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R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Parents and Grandparents Are Confused About What it Means to Them

The conventional wisdom for grandparents is "Do not give unsolicited advice. Do not interfere." While there is a grain of truth in this counsel, it is not the whole loaf of bread.
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Does respect mean that grandparents must blindly follow parental instructions when they babysit? Are they supposed to just follow orders and check their hard-won parenting judgment at the door? Are grandparents being disrespectful when they modify their children's instructions? Do grandparents honor their adult children by keeping their mouth shut? Both generations could use some rethinking.

The conventional wisdom for grandparents is "Do not give unsolicited advice. Do not interfere." While there is a grain of truth in this counsel, it is not the whole loaf of bread.

Parents in our society have the right to decide how to raise their children. However, as any good boss knows, when delegating a task you get the best results when you also delegate responsibility. Interacting with babies and children does not always follow a script. Events happen, moods change. The variables are not constant. If a babysitter, whether they are a grandparent or a hired person, is to do a good job, they have to have leeway to use their judgment.

Respect is more than merely following orders. Respect is an interactive process that requires trust. Parents can provide guidelines but grandparents could use the flexibility to modify the instructions as needed. Rather than raging at grandparents if they do not follow directions to the letter, parents should want their parents to follow the spirit of their advice.

In response to a Slate article, Not Dead Yet, in which a grandparent turned on the TV to calm an hysterical baby, one reader commented:

I don't care if she raised 3 kids or none, or was a pediatric nurse or not. It does not give her the right to decide 50 years later that the latest research is crap, the parents are crazy and she'll do what she wants. It is the parents' decision how the children should be cared for and she should respect that.

Parents disrespect their own parents when they don't recognize that experience is worth something, and grandparents disrespect their kids when they forget that the parents have 24/7 responsibility for the grandchildren. The parents are the "deciders," but the grandparents can still be advisors. It seems simple, but all human relationships are complex. They need understanding, discussion and guidelines, not rigid rules. Besides, parents and grandparents model good communication skills for the grandchildren when they listen to each other and try to understand each other's behaviors.

Grandparents have the responsibility to tell their children in advance when they might need to deviate from the given instructions. For example, a grandparent might say to their adult children, "I'm happy to babysit all day, but I do need to put my feet up and relax at 5:00 p.m. I have downloaded Sesame Street to entertain your toddler for half an hour while I sit next to him." The parent can then decide if the free babysitting is worth a half hour of screen time.

Grandparents should inform the parents when they deviate from parental rules while babysitting. This allows the adult children to understand grandparental point of view. Honesty is also the foundation of trust and confidence in others. When parents accept these confessions without freaking out, wonderful discussions can ensue.

Studies about childrearing often enter the public arena in a very condensed form. For example, we hear that screen time is terrible for children and will fry their brains. But when you read the studies, they are actually more nuanced. Long stretches of screen time may result in problems, but a minute here or there to calm a child has not been proven to be damaging.

Grandparents have witnessed many swings in childrearing advice over the years. In my own case, my four children are 16 years apart top to bottom. I was liberated from slavishly following "expert" opinion because the advice conflicted over the years, which required me to use my own head. With my first child, the doctors recommended I nurse her for no more than five minutes at a time. By my fourth child, that instruction had gone out the window, so I nursed her as long as she seemed to need food. One of my children says the best advice I gave her was to listen to the expert advice but to also use her own instinct and judgment as well.

In addition, one mother cannot meet the needs of multiple children simultaneously. When my 6-year-old cut her lip, I had to assure the baby's safety by putting her in the playpen despite expert admonitions against limiting the baby's chances to explore. Her 10 minutes in the playpen do not seem to have been detrimental to her academic or career success.

On the other hand, sometimes there are studies which bring new knowledge that grandparents do need to follow religiously. It is not enough for grandparents to say "In my day..." Not everything from their days as parents still applies. Best practices change.

For example, in the past, parents were told to put babies to sleep on their stomachs. Current studies show that putting babies to bed on their backs reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Clearly, anything anyone can do to reduce the incidents of SIDS should be done, whether by grandparents or parents.

Grandparents cannot set aside the grain of salt with which they interpret expert advice. Spicing up advice with intelligence is good for both parents and grandparents. In fact, when grandparents do give advice, they should let their children know that they do not expect them to follow it unquestioningly. Rather, the adult children should consider the advice of others and create their own recipe for childrearing.