If your first reaction to becoming a grandparent was fear for the sanctity of your home, don’t despair. Go ahead, pack up all your crystal and everything else that’s breakable, valuable, sentimental, small, sharp, or poisonous. Cover your couches with blanket throws, indefinitely postpone the white Berber carpet, and put that Architectural Digest back on the bookshelf. In any case, if you plan on having your grandchildren around, either the place will have to change or your designer dreams will.
Baby-proof for the baby’s safety and kid-proof for your own peace of mind. Then take a deep breath and expect the worst. Reality may be terrifyingly close, but at least you’ll be relaxed about it. If you’re too nervous to enjoy the children, then the children will be nervous, too. After all, nobody likes to hang out daily at a museum — it’s great for short, formal visits, but there’s no place comfortable to sit, you can’t touch anything past your nose (and even that is frowned on), and you certainly can’t bring your lunch. You want your grandchildren to visit, so you’ll adapt. You can unpack that Ming vase in another 15 years … think how much more it will be worth then.
Here are some specific tips to help both you and the kids feel at home:
Keep some toys on hand. Nothing big or expensive, just some generic stuff to keep the children busy during the 10 minutes before dinner when they’re bored with the 28 toys they brought with them. Animal puppets are great because you can get involved — this little bit of effort goes a long way in the children’s estimation of grandma or grandpa. Crayons and paper are a perennial favorite because children can play by themselves, and you can always assign them a particular picture to extend the activity. Puzzles and some type of colorful building blocks are a safe bet. (Be sure to avoid pieces smaller than one-and-a-half inches for children under age three.) Best of all, a six- to eight-inch ball will be popular with every age group and will also help get the whole brood out of the house for a little while.
Stop at the video store before your grandchildren’s arrival. Get some wholesome cartoons or a suitable family movie to help fill those restless hours before bedtime. Never trust the ratings labels on movies! Many popular movies marketed for children have strong language and violence. Even though the kids may watch a certain movie at their house, parents aren’t always completely aware of the contents. More importantly, it doesn’t mean their grandparents have to condone it. To discover other options, ask the clerk in the store. Better yet, now might be the perfect time to meet the young parents down the block.
Visit the library and check out some fun books. The librarian can help you find appropriate choices. Plenty of books have stories about grandparents, too! They will serve as tools for quiet time as well as for quality time when you read together.
Don’t spend too much time cleaning up before the big visit. The sparkling visage of clean rooms won’t last long, and you’ll just have to clean again when they leave. If the visit is short and you have gifts for the children that don’t fall into the clothing category, save one as a reward for helping you clean up. That way they’ll spend the precious hours of the visit focusing on you, not just on the new toys — and they’ll have something fresh and exciting to remember you by.
If you have time to shop for groceries, find out what the kids like to eat. Now is not the time to train them to eat properly. Sure, have some vegetables and dip as a fun, healthy alternative. But if they really love macaroni and cheese for dinner, don’t bother with liver and onions. It’s not worth the effort or the smell. Remind the parents to bring the multivitamins or keep some handy. Keep spaghetti and other easy meals on hand. Taking the crowd out to eat takes twice as much time, money, discipline, discomfort, and laundry.
You do not have to clear your schedule completely. If the visit is for several days, invite the kids along to your tennis game. Suggest alternative activities while you use those theater tickets you ordered months ago. Bring your grandson and his new book with you to the hairdresser and then take him to the train exhibit. Let your granddaughter have a manicure. Visit that sick friend during nap time (if the kids’ parents are there to watch them). Have your out-of-town friend visit you for a half hour. Children need to respect that their grandparents have a life too, but they need to know that even with all your activities, your favorite time is with them.
Keep a high chair and crib at your place for over-night visitors. Owning those necessary pieces of furniture is a heck of a lot easier than bringing them, renting them, or not having them — and it might lead to more frequent visits. Discount stores have lots of baby sales. The new high chairs are padded, easy to clean, and fold up nicely to fit in the closet. You may find great deals at garage sales and consignment stores, but be wary. Always keep safety standards in mind when buying used baby equipment — even from friends. Don’t get anything damaged or old. Safety standards are updated constantly as accidents are reported. Go to the library and read Consumer Reports or call the manufacturer’s customer service department.
Always use car seats! Not only are they required by law, but in fatal traffic accidents, the infant in the car seat is usually the one who survives. Most accidents happen on the home stretch, when you’re tired and your guard is down because home is just around the corner. When some of us were young parents there may not have been car seat laws, but now we need to make it a habit to use infant seats, booster seats, and seat belts — but no air bags! Air bags can be very dangerous to small children. The tremendous force of inflation is ideal for the average adult test dummy, but very harmful for children. Infants have been badly hurt or killed when air bags crushed their infant seats. Until carmakers improve these safety features, have the children sit in appropriate safety seats and use appropriate seat belts in the back seat.
Never leave children unattended. Not when you run into the dry cleaners, not when the phone rings, never! Take the kids with you. Use safety straps. Count on the worst. Newborns can squirm and fall out of infant seats. Babies can choke just resting on your bed. Toddlers drown in bathtubs and toilets — it really happens. Ten-year-olds can find that loose nail … in their foot. Teenagers can slice their fingers instead of sandwiches. It pays to be paranoid!
Keep an open mind. The experts say if a house where a toddler lives is immaculate, something is terribly amiss. People are more important than things. If you can’t stand the mess — or if the mess is more than simple clutter — ask before you roll up your sleeves and clean up. Uninvited cleaning may be taken as an insult. Be a blessing, not a burden. Smile and be glad it’s not your place.
Gifts are not required. If you can’t resist bringing your grandchild a gift, try to avoid sweets. Parents have enough trouble controlling children’s nutritional intake. If you can’t think of anything spectacular but don’t want to show up empty-handed, bring fun and useful items such as bubble-blowing solution, sidewalk chalk, or character toothbrushes. Think educational with a fun twist, like musical or pop-up books.
If you can’t resist that adorable pinafore or the athletic shoes with blinking lights, leave the tags on them. Offer the parents the receipts. A child can stay dormant for months and then grow an inch in 24 hours! The children may not fit in the clothes, they may already have these items, or they may be in dire need of something else. For teenagers, money is always appreciated. If you give them five dollars, let them spend it on themselves and have fun. If you give them 20 dollars, talk to them about saving up for that new bike. That way, your gift is a lesson in disguise.
Participate in activities with them. Get down on the floor and roll the ball to the baby, make animals out of clay alongside the toddler, play dolls, or color with the school children. Sneak in a little fresh air and exercise by asking the older children to take a walk with you and show you where their friends live, or take a “listening” walk where you describe the sounds you hear and what makes them. Influence good reading habits by reading stories to them, taking them to the library, and buying them special-interest magazines and, yes, even comic books. Plan a big event for your visit that everyone can look forward to and remember when you are gone. For the little ones, this may mean a simple park outing; the older ones may be anxious to see the new Disney movie or visit the harvest festival. You don’t have to take them places by yourself — you just have to be there to share the experience.
Baby-sitting can be fun. For the parents, for the children, and — yes! — even for you. Be sure to get a list of do’s and don’ts: remember the safety rules, then ignore the rest! Knowing you are breaking the rules is a lot more fun than winging it. With older kids, lay down your own ground rules for peace of mind. Then offer freedom within that structure. Be an accomplice — let them stay up late and order pizza! No harm will be done and the parents will be so grateful for the free night, late-sleeping, and happy kids. They won’t complain a bit. (They probably expected it, anyway.)
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.