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April 10, 2011 11:30 AM   Subscribe

What's the deal with grandkids?

Now that I have small children of my own, I am wondering what it is about grandkids that has turned our parents into these doting folks I don't recognize. I mean, they were great people already, it's just that... they seem to be different from how they were as parents. I guess kids change everybody; my spouse and I have changed, too. Aside from the old saw "spoil 'em and give 'em back when you are tired," what is the grandparent experience really like?
posted by Knowyournuts to Human Relations (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Margaret Mead wrote that grandchildren and grandparents get along so well because they have a common enemy.
posted by jasper411 at 11:40 AM on April 10, 2011 [95 favorites]

I don't know how old your child(ren) is/are, but I think that it can be exhausting being a parent sometimes. You don't just get to indulge your kids 24/7 and have fun. You have to provide structure, consistency, guidance, sometimes dole out consequences for certain behaviors. And that part of parenting can seem like Groundhog's Day...you don't just remind your child to flush the toilet, or wash their hands, or pick up their coat once. It's over and over and over again. It can also be wonderful and fun and silly. But you never forget that you are responsible for setting a certain example, providing healthy boundaries, etc.

But I can imagine that being a grandparent is different. You don't have to do all of that parenting work, you can say "yes" to super sugary cereal for breakfast if it's at your house, you can relax more and not have to be "the responsible one" all of the time. Your kids are now the parents and they have to do all of the work stuff. You just get to enjoy.
posted by jeanmari at 11:53 AM on April 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Bill Cosby asked the same question. :) I remember this from my childhood...

Seriously, I think that jeanmari has it right.
posted by patheral at 11:57 AM on April 10, 2011

The last time my 3.5 year old granddaughter spent the night, my husband said "She didn't eat ANY vegetables during the time she was here." (half-day Saturday, spent the night, half-day Sunday.) This was after years of making sure my kids always had healthy meals and something green at every meal. My answer was "That's not my responsibility any longer, if she wants to eat french fries every meal for two days, I don't have to worry about it." So, I get to have fun every minute without thinking about her manners, her eating habits, her proper language use, or even whether her hair needs washed. I had a wonderful grandmother who never judged, love me unconditionally, and was always in my corner. I hope I can give my grandchildren that gift. I put in my time doing the hard work of being a parent, and now I get to have FUN!
posted by raisingsand at 12:29 PM on April 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Grandparents: they come. They shower the grandkids with love and badmouth the parents. Then they leave--in short, they have a great time and get out before it gets tiresome, annoying, boring, irksome. See how many could do it (at their age) 7 days a week, 15 hours per day.
posted by Postroad at 12:33 PM on April 10, 2011

I'm a grandmother.

The thing about grandkids is that by the time you get them you have perspective on your own early childrearing years. Plus, the responsibility for socializing the little heathens lies on your children, not you. You get to have fun, love on them, spoil them, then HAND THEM BACK.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:34 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Most grandparents are old. And old people have seen it all. There were a lot of stressful moments raising their own kids, but it all worked out ok in the end. So now they don't sweat the small stuff as much.

Or at least that was my experience. While my mom worried that I would fail elementary school because my handwriting was too messy and I hadn't learned cursive yet, my grandma knew that it was just a stage that would be one of many.
posted by wansac at 12:45 PM on April 10, 2011

Grandparents and non-custodial parents often have similar deals. The kids don't spend every day with them, so they aren't the person who drags them out of bed, makes them eat proper foods, makes them go to school, makes them do their homework, makes them do household chores, and punishes them for not doing these things. There is no ongoing feud over the daily crap.

No, as part-timers, grandparents and non-custodial parents don't have to make the kids do anything, or not much, and therefore have no reason to punish them for anything and no reason to get angry. They have limited time together, so they determinedly enjoy the kids during the hours they have them. They don't know or don't care about the rules they have to follow with Sgt Mom. The kids often love spending time with them because grandparents and non-custodial parents are a break from reality.

But then it's a relief for grandparents and non-custodial parents when the kids go back to their reality. Maybe a little sad, but taking care of kids is hard work, especially when you're older, and it's nice to not have that hard work hanging over you all the time.
posted by pracowity at 12:59 PM on April 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yep, exactly what everyone above has said. It's unconditional love without the fulltime job of trying to guide these little people into growing into responsible wise human beings.

My parents see my kids a lot - we visit them every couple of days if not more frequently, occasional sleepovers, childminding while I do 'grownup' stuff. The kids get soft drink and icecream whenever they want it, without me sternly asking just how much sugar do they think they need in a day. It's a poorly-kept secret that when I'm not around, dinner may well be fruit chunks dipped in melted chocolate. (And that was breakfast more than once too, I'll wager.) Their grandfather helps them build things like go-karts and birdhouses that, as a single mum, I simply don't have time to do.

They have fun together without any of the day-to-day drudgery of homework, regular bedtimes, rules and restrictions. My mother has a fridge magnet that says "If I'd known how much fun grandchildren are, I'd have had them first".

