Grandparenting styles

by Grace aka costofcollege

The Hands-Off Grandma

… my mom is what you might call a “hands-off” Grandma—or Bubbe, as she is affectionately referred to. She loves her grandkids. She enjoys spending time with them, in small doses. She cares about their well-being and what is happening in their lives. But she is not interested in participating in the grunt work of raising them: the tasks that include bodily fluids and flailing limbs, tears and stall tactics and four outfit changes in as many minutes. In so far as it is possible to engineer, my mother, at 70, is looking to experience the good bits associated with young children, the fun bits, and not the slog.

For her, this is the line between what it is to be a grandparent and what it is to be a parent. This is the privilege you earn with the prefix “Grand.” “I’ve done my time,” she says, and she certainly has. She is the mother of three children, across eight years and two marriages. She did everything for us as we grew up—playdates, parties, projects—everything. She watches some of her friends “grandparent” in a way she finds unappealing, women, she says, who are attempting motherhood all over again. “I have my own life,” she reminds me, with perfect kindness and accuracy. “I don’t need to re-live having children through yours.”

What type of grandparents did you have and what type of grandparents are your own parents?  What would you prefer, hands off, hands on, or something in between?  What type of grandparent are you or will you be?


33 thoughts on “Grandparenting styles

  1. Both grandfathers were dead before I was born. My maternal grandmother died when I was five. While she lived in the same city, she lived in a retirement community due to her health issues. We would go every week and have lunch with her in their dining room, but other than that I don’t remember much. My paternal grandmother came to live with us when I was about 6. I remember her house from before that and a friend I made on her street, who I am FB friends with now. Living with us meant that she was there all the time. She did not drive, so mostly she would read to me, play cards or other board games, but nothing very active. She was a built-in babysitter if my parents were both gone, which was rare as mom was a SAHP.

    My parents took care of my kids on and off. My mom knew that if she didn’t build a relationship when they were young and wanted to stay with/visit them, then she wouldn’t have it when their lives got busier. When we first bought our current house and it needed a lot of work, the girls would stay with them almost every weekend from about 9 am on Saturday until about 4 pm on Sunday. After that it was about once a month, but if we were in a bind, they would transport or keep them when needed. And, in late elementary, the girls had more weekend activities and started seeing less of them. They did not want to be our full-time day care.

    This is a number of years off, but I don’t want to be the full-time caregiver for grandchildren on a permanent basis. I will be happy to help, even weekly, but not daily for extended periods of time.

  2. My parents are more “hands off”. They both visit and love to do fun things with the kids but in no way do they want to bathe them, change diapers (although we’re thankfully past this stage) and my mother doesn’t even want to babysit (my dad loves to). My in-laws are more hands on but they don’t live nearby so it’s not too much. They also now have six grandkids and are getting older so they’ve chilled out a lot and seem to be gravitating to more the hands off side.

    I was close with my paternal grandmother but she died when I was 7 and my grandfather remarried a nice lady and we saw him once every month or two. My dad’s family is just so big and there were so many grandchildren (about 20) that there just wasn’t a lot of one on one time. I remember my mom’s parents driving me to my orthodontist appointments in middle school and taking me to a bookstore afterwards but that’s the only one on one time I remember. There was definitely no hands on care on either side.

  3. My grandparents lived many hours away from us when I was growing up. I saw them a couple times a year until they died when I was in my late teens. My kids’ grandfathers’ both died before the kids were born. DH’s mother has been estranged for most of their life and is only gradually coming back into the picture, but it is really too late to form much of a relationship, even if we were willing. My mother was more involved with the kids when they were younger, but has been in ill health for almost the last decade.

    I do not want to have that sort of relationship with my grandkids. I want to be Meme. I have already told the kids that if they live nearby, I will help them with their kids.

  4. Paternal GP: He dead before I was born; she living in WCE’s native state; saw her twice in my whole life.

    Maternal GP: I have pictures of me with him, but they divorced when I was very young and I really don’t remember him at all. She was a regular part of my/our lives growing up; both at our house and us visiting her often/weekly at her apartment. My mom’s an only so she was always doing stuff for my grandmom who did not drive.

    We do not live near family so except for their visits when the kids were newborns, there wasn’t much grandparental help. So, hands off. Doing age appropriate things with the kids during our visits to them and vice versa (reading morphing to watching them play).

