guilty. Remember that few things in life are perfect, whether you stay at home full-time or go out to work. But many mothers do go out to work because they share the financial responsibility of running the home with their partner and for other reasons; social contact, mental stimulation, career and whether a woman wants to be with her children all the time. Many women find the whole subject confusing and fraught with anxiety. If you talk about your feelings with your partner or a trusted friend, things may become a little clearer so you can feel confident about your decision.

Childcare tips

Keep to the baby's established routine, but feel free to introduce activities that can become special to you as grandparent:

  • story time
  • making music together
  • cooking
  • swimming
  • arts and crafts

The level of your involvement will, of course, depend on the age of the baby or toddler.

Keeping things sweet

Be very sensitive. One thing is for sure ??things are not the same for your daughter or daughter-in-law as they were for you. There may be (many!) times when you think you know better but NEVER say so. There will be many times when you can clearly see the mistakes the younger generation are making, and you'll be desperate to jump in and prevent them from failing, but you'll have to bite your lip. It's their turn now. Don't forget the impact of raging hormones and sleepless nights. The combination can transform even the most innocuous conversation into a bitter row. Tread very gently during the early weeks and months. Most new mothers will be uncertain about how to do things and will be continually finding their own way ??making mistakes as they go. The last thing they need is what might be regarded as meddling.

And while it may seem hugely important to you that you are there either at the birth or shortly after, never assume. Ask what works for them. For many daughters, it's a wonderful thing to share the birth of their child with their mother ??but perhaps not the mother-in-law. No matter how close you think you are, a daughter may not be able to communicate with her mother-in-law in the same way she would her mother.

If she's having a c-section, you may be useful keeping the home (cleaning, keeping up with the ironing) while she's in hospital, or perhaps waiting until she gets out of hospital, and offering your services as a home help and baby cuddler then. Discuss the options and do whatever suits THEM best.
If the new mother feels at all anxious about having you over, then you've defeated the purpose of visiting. She won't be ready to 'entertain', so wait until she's had a chance to be with the baby and set up her own system before she starts making you cups of tea.

Never lose sight of the power of communication. If you sense your relationship is coming adrift, talk, talk, talk.

Grandparents as childcare

This may be new territory for you and requires careful handling.

STEP 1: Ground rules. If you're asked by your children to help out on a regular basis, find out what they want you to do and for how long. Is it for several days a week or every Thursday because they're going back to work and need regular childcare? Is it just to give them a break now and then?
They may not have thought it out properly, but by being clear at this stage, it will help both of you by setting up a structured support system, with less chance of crossed wires or resentment on either side. Also, if you are to share the childcare with the other grandparents, offer to meet up separately, so you can sort it out between you and not make it a tug of love for your children.

STEP 2: Payment. This depends on your particular circumstances and whether you have sole charge or shared with other grandparents. Some grandparents feel it's their pleasure to be able to have their grandchildren all to themselves on a regular basis and wouldn't dream of asking or accepting any money for it. Others find a babysitting 'salary' helps keep the work on a more professional basis. If you haven't discussed it with your children, but could use the extra money, suggest a 'kitty' that could cover expenses. This makes it easier for both of you. A kitty could simply be thought of as a way of paying for incidentals ??extra nappies, helping stock up with groceries, paying for petrol if the car's running low, and so on. But it also allows money to change hands without either party feeling awkward. If you both seriously want to enter into a formal arrangement, the best way to do this is by finding out the going rate in your area.

Otherwise, ask other parents what they pay, or ring a nanny agency or a local childminder. Then, use that information to work out the pay. It's probably a good idea, even if you're not paid, to talk about your childcare as if it were a day job. This way, you're meeting expectations on both sides: you children won't be asking you to do something you don't or can't do and you won't be promising more than you can deliver.

STEP 3: Routine. Depending on the age of the baby, find out what his/her routine is like. Ask questions about what the baby normally does during the day, so you can follow a pattern the mother has set and also get an idea of how your day will run. No matter how much you disapprove, don't try to impose your own regime without gently, and encouragingly, discussing it first. (Some mums may welcome your input on establishing routines, others may bitterly resent the implication that you know better). While much of this is commonsense and, after all, it's not the first time you've done this, your children will really appreciate you asking rather than telling them.

Childcare tips

  • Don't forget the practicalities ??the equipment available now is much faster and more efficient and you probably need a quick lesson in how to use it all e.g. fitting car seats.
  • Keep the lines of communication open the whole time. Never assume. Always ask.