That said, there have been times when my mother has muttered quietly "are you going home soon, the noise is driving me mad!".

posted by malibustacey9999 at 1:49 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

My mom says it's a combination of what has already been said: the fun without the full responsibility, and the recognition, from having raised your own kids, that a lot of what you fretted and fussed about turned out not to matter at all in the long term.
posted by not that girl at 2:00 PM on April 10, 2011

I noticed that before I had a baby, I wanted to hold my friends' babies and cuddle them and coo and change diapers and get all my BABY on. After I had a baby, I was still delighted for my friends who had babies -- probably more deeply delighted now that I understood it through experience -- but I could happily lounge in the corner and never hold a baby. I was spending all day holding my own. I wanted a baby break. I find my friends' kids who are not the same age as mine more interesting, because they do novel (to me) things that mine doesn't do.

I think part of the fun of grandparenting is you have all those years AWAY from the 24/7-ness of a baby (or a child), so all those baby things are charming again instead of tiring. Changing two dozen diapers is much less of a big deal than changing 200. And walking a colicky infant for a couple hours every evening for a long weekend is VERY DIFFERENT than doing it every. single. night. for weeks and months on end. Even when grandparents are pitching in for some day-to-day care, I think the distance from the grind of it makes it more ... not even fun, necessarily, but bearable. That plus the knowledge you get to give it back. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:47 PM on April 10, 2011

God's way of balancing the need in a child for structure and boundaries with the need for unconditional love. My cousins turned out to be worthless, crazy bastards because they were adopted by doting people in their '50s who didn't give them the former; I was often glad as a child to get (and am glad that my children get) the latter.

In more psychological terms, they can do it for the same reason we find it easier to be nice to our friends than our spouse sometimes - we don't have to live with them.
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:03 PM on April 10, 2011

So it seems like there are two main factors:

1. Grandparents have whole-childhood perspective that the parents don't yet have.
2. Hanging out with the little ones for a short time can be more fun than taking care of them all day and all night and being the disciplinarian.

But does this explain why many would-be grandparents are so excited when their grown children are expecting a baby? (Or why they keep asking when you're going to give them grandchildren?) Just that it's fun? Is there any feeling of "this is my legacy" that I have when I look at my kids?
posted by Knowyournuts at 4:01 PM on April 10, 2011

Is there any feeling of "this is my legacy" that I have when I look at my kids?

Of course there is!

Parents raise children to be adults. Hopefully relatively good and responsible ones who are happy and to some degree functioning members of society.

The greatest validation, I imagine, that someone's parenting worked is seeing the product of their parenting parent. Clearly, this is simplistic and applies to primarily functional relationships, and of course grown children will parent their own children differently from how they were parented.

There is probably also some subconscious thought of, "My gosh! I've lived long enough to see grandchildren! Maybe I'll live to see great-grandchildren!"
posted by zizzle at 4:20 PM on April 10, 2011

My wife and I control our 2-year-old's diet fairly strictly when it comes to sweets. No cookies, no ice cream, candy, etc. We figure eventually he'll be eating all that stuff, but it's best for now to instill a sense of what real food is.

For his second birthday, we went to my mom and dad's place for the party, and I half-jokingly said that my son could have some pancakes instead of a real cake. My mother was appalled. "That boy is having CAKE," she declared. And he did, his first sugary cake with icing and everything.

My father plays with my son, rolling around on the floor, making funny faces and songs, etc. My mother remarked that he (my father) never did that nearly as much when I was a baby. So apparently being a grandfather brings out his inner silly.
posted by zardoz at 5:08 PM on April 10, 2011

I think there's another factor for some people: my mother, for example, is AWESOME with babies and preschoolers. She is just like another person with them. This is the case whether it is a random baby she meets on the street, her neighbour's kid, or a relative.

She sucks at interacting with anyone (including adults) over the age of about 8. So most of my childhood memories of her parenting are not... fun. (The few memories I have from when I was really little, on the other hand, are lovely).

So I imagine that if I had kids, she'd be a wonderful grandmother - for the first few years anyway. And I'd be all, damn, why is she grandparenting so wonderful when she kind of sucked as my parent? But the answer would mainly be to do with the way we remember more recent experiences better than older ones.
posted by lollusc at 5:37 PM on April 10, 2011

Before I was a parent, I didn't understand how deeply my parents loved me. Once I became a parent, my whole perspective changed. I was overwhelmed by my love of my children, and I realized how much my parents must have loved me (including my mom, who died when I was 13 years old).

Now, I love my two kids a whole heckuva lot, and I also realize that they will be totally clueless about this. They'll love me, sure. But they won't really understand what I'm feeling.

I'm looking forward to being a grandparent because I'll love my grandkids, but I also want my kids to understand what it is to be a parent. I want them to have the joy of being parents and I want to share that experience with them. I also want them to know how much I love them, and maybe the only way they'll understand that is to have kids of their own who they love as hopelessly as I love them.
posted by alms at 6:29 PM on April 10, 2011 [11 favorites]

With parenting, I have to consider which actions and words are going to affect the way my children will grow up, perceive me, perceive adults as a whole, and generally be worried about every action I take and word that I say. I have to punish them when they are bad, and reward them when they do well. I have to instill a moral code that is top-notch and hope they are generally intelligent and good people. Also, being a parent, they have no "on" and "off" button - my kids never shut off and don't have volume control.

