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Star-Telegram.com

Involved grandparents can make life grand

Posted Thursday, Aug. 25, 2011

By Jan Jarvis

jjarvis@star-telegram.com

At their Haltom City home, the rules for 15-year-old Courtney Cabano and her 7-year-old brother, Christopher, tend to be on the strict side.

Their parents, Blakely and Theresa Cabano, don't reward good grades with cash or spoil them with after-school sweets. But when the kids head to their grandparents' house in North Richland Hills, it's a different story.

"You always have grandparent rules," Blakely Cabano said.

Fortunately, the different generations get along well and the Cabanos consider it a real blessing to have two sets of grandparents who are very involved in their kids' lives.

"They have supported us in raising our children and have been great role models," Theresa Cabano said. "Most of all, they have shown us and our children true unconditional love throughout our lives."

But other households aren't so lucky.

Some families are at odds over everything from spanking to bedtime. They argue about sugar highs, video-game addictions and the stuff of which childhood is often made.

But it doesn't have to be that way. The nation's 80 million grandparents might have much to learn about the generation raised on iPods and Angry Birds, but they also have much to offer in the way of life experience. At a time when families often live in different cities, sometimes other countries, having a grandparent close by can make a world of difference.

"Whenever you have grandparents who want to be involved with their grandchildren, it's just awesome," said Angie Watson, family life educator at the Parenting Center in Fort Worth.

But there is a caveat. Everyone needs to be on the same page when it comes to the kids, she said. Otherwise, fights are sure to erupt.

In an age of single parents and dual careers, families can use all the support they can get, said Dr. Mary Lynn Crow, a Fort Worth psychologist and professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. For the roughly one-third of children who grow up in single-parent homes, grandparents can provide another role model and someone else to talk to when they need help. They also take some of the stress off of their often-overwhelmed adult children.

The payoffs for grandchildren are well-documented.

A recent study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that children ages 9-18 who have a strong bond with their grandparents have fewer behavior problems and better social skills than those who lack such relationships.

As for grandparents, the role can be especially meaningful.

As a parent, Lila Stewart said she was always so busy with work and home that she didn't have much time to simply enjoy her kids.

"With the grandkids, I'm more relaxed." she said. "And of course, they go home at the end of the day."

Rules

If three generations are going to get along, there have to be rules, and rule No. 1 for grandparents is this: Don't tell your kids how to raise their children.

It not only creates conflicts and undermines a parent's role in his or her own family, but it can backfire, Watson said. Grandparents should never go behind a parent's back in an effort to win over the child, she said.

"The child ends up feeling bad if they go against their parent's wishes by doing what the grandparent wants," Watson said.

Grandparents sometimes forget that it's not all about the grandkids, but what is best for the whole family, said Dr. Stan Ingman, a gerontologist at the University of North Texas.

"The issue is not taking over the care, but providing a support system," he said. "Grandparents want to provide support for the whole family, not just the children."

A grandparent's role is to act as an authority figure, not a strict disciplinarian, experts say. But some grandparents believe that what was good for the kids is good for the grandkids.

"If my kids needed a spanking, they got one," said Jerry Henderson, a Burleson grandfather of six. "I may be old-fashioned, but there is a difference between child abuse and spanking."

His daughter, Sesaly Yeager, agrees, but only to a point.

"Nowadays [if] you spank your child in public and you offend the wrong person, your get CPS or the police called on you," she said. "Therefore, I say, to some extent, I agree."

In the end, it's probably best for grandparents to hold their tongues.

"I believe that if the parent is healthy, stable and available, the final decisions about a child should ultimately be made by the parent," Crow said.

In some households, it's common for parents and grandparents to agree to disagree on the small stuff -- TV time or after-school treats -- but no one pushes the limits too far.

Stewart knows her daughter would prefer that she serve only healthy foods, but some rules are made to be broken.

"My granddaughter loves fried potatoes and banana pudding and the little one likes it, too," she said. "So, yes, I spoil them."

Money

When Courtney Cabano gets A's on her report card, her grandmother rewards her with $20 or so.

But her parents go another route.

"Grades should be their own reward," Blakely Cabano said.

It hasn't caused a conflict so far, but in some homes, it does. Experts say one way to avoid such disagreements is to opt for nonmonetary rewards.

Instead of giving a grandchild money, take him or her out for a meal at a favorite restaurant or to see a movie, Watson said.

"Rewards should not be just toys and money," she said.

Henderson said he rewards his grandkids by taking them out for ice cream.

"When they do good, it's a way of saying, 'I am proud of you,'" he said.

Going out for ice cream or a meal has rewards beyond a full stomach.

Spending time together builds lasting memories for grandparent and grandchild, Watson said.

Stewart savors spending time with Christopher, 7, especially when he climbs up in her lap to watch television. And he has rewarded her in ways only a grandchild can.

"Christopher tells me I'm the best grandmother in the world," she said.

Boundaries

In many families it's not unusual for grandparents to come to the rescue with everything from baby-sitting to college tuition.

For the Stewarts, providing after-school care not only helps their children, who work full time, but it's enjoyable for them.

Henderson said he also helps with child care and enjoys it.

But other grandparents have a tough time saying no and end up feeling resentful when their children expect them to baby-sit more often than they are able to do so.

Today, couples often have kids at a later age, which can put pressure on older grandparents to keep up, Ingman said. That's especially hard when grandkids are scattered over several decades and the younger parents expect their kids to be treated the same way as their older sibling's children were.

The best approach is to be open when feelings get hurt or one generation is unhappy with what the other is doing.

"It's better to be proactive and resolve the conflict than to stuff those feelings for years," Watson said.

That's especially important when money is involved.

It's not uncommon for grandparents to help out financially with tutoring, extracurricular activities, college tuition and other expenses. But grandparents should make sure they are not putting their own retirement in jeopardy to help their children and grandchildren.

Before stashing away cash for college, grandparents should also think about how they want that money to be spent. If the money is strictly for college, grandparents should say so or risk disappointment when their grandchild uses the money to take a trip to Europe instead.

That day is far off for Henderson, who is content to spoil his grandkids in little ways.

"My grandkids love coming over here," he said. "I have the old Nintendo, and they can play anything they want to."

Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664

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