“Nana’s and Papa’s- There’s a whole lot of spoiling going on!”- Doormat in a mail order catalogue
“One more no and I’m going to Grandma!”- Onesie in a gift shop window
“If Mom and Dad say no, go to Grandma!”- Bumper sticker on an RV
“Agenda for the day: Sugar the grandkids up and send them home to mom and dad.”- Another door mat
“Grandchildren are the reward you get for not killing your children.” – License plate frame
“A parent’s job is to discipline and critique. A grandparent’s job is to spoil and coddle.”- Facebook meme
…And I could go on and on with examples of paraphernalia extolling the grandparents’ role in spoiling their grandchildren. The idea that parents do the “dirty work” of raising children while grandparents get to do all the fun stuff has definitely taken hold in 21st century America. I have heard some grandparents say that being a grandparent is better than being a parent because you don’t have to do the discipline and diapers and can just have fun spoiling the grandchildren. I have been told to my face that some day, I will be lucky enough to be a grandparent and then I’ll finally be able to have fun.
Sometimes it seems as though I am surrounded by messages that my job as a parent is thankless drudgery and that if I can keep my kids alive and out of jail long enough, one day I will be able to reach a state of nirvana called grandparenthood where I can dole out endless treats and gifts and finally receive some adoration.
But I really have to disagree with this idea of both parenthood and grandparenthood. And I think it hurts everyone involved.
Obviously, this concept of parenthood hurts parents by undermining their authority and demeaning the importance of the role of parents in their children’s lives and society at large. The idea that “if Mom and Dad say no, go to Grandma/Grandpa”, really undermines parents’ authority to raise their children. It’s actually a very subversive idea that the grandparents are entitled to get the last say in what happens to a child based on their desire to win the child’s affections in the moment. In the worst cases, this can turn into a competition of parent and grandparent trying to win over the child. I hear people complain that the Women’s Liberation Movement demeaned motherhood by focusing on how restrictive it is for women and that being a homemaker wastes a woman’s talents, but is the narrative that parenthood in general amounts to “being the bad guy”while Grandma and Grandpa should be the ones to have all the fun really any better?
This mentality also hurts the kids. The kids start thinking of grandparents as vending machines rather than family members. It reinforces the idea that love can be bought. And “spoiling” in the sense of giving children anything they want without regard for rules, boundaries, consequences or behavior is actually extremely hurtful to children. It feels good in the moment, but ultimately it cripples them by giving them an unrealistic view of how life works. The reality check will come some day, and when it does, it will be brutal.
And… it hurts the grandparents too. Really, it does. When you tell someone you’re just there for the good times and don’t want to be bothered with any of the “messy stuff” like reinforcing good behavior or passing on good values, don’t expect them to be ecstatically grateful when you suddenly start doling out unsolicited advice. Also, if the grandparents’ version of “spoiling” leads to too much trouble or undermines the way the parents are trying to bring up the children, the parents may start enacting more supervision on the grandparents as well as the children. Ultimately, children won’t love their grandparents any better if the grandparents hold the children to a low (or no) standard of behavior. And grandparents who dare to tread in that territory can only expect that their grandchildren will return such low standards with disrespect.
I also disagree with the idea that it’s Grandma and Grandpa who should get to have all the fun with the kids. I support healthy intergenerational relationships. We’ve had some especially fun times with my dad taking the boys and my husband and me to airshows, museums and planetariums. (Actually, I really like that my dad likes to hang out with me and my husband and not just our kids.) There’s nothing wrong with the grandparents sending presents for Christmas and birthdays and having special outings with the grandkids. But I also believe that as a parent, that it is my right to judiciously give my children special and fun things and experiences.
We’ve taken our kids to the zoo, park, movies, museums, and made dinner around the campfire singing “Country Roads Take Me Home” in the shadow of the mountains. My husband is a sucker for giving our boys building sets and puzzles which they will delve into with wild abandon. (I found the trick for keeping my blood pressure down when dealing with all the little pieces was to institute a nightly pick-up routine.) I love to make healthy desserts and my boys love to eat them. My husband reads stories every night to the boys before bed.
Yes, we break up fights, change diapers and potty train, face the deluge of bath night, the screams from nail trimming sessions, and answer endless questions from our ultra-inquisitive six year old. And yes, there are days when I want to lock myself in the bathroom and hope that no one will find me while I eat an entire dark chocolate bar and take a long epsom salt bath with lavender essential oil. (That has not happened yet. They always find me. Always. Especially if chocolate is involved.)
But there’s something about all the work that has its rewards. Like when our three year old announced he needed to go potty before he’d actually done anything. We’re talking about moving him into underwear. Underwear! After having a moment straight out of Inside Out where we had to “put the foot down” with our six year old, he is doing his physical therapy exercises pretty consistently and with a good attitude. It’s those moments that make it all worth it. Those are the moments when I think, “Maybe those sixty-something strangers in the grocery store who keep telling us we are good parents are actually right!” I guess you could say that I’m a believer in “no pain, no gain”. I don’t think it’s possible to have a meaningful relationship with a child without enforcing some boundaries and rules.
We really may be the first culture in recorded history to hold that the role of grandparents is to be free from the responsibilities of family and community. Historically, grandparents took on greater responsibilities within their communities as their children grew and “left the nest”. They became the wise women and village elders, passing on traditions and knowledge, mentoring young people as they took on the mantle of parenthood. In fact, anthropologists now think that the rise of grandparents in ancient human populations may have been crucial to humans ability to survive and thrive in the ancient world. The experience of the older generation, such as what plants to eat or avoid and how to find water in a drought would have contributed to the clan’s survival.
It’s also likely that humans’ technological developments such as basket weaving and tool-making were products of the experience that grandparents could pass on to their children and also grandchildren. They could also increase the odds of survival for family members by supplying additional support and help for parents and children in their clans.
Maybe it’s time to kick it old school and return to that model. Get rid of all the cutesie onesies and bumper stickers extolling grandparenthood without any responsibilities. I think we need more mentors, village elders and wise women for our children and less spoiling. After all, imagine what our movies would be like if we expected the same standard from our Jedi masters and starship captains as we currently do from grandparents.