Grandparenting Etiquette (Part 1)

March 23, 2008

To provide a little perspective about my thoughts on the etiquette and strategy of grandparenting, I will start with our experiences with our mothers.

The Beginnings

When my we were a young married couple with a baby living in Los Angeles, both grandmothers were eager to babysit for us and take care of our little daughter. Grandpas were not much in the picture. My father was dead; my wife’s parents had long ago divorced.

We were uncomfortable with their grandmothering.

My wife’s mother

For one thing, my wife’s mother did not like the name we had given our child. She never said anything directly about it, but she came up with her own nickname and always used it instead of the name we had given our daughter. We felt naming our child was our prerogative, not grandma’s province. We felt grandma using a different name then the name we had chosen was a subtle passive-aggressive way of denigrating our choices and skills as parents.

Also, at times, we would come back from a night out and realize that the babysitting maternal grandma had been drinking. She was not drunk, but her speech was a little slurred. We were not especially pleased and felt reluctant to have grandma babysit.

My mother

My mother had all sorts of suggestions about how to raise and feed our child. My wife did not regard me as a sterling example of a successfully raised child. My wife did not know my father very well, as he had died before we really started going together, so the only visible person to blame for my deficiencies was my mother.

Also, after years of psychological abuse from my father, my mother had developed her own subtle, martyrly style of passive aggression. My wife is a fairly straightforward person; when she wants to be aggressive she doesn’t believe in diluting it with much passive. My mother irritated her immensely and my wife did not want the paternal grandma her influencing our child very much.

We move away

When I graduated from college and decided (unwisely, to be sure) to go to graduate school, I enrolled in the University of Washington. Our decision to move a thousand miles from Los Angeles was not based solely on a desire to put space between our child and her grandmothers, but it clearly played a significant role in our decision.

Mama and Mommy live close enough that we can visit them and they can visit us with a couple hours driving and a 25-minute ferry ride. (RG probably doesn’t care for the drive, but she considers the ferry ride a big treat.) Four other grandparents have to fly across the country to visit RG. The remaining grandma has to travel from Oregon.

We are grateful for their choices in geography. We don’t want to give then reason to reconsider.


7 Responses to “Grandparenting Etiquette (Part 1)”

  1. The whole grandparents-and-parenting thing can be a terrible knot to untie. Luckily, my mother’s mother lived in Canada, and my father’s parents really didn’t care whether I lived or died, so there wasn’t much interference from that sphere. Interestingly, my dad’s parents lived three blocks away from us during four of my formative years, but I hardly ever remember seeing them. I practiced the electric organ at their house before my Crazy Aunt bought me a piano, and I vaguely recall an old-fashioned telephone they had that I liked.

    As I’ve mentioned on my blog a few times, when I was 10, my parents basically went bankrupt due to my father’s drinking; he’d bought a rental house, unbeknownst to my mother, and they couldn’t afford that, especially when the real estate market crashed. At that time, my grandfather worked nights, so my mother would invite my grandmother over for dinner once or twice a week. I don’t remember her being at our house at all, but I’m told this is how it was. Anyway, when my parents went broke, my mother stopped inviting my grandmother over, because we couldn’t really afford food.

    One day my grandmother called my mother to ask why she never invited her over anymore. My mother, who had more pride than was good for her,and who hadn’t told anyone what was going on, briefly outlined the situation, though I think she stopped short of saying “Your manic-depressive alcoholic bastard asshole of a son has ruined my life.” However, she made it clear that the family was destitute, and that it was hard to invite people over for dinner when she had no idea where to find money for food, and had started cleaning people’s houses when I was at school just to get enough money to scrape by.

    My grandmother asked whether we needed any help.

    My mother said that anything she felt moved to do would be appreciated.

    The next day, my grandmother dropped off an envelope containing three coupons for ten cents off of Red Star Yeast.

    That was the kind of grandmother she was. It’s not too difficult to extrapolate what kind of parent she must have been.

  2. modestypress Says:

    A thought that occurred to me was to offer to trade grandparents. For some reason or other, I don’t think that would work. It might mess up the “salary cap” as they say in professional basketball.

    In baseball, trades are only allowed at certain times. There’s also something called “waivers” that gets in the way. I’ve never understood waivers. If anybody reading this does understand, please don’t explain them to me.

  3. modestypress Says:

    South Africa under apartheid was a terrible place. After white rule ended, much of the world expected a bloodbath. Although South Africa doesn’t sound like an entirely happy place (I’ve never been there myself), the changeover and aftermath could have been a lot worse.

    Whether the “not as bad as it might have been” is the result of South Africa avoiding “war crimes” trials; instead opting for a “Truth and Reconciliation” Commission, I don’t know. Some think so.

    Probably half the families in America could benefit from having Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. This would be a little different than psychotherapy or family therapy.

    David, could you and I earn some money by holding multi-generation Truth and Reconciliation Commissions?

    In any case, as a parent and grandparent, I try to live in such a way that children and grandchildren feel no need for such events in their lives.

  4. Vicky Says:

    When my husband and I were newly married (will be 35 years tomorrow!) I suggested to him that we move a few hours away from our families. We never did and I guess I would say it’s worked out ok overall and I’m glad that our children had their grandparents involved in their lives. There were times when the grandmas especially tended to be a bit too interfering but were good about backing off when they knew I was becoming irritated. I try to always remember how it felt to be a young parent when I’m dealing with my son and his children.

    I’m probably a bit “blind” but I think for the most part, my husband and I have developed a good balance between the involvement, which is consistent and regular, in our grandchildren’s lives, but backing off and keeping our hands off when it comes to decision making etc. When we’re asked for advice, which the adult kids do, we’re happy to give it but don’t insist or push.

  5. modestypress Says:


    Every family situation is different. I can barely figure out mine, if that, so I am most reticent to say much about anybody else’s, especially someone I barely know through the Internet. I state some themes, and describe experiences I’ve had, and how I dealt with them. If my experiences and observations resonate with yours, and provide some interest and amusement and perhaps a tiny useful glimmer of insight or two, I am glad. I comment on other’s experiences most cautiously.

    Your description of your family experiences as a young parent and now as a grandparent sound as if you have navigated the shoals of parenting and grandparenting fairly well. Cautious Congratulations.

  6. David Says:

    Mr. R — That’s not a bad idea for a moneymaking scheme. Getting participation,though, might be difficult. Those who need it most would want it least, as is often the case with anything helpful. It’s definitely the case with helpful things that I want people to do.

  7. David Says:

    I’ve seen this before, but it still amuses me:

    David Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    That isn’t, actually, what I’m saying. Not here, at least. I say that on my own site.

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