Dr. Spock agreed that parents know their babies better than anyone else. Read the literature, consult the experts, but remember, your children know their children best.
Wait! Your role is far from over: you are the sage, wise in the ways of parenting that remain mysterious for those newly installed on the throne. When you do have information you’d like to share:
How do you feel when someone refers to you as a wonderful grandparent? Anxious to hug and kiss your grandchildren, of course. What people expect of you often influences how you behave. This is called positive and negative projection.
Two types of negative projection affect children strongly: the first is called “limiting.” If one child is referred to as the family artist and her little sister is described as the family athlete, what are the odds that the first will try out for the swim team? Or that the second will develop her drawing skills? Probably not so good. These kinds of comments and comparisons are difficult to avoid, but they can severely limit your grandchildren’s growth. If we label children a certain way, we will treat them according to that label, both consciously and unconsciously. Worse yet, the children may hear us: any label used by such an authority figure as Grandma or Grandpa has a great impact. Ultimately, this selective treatment will hinder the children’s success, which is based on both a child’s self-image and other people’s expectations. So, praise your grandchildren’s talents, encourage their efforts, and leave it at that.
Part of your role as a grandparent is to encourage your grandchildren to define themselves. Encourage them to explore all kinds of activities. Have them tell you their feelings about who they are and what they like by asking them questions and listening to their answers.
The other kind of negative projection is defining. The nursery rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is entirely untrue. In fact, negative words can define a child, especially when it comes from an authority like Grandma or Grandpa. When Joey is accused of being a bad boy for hitting his friend, will he realize that it was only the act of hitting that was bad? Probably not. The real danger is that Joey may believe he is bad and live up to the title, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Always respond to a child’s unwanted behavior by addressing the action, not the child. Words like stupid and idiot — even in jest — will stick, especially from you. The child may wrap his whole identity around that word. Say something nice, even when you’re angry. “That was a bad thing to do, kiddo.”
The late Dr. Haim Ginott, a child development expert, constantly reminded adults to let the child know, “I love you, but I don’t like your behavior.” By phrasing your criticism in those terms, you are validating a child’s self-worth instead of insulting him. You tell the child that he is more valuable than the behavior itself, and you want to help him modify his behavior so he’ll have happier relationships with others. If your granddaughter spilled her milk, don’t say she’s clumsy. Let her know you don’t enjoy cleaning it up and ask her to help you. Tell her you love her but you don’t love wiping up milk. If she did it on purpose, consider a time out. Ask her to be more careful next time and wait for her to agree.
The real issue at stake is self-esteem — always build it up. Don’t let your grandson see you wince at his new haircut. Remark at the fact that he got a haircut and ask if it was fun. Sidestep your negative opinion. If he corners you by asking how you like the haircut, tell him you think he’s beautiful, inside and out.
Positive projection has a tremendous influence on children. Good girl, smart girl, pretty girl, responsible girl — these kinds of compliments will enhance your granddaughter’s self-image and help her to grow up good, smart, confident, and responsible. Image boosting is equally important for children of both sexes.
This is easier than it sounds: when your three-year-old mermaid proudly exclaims, “I swimmed across the pool the whole way!” repeat her sentence back with enthusiasm. Say, “You swam across the pool the whole way! That’s wonderful!” The technique works with nearly any comment in any conversation. The child will be sure that you understand and really did hear her. This type of response validates both of you. As an extra bonus, she’ll hear the corrected version of her sentence without being chided. After all, if she thinks she’ll get an English lesson whenever she talks to you, most likely she’ll stop talking.
This practice starts in infancy when a child points to a door, says “door,” and you repeat the word back to her. You may be surprised at the number of situations in which reflexive listening comes in handy — and not just with your grandchildren!
Beware! Everyday we ask people how they are without really caring. Many times we don’t even wait for an answer. So, if you tell your grandchildren you’ve missed them, then ignore them, they’ll naturally assume you didn’t miss them at all. But they won’t chalk it up to good manners — they’ll think you are a liar. And the truth is they’ll be right. If you didn’t miss them (maybe you just saw them yesterday), don’t tell them you did. It’s best to let your behavior be consistent with your words.
You might brag about your grandchildren to others, yet fear complimenting them directly. Perhaps you’ve heard that praise brings bad luck or spoils the child. Actually, the reverse is true: praise is invaluable. Treat your grandchildren the same whether you are alone with them or in public. Don’t confuse them with mixed messages and always be aware of their feelings. They are more than mere jewels in your crown.
Grandchildren are the dividends of motherhood. You invested a lot of love and perspiration in raising your children, and your little heirs are a fair reward. Love can’t spoil them. So, reinvest your love with your grandchildren to help you all reap even greater dividends down the road.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.