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Setting the boundaries with grandchildren

How to set ground rules before you become a grandparent-carer.

Grandmother with grandchild
It is important to have some ground rules to ensure a happy relationship

"It is hugely rewarding; but you have to have a good relationship with your children to stop it becoming a drudge. And it's a long day: I am in the bath by quarter to seven to be ready for the grandchildren at the front door." Brenda Leece looks after her grandchildren James, four, and Katy, two, while her daughter Emma, who is a policewoman, is at work. She is one of thousands of grandparents who have taken on the family childminding role while parents are at work.

You do it to help out, and because (of course) you like it. "It is fun" says Brenda. "You get to know your grandchildren better, and they get to know you," It is potentially an ideal arrangement for mum as well, especially when you consider that professional childcare can easily cost £10 an hour. But all sides have to know where they stand if the fun is not to turn into a nightmare. What a shame if you came to dread the morning visit.

The traditional role of grannies was to spoil their grandchildren rotten and leave discipline to the parents. That won't work in a daily or two-or-three-times-a-week grandchild-caring set-up. If the mother is feeling that good work at home is being undone each day by granny she will be angry. Similarly if grandparents feel they are simply a dumping ground for the kids, and ignored when not useful, they will feel alienated. Either way the grandchildren will pick up on it, and will suffer. There are boundaries for all three generations involved, and it is best to establish them at the start.

Boundaries for the grandchildren

They should know that granny's house is different from their own. At home they can jump on the broken-backed sofa; at Granny's they cannot jump on the rather nice chintz. "You have to have rules" says Brenda. "One of mine is that I insist that they stop and wait at kerbs." But still they cannot be on best-visiting-behaviour all the time, because this is a place they go every day, and Granny is Granny, not a stranger.

Home is littered with plastic toys. Should granny's home be similarly afflicted? Or should they be limited to one room? And is it all tidied away when it is going-home time?

Children faced with two different sets of rules and households will rapidly learn to play one off against the other. Discipline is something that will have to be talked about between all three generations. But if it's made plain to them, children will learn granny's little preferences.

Boundaries for the middle generation

Granny mustn't feel exploited, or that she is just a convenient dumping-ground for the kids when mum is at work. Which boils down to the middle generation acknowledging that the grannies are making a big sacrifice, and a big commitment, at a time in their lives when they could actually do with a bit of rest.

How much notice will the grandparents need of changes to arrangements - school holidays, different shifts and the like? And what if grandparents want to take a holiday themselves? Do grandparents and parents have to take their holidays simultaneously?

And how much are grannies expected to do? Just plonk them in front of the telly to keep them quiet? Or daily - and tiring - adventures to the park, the zoo and the playground?

Who pays for busfare or petrol to the park, or the admission fee to the zoo? Of course this is a family thing, and one doesn't pay family as one would a professional childcarer; but in the real world, granny may be strapped for cash, and not letting on that it is an issue, putting one more pressure on family relationships.

Boundaries for the grandparents (Or: What Granny Mustn’t Do)

One thing is key, says Brenda: "You have to remember that the parents are in charge, and you follow their guidelines, not yours."

Of course Granny knows best. Did she not bring up however-many-children-it-was successfully, and in harder times? But times have changed, opinions have changed too, and the grandparents may just have to swallow theirs.

The next generation of parents may be into looser discipline - or, since the liberal sixties are behind us, firmer discipline.

There are health and safety issues: peanut allergies had not been thought of a generation ago, nor had child-proof safety catches on cupboards. Food especially can be an issue: biscuits, sweetened juices, sugary things - what is allowable, what is an occasional treat and what is not to pass the children's lips at any cost?

"The occasional treat does no harm," says Brenda, "but remember - the children will always split on you. They say 'Granny gave us teddy-bear crisps AND a chocolate croissant!' And my daughter looks at me in silent disapproval."

But set the boundaries, and in a strong family the rewards are great. "It's like going back to the old-fashioned extended family where everyone was a part of the whole," says Brenda."Everybody gains."


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