This common advice for new grandparents might be wrong.
A few years ago, I joined a group of women for weekly walks along one of my favorite trails. Like any group of new acquaintances, we traded stories and talked about our families and daily lives. The conversation made the hours’ walk go quickly. Gloria was especially entertaining, as she could talk with little need for response.
One day, she recapped what she’d done the previous day as we were walking side-by-side through the eucalyptus trees. “George and I went out to dinner at Roberto’s. Have you been there? I love their food. We usually get there for the early bird special. I ordered the lasagna, and George ordered the steak. He’s such a creature of habit! But we had to leave before our dinners even came.”
“My gosh, what happened?” I started to say, but she was already explaining.
“My son called and asked us to go get our granddaughters from daycare so he could go to the gym after work. So we just told the waiter we couldn’t stay, and went to pick up the girls.”
“Didn’t you tell your son you were busy?” I wondered.
“Oh, no! We don’t want him to think we’re unreliable and then not let us take care of the girls!”
I hear stories like this all the time. One grandmother told me she was assigned a grandmother nickname she loathed, but went along with it because she didn’t want to rock the boat. Another cancelled a vacation for fear her daughter would find someone else to babysit if she missed one of her regular Tuesdays.
My heart aches for grandparents like these who have absorbed the message that they can’t express their own needs or feelings for fear they’ll be cut off from their grandchildren. In fact, one of the first pieces of advice prospective grandparents are given is to “just zip it.”
I respectfully disagree with the parenting experts who continue to tell grandparents that this is the way to harmony. I understand the dangers in grandparents criticizing and interfering. There are plenty of grandparents who have trouble relinquishing their lifetime of telling their children what to do. Grandparents do need to realize they aren’t in charge anymore. They often need to bite their tongue, but doesn’t mean never talking.
Can you think of any other relationship where the advice for getting along better is to communicate less?
There is a better way to be a loving grandparent and supportive partner to your grandchild’s parents: Establish a healthy, open dialog where everyone feels supported and understood.
Grandparents can be the leaders in this dialog. Before the baby is even born, ask questions that show you want to learn about your adult children’s plans and support their choices. (New Grandparent Essentials includes a guide to the most important questions to ask.) Share your own feelings and hopes about your role as a grandparent. Talk openly about boundaries and what to do if one of you feels they’ve been crossed.
But don’t just talk. Listen.
Actively listening is vital to good relationships. If you are truly listening, your grandchild’s parents will come away with a sense that what they have to say is important. They’ll know that you are a grandparent who wants to listen and learn. More than that, they will understand that they are of value. That builds trust, so that when you have something to say, they’ll know you are coming from a place of love and respect.
Just zipping it isn’t the answer to being a good grandparent. Talking and listening is.
How New Grandparents Can Avoid a Communication Breakdown
When Grandparents Don't Listen to Parents
Don’t Forget the Children