But I look forward to the grandparent stage. We are going to have ice cream for breakfast and then play M-rated games, then go to movies and goof off all day. I can spoil them rotten without consequence, and I can complain about arthritis or my back and have someone else take them for a while if they are driving me nuts. I can say inappropriate jokes and have everyone chalk it up to senility.

It is a whole other mindset.
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 7:06 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing I've observed with my mom is that having babies around who look a lot like HER babies, all grown up, taps her into a certain euphoric recall. The grandchildren seem to reconnect her to the innocence and wonder of her kids as children. So there's that.
posted by mynameisluka at 7:30 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

But does this explain why many would-be grandparents are so excited when their grown children are expecting a baby?

It's a bit like asking why so many parents think having a baby is great. People want to reproduce, to watch the family line carry on, to see a little bit of themselves and their own parents go on into the future. It's a natural force.

You have babies, but you hope like hell that isn't the end of the line: you have babies who will have babies who will have babies...
posted by pracowity at 8:29 PM on April 10, 2011

i would like to add to this that my own mother apologized deeply and profusely to my brother for spoiling the living crap out of his young son. she then said that despite the apology—because she knew it ran counter to our upbringing—it was just the way things were going to be. tough crap.

everyone seems okay with the arrangement as long as they know what cards are in the other player's hand.
posted by patricking at 11:14 PM on April 10, 2011

One thing I've observed with my mom is that having babies around who look a lot like HER babies, all grown up, taps her into a certain euphoric recall. The grandchildren seem to reconnect her to the innocence and wonder of her kids as children.

Yes, this is true for both my mother and mother-in-law (our son is a carbon copy of my husband, our first daughter of me, so they each have something to work with).

I mean, imagine loving something as thoroughly as you love your baby, then losing it (to normal childhood aging), and then someday YOU GET IT BACK. That's pretty powerful stuff.
posted by palliser at 5:11 AM on April 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Besides the wider perspective and the fun of "spoil 'em and give 'em back," it seems that a lot of people see grandchildren as second chances, another shot to do something right.

My youngest daughter is the spitting image of my mother, right down to the tip of her nose and her fingernails. And, like my mother, my daughter is a hard-core tomboy. In fact, since she got her new "Bieber-do" haircut, she is often mistaken for a boy. But when my mom was growing up in the 50s, her family made it very clear that her preferences for jeans and short hair and playing in dirt were not ok. To this day, she believes that her problems with depression, anxiety, and OCD stem from this issue.

Last week, when my kid stepped through my mom's front door, wearing jeans and her Iron Man t-shirt, carrying her skateboard and rockin' the new haircut, my mom burst into tears. She told me that her grandchildren were vindication for her - proof that she was a good person and had been a good mom.
posted by SamanthaK at 7:55 AM on April 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

I am not anywhere near becoming a grandparent (DO YOU HEAR THAT, TEENAGE BOYS WHO LIVE WITH ME? NO GRANDCHILDREN!) but two of my favorite young couples are about to have their first babies and I am salivating at the prospect of babysitting. We talked about this the other night, and when one of them joked about "you'll get to fill them with sugar and send them home" I realized, that's not really it. I think it's that, because I'll love them to pieces but they're not mine, it means I don't have to worry about them. Loving your children is a complex, scary thing, and worry for their well-being is an essential component of that love. Every decision you make* has consequences and you're the one who has to answer for them. It's a tremendous responsibility!

What these future niece/nephew-ish-types will eat at my house will be meals and snacks, but what they eat at home will formulate their lifelong relationship with food. The amount of TV they watch or dirt they ingest or sleep they get at my house will be things they can go home and recover from, but the amount of those things they do at home will help form their habits and inform their interactions with others. And because I absolutely adore these future babies' parents (WHO ARE NOT MY CHILDREN; IT IS NOT OK FOR MY CHILDREN TO GIVE ME BABIES TO PLAY WITH, DO YOU HEAR THAT, CHILDREN?), I'm going to love doing what I can to make their kids happy.

*It helps too, having raised kids, to know that not every decision actually is fraught with consequence and meaning. Most decisions really aren't, and since parents don't realize that until their job is mostly done, it's nice for them to get a second chance with grandkids. I look forward to being much more chill with my pseudo-grandkids than I have been with my kids.
posted by headnsouth at 8:14 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

My mother was a pretty strict parent who (I thought) kept my sister and I on a tight leash. Now that my sister has kids, she is a super-fun, relaxed grandmother who lets the kids do pretty much whatever they want (they are 3 and 4). One Christmas, shortly after she gave my one-year-old niece a ceramic santa to chew on, my brother-in-law dubbed her "the weakest link" in the parenting chain.

I think the change is definitely due to the fact that she is not the primary caregiver, and does not have to deal with the discipline or the fights in the same way that she did with her own kids. I also think that after raising 2 fairly successful, happy daughters, she is less fearful and self-doubting that she'll do something wrong.
posted by elvissa at 9:50 AM on April 12, 2011

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