Ellen Pober Rittberg, a grandmother, attorney, and former law guardian in New York family, supreme, and surrogate's court, is the author of 35 Things Your Teen Won't Tell You, So I Will (Trade Paper Press), from which this excerpt is adapted.
What a great time to be a grandparent (as if there were ever a bad time)! We are probably the only generation that actually likes some of the same music our grandchildren like. We can also approach our grandkids with far more delicacy and subtlety than their parents, who, despite the yeoman effort they may be giving to the task of raising teens and tweens, may often not be as effective as we can be in reaching their children. Why? Because we've been there. We've done that. And we have lived to tell the tale, none the worse for wear. And because a grandparent's love is a different kind of love than a parent's. It's sweeter and, dare I say it, purer.
Following are eight of my 35 rules for raising teens, specially adapted for grandparents.
"Be interested in what interests me."
Teens often feel their parents don't understand them, because they don't. We grandparents, having raised teens, possibly understand them better than their parents, and we know, thanks to our unique position, what we need to steer them away from and what we can nudge them toward. If our grandkids have an interest we're concerned is not good for them — say, violent video games — there's lots we can do. We can try to interest them in a better hobby or buy them nonviolent games. And if we can afford to pay for something that might have a more positive influence (even drum lessons!) or some other activity involving live people who don't hurt each other, then we should do it.
"Use your disappointment on me."
If tweens and teens have a good relationship with their parents, then when they foul up royally, they are usually upset about what they've done — but it's after the fact. But if they have good relationships with us, then when they are just contemplating doing something hugely bad, their fear of having to face Grammie, Papi, or Zayde may be enough to deter them. Which is a good thing. A really good thing.
"We are sneaky. Yes, all of us."
We grandparents know this because we've lived through the sneakiness and the whoppers and the fish tales of our own children. But some parents today are convinced that their kids would never lie to them. My kids once threw a party at my house when Grandma was supposed to be watching them. How did they do it? They bamboozled her into believing that they had made arrangements to sleep at friends' houses with adequate parental supervision. Their grandma bought it and because she did, this one won't.
"Give me rules, and enforce them."
If you are watching your grandkids at their house, know what the house rules are and stick with them. If their parents haven't given them any rules, then when you are there, put into place the rules you think are appropriate, and when the parents return, lobby for them to continue enforcing those rules, especially the ones that keep the house from looking like a gerbil cage. The no-eating-outside-the-kitchen rule makes a huge difference, as does the no-dishes-left-in-the-sink rule.
"Encourage me to participate in sports."
If your own child didn't participate in sports, he or she may be under the misapprehension that sports are of little or no value in their children's lives. Or maybe your grandkids don't take part in sports because their school district has cut its budget for extracurriculars. But, by definition, an idle teen is not a good thing. If your grandchildren don't have other well-developed interests or extracurriculars to fill up their afternoons, I can think of no better activity than a sport to get them out of the house and active. Do what you can to help them find an outlet.
"Subsidize me at your peril."
Grandparents are notorious for spoiling grandkids. If you have enough disposable income to spend on your teenage grandchildren, just make sure you are not really disposing of it. By that I mean it's much better to spend on an activity you and your grandchild can do together, or on lessons to support a hobby, than to give in to frivolous requests for things a teen doesn't really need. Help the kids become thoughtful consumers by saying no once in a while.
"Notice if I'm in trouble."
Parents are so busy today, either because both work or because one is a single parent, that they sometimes miss important signs of trouble, like kids flying out of the house at breakneck speed to avoid mom and dad, or red eyes or declining hygiene. If you live nearby or visit often, you can pitch in in so many meaningful ways and keep a keen eye on things. A grandparent's radar may be more sensitive than a parent's, which can be less effective because of lack of experience, or as I mentioned, lack of time.
"At some point, I will screw up."
We may be able to fathom some of the ways our grandkids can screw up because we raised their parents to adulthood. We may not exactly know the ways our grandkids may go astray, but we accept it as a given that they will at some point, and when they do, we can deal with it differently than parents, who tend to take mistakes far more personally and with more anger. Parents see foul-ups as a breach of trust or as a basic shortcoming in a teen's character — which most of the time they aren't. We know that teens just do what normal teens do because of their lack of maturity or their underdeveloped judgment. So we are more moderate in our judgments. We may not like what they do, but we understand. And we can help.
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