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How to be a fair step-grandparent

24 February 2010

Favouritism towards one set of grandchildren can often cause family strife.

How to be a fair step-grandparent

In my own extended family one set of grandparents lives in America and sees their child and grandchild rarely and fleetingly. They are exemplary. There's absolutely no rivalry between them and us, quite the opposite. They're grateful that we can help their child and we're there for her family whenever they're in need of help and counsel.

Blood relationships count. With multiple step-parent and step-grandparent combinations I think it's wise to recognise that the blood relationship counts more and should take precedence. Anything else would be bizarre. You're a wise grandparent if you place your trust in your grandchildren. If you're a good, loving grandparent they'll nose you out and ask for you. Later on, when they're old enough, they'll vote with their feet and come to visit you.

Remember, favouritism is painful. I receive many letters from people who are wounded by a grandparent's favouritism for, say, a sibling's children who seem to get more attention, more treats, bigger and more expensive presents. And it's natural for them to feel slighted. Their pain is a mixture of sadness for their overlooked children and resentment that a sibling is getting special treatment.

I'd be the first to concede that it isn't always easy to be scrupulously fair with your attention, even though you make a concerted effort to do so. And it's especially hard when you're pulling out the stops to treat all your children and grandchildren equally and another grandparent defies the rules of fairness and openly dotes on the child of a particular son or daughter. This can even happen between a single set of grandparents.

Granny, on the one hand, strives to be evenhanded with the grandchildren of her son and daughter. Grandpa, on the other, makes no bones about the fact that he dotes on his daughter's grandchildren, partly because they were his first, partly because they're girls, and partly because being girls they spoil him rotten and are always well behaved. This has the potential of causing much unhappiness in the family.

Grandpa's son can find this intensely irritating and frustrating. He feels his father's favouritism doesn't reflect only on his children (three boys), but makes him somehow a second-class person too. He feels he can't be living up to his father's expectations, and relations across the family will be strained and tense till this wrong can be righted.

Mind you, it may never be righted, but recrimination will only open old wounds. It may be up to granny to persuade her son that the thing to do is not to dissipate emotional energy on being jealous of the attention giving to his sister's children. It is better to concentrate on his own family and reap the joyous harvest that he has sown with them.

Case Study 1

Q: My daughter's always with her in-laws. They say a son is a son until he gets a wife and a daughter is a daughter for life. That's not true in our case. My daughter got married last year, has a baby girl, but now her whole life seems to revolve around her new husband and his family. It's like her father and I don't exist any more, and it really hurts. When she does bother to phone, she only talks about what she's been doing with the other grandparents. I've been so looking forward to being a grandma. I complained, and she accused me of being jealous!

A: Admit it. You are jealous. You feel cast aside, when really you should be feeling as proud as punch that you've raised a daughter who is more than capable of getting along with the family she's married into. For some people, getting on with the in-laws is a lifelong challenge, but she seems to have it sussed already. Show an interest. This is all new to her, so let her know you're grateful that she's been accepted by them.

How about moving along with your own life and finding new and interesting things to do that you can tell her about?

Case Study 2

Q: Am I right to feel not wanted? My daughter-in-law is 25 and the youngest of six children. Her family get together to celebrate every conceivable occasion. Her parents are at our son's house all the time and we are hardly ever invited. We wouldn't dream of just turning up without an invitation. My son's an only child, as were my husband and myself, so we've no living relatives. I feel very left out, resentful and upset about the other grandparents. Am I right to feel not wanted?

A: I think you're oversensitive. The in-laws seem to be spontaneous people who can arrange a knees-up at the drop of a hat, while by nature, you're more aloof. You could be your own worst enemy if you always feel a formal invitation is required to visit your family. I doubt the intention is to deliberately exclude you, but they may need affirmation that you're a bit of a party animal on the quiet. While it's good you respect other people's boundaries, if you lighten up and don't always stand on ceremony, you might find yourself where you really want to be - in the middle and not out on the edge. Don't just turn up, but phone and ask if you can babysit, take the baby out for a walk or just have a chat. Don't stand on ceremony - get in touch.

* Miriam Stoppard is the author of The Grandparents' Book, published by Dorling Kindersley

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