When Jenny Machala left her toddler son in her father’s care, she knew her dad would respect Ethan’s boundaries. Unfortunately, this meant that when Ethan didn’t wish to have his dirty diaper changed, his diaper remained unchanged for four hours. Hello, butt rash. “My parents are hippies,” says Machala, now the mother of three in Manhattan Beach, Calif. “They don’t place a high value on authority. If Ethan didn’t want his space violated, my father wasn’t going to violate it.” On the other hand, she adds, “There’s a mutual respect and love that my kids share with their grandparents. I wouldn’t want to change that.”
Although the myth of the all-knowing, all-giving grandparent—generous with the latest costly baby gear, available for babysitting 24/7, accepting of the new parents’ ways—persists in our popular psyche, perfect grandparents remain largely a myth. “It’s like the princess ideal,” says Los Angeles area child psychologist Lara Litvinov, Ph.D. “You want the prince—or in this case the ideal grandparents—to swoop in and do everything right. For most of us, it doesn’t happen that way.” You can partly blame the changing times.
Today’s grandparents have their own lives, complete with thriving careers, absorbing pastimes or extensive travel. Give up a trip to Macchu Picchu to coddle your newborn for a week? “No, thanks,” some will say. And they are no longer the ultimate go-to authorities. “Today, there are 400,000 books with as many conflicting opinions on what parents are supposed to do, along with the suggestion that everything your parents did must have been wrong,” Litvinov says. New parents now don’t want to hear, “We always put you to sleep on your stomach, and you never rode in a car seat, and you lived.”
For better or for worse
Given the potential hassles and conflicts, you may question whether grandparents are really so important. As long as their foibles stop short of being unsafe or insane, the answer is yes, Litvinov says: “Grandparents provide an additional source of attachment. They give your children one more shot at learning about themselves through an intimate relationship.”
For children lucky enough to have them, involved grandparents are the front lines of learning about family. “It’s good for kids to understand that different people act and think differently, even within one family,” Machala says. “From the earliest age, kids don’t need things dumbed down to where there is only one set of rules or one kind of relationship.” Here are some tips for facilitating your relationship with your own parents when you become one yourself:
Pick your battles. Look the other way if grandpa lets your baby watch golf on TV with him; stand firm on health and safety issues.
Set limits where you’re not comfortable. If grandma can’t get your baby to sleep without an international incident, don’t do overnights.
Keep long-distance grandparents involved. A webcam, blog, photo-sharing site or old fashioned snapshots in an envelope can help.
Remember they’re not the unpaid help. You may prefer a Sunday afternoon of babysitting; they may want a Sunday family dinner once in a while. Show respect and consideration.
Finally, acknowledge this fact: You may not want to admit it, but you really did survive your parents. And now it’s time to share them with your baby. Let it happen.