    I will be the perfect grandparent. Helping when needed, knowing when to back off. Doing all the fun things with the young’uns and none of the drudgery.

  5. I loved the description of the grandma here, and it is aligned entirely with my own vision — you’ve already gone through the scutwork, the need to be bad cop, the ugly/messy, etc.; this is the time to have fun and enjoy the kids.

    But the real point of the article wasn’t nearly as cut-and-dried as that makes it seem. “It was fine, I realized, because the person my mom comes to mother, when she visits, is the person she has always mothered. Me.” And in the end, that’s really what it’s all about. Because your baby doesn’t ever stop being your baby.

    My favorite “new grandma” memory was when I was a new mom and my mom was visiting, and I had ben up with DD for what seemed like all night. I heard my mom get up around 6, and I handed off DD to her, practically in tears, because the kid just. would. not. sleep. and I was soooooo exhausted. And my mom took DD and plopped her in her carseat on the desk and went to work preparing for her class, and I went upstairs to sleep for the next 6 hours and woke up a completely different person. (And, of course, DD slept *the whole time* for my mom).

  6. I have fond memories of my grandma who used to take me on the bus downtown to go shopping and for lunch. She would stay with us for about a month at a time, rotating her visits among her other adult children throughout the year. But I don’t remember her caring for us kids otherwise.

    My kids have only known their grandmother on their dad’s side. She has been very involved and babysat her other grandkids on a daily basis and our kids on an emergency basis.

    I’d like to form a close relationship with any future grandkids while keeping diaper changing to a minimum. I’m not sure if that would work out. :)

  7. I had no living grandparents.

    I consider myself hands on (in part because I have the good fortune to live nearby), but I am absolutely NOT
    1) a fixed schedule childcare provider
    2) someone who thinks it her right to drop in anytime without prior arrangement
    3) someone who expects a weekly or biweekly meal/visit at her not nearly so child friendly home
    4) someone who is expected to show up to babysit when it is not personally convenient, unless emergency

    I change diapers (only night now), give baths (no hairwash), do bedtime, serve the required meals (they eat kid meal at 5, adults eat later) including the dreaded green smoothie if I have overnight duty. I refuse to drive the minivan with all the car seats – I have one car seat and in a pinch put in one of the spares if I have to transport two. I sometimes do day care pickup for the youngest. I have dealt with a broken collarbone when Mom had to be in two places at once. Mom gets to go away alone sometimes and I help out then as needed. When Dad goes away I offer but she rarely takes me up on it. Grandpa – my ex – is actually pretty good for short bits or nighttime, but he won’t do anything extended because he feels that he should be allowed to spank the boisterous middle child for disobedience. I just insist on the right to use the streaming services as I see fit to keep peace. And I never asked for a quid pro quo to come over to my house to feed the cats – I just pay someone if necessary.

    In the eastern elite totebag category, I am very hands on. The grandparents in Portland ME are also hands on with the distance and their age (73) taken into account (and they pay for a lot of mom’s helper services). If I were in Rhett’s cop and nurse category (strong ethnic middle class families) I would be back up Nana – hands on means regular child care (often 2 sessions a week with day care or split shift parents or other family also involved), and regular semi-mandatory attendance family dinners and celebrations.

    The article writer is whining. Hands off in my estimation is someone who has is local and doesn’t even want to baby sit a few times a year, or someone non local who doesn’t visit or encourage visits or at least in the modern world skype regularly. Now the parents can be the ones who prefer hands off by that definition or who set up so many household rules that the grandparents don’t think it is worth the trouble.

  8. My in laws have been involved with my kids because they live with us. My kids did attend full time daycare so we kept any scutwork to the GPs to the minimum. There was no expectation that the GPs would do baths, bedtime, homework or anything like that. We understand fully that they did all this with their kids and have no desire to do play the parental role. The part concerning grandkids has gotten easier as the kids have gotten older.
    My parents are around for part of the year during the summer. The deal now is that my kids spend many Fridays with them. This has worked out well.

  9. Both my sets of grandparents were far away until I was about 10 (Florida/6 hr drive), so we didn’t see them that frequently. My dad’s parents probably twice a year, but they came up more often when I and my siblings were younger. When mom broke her foot and there were 3 kids including a baby to take care of, I think they traded weeks off with my mom’s parents. The latter moved near us when I was 10 and we saw them frequently (twice a month?). Then when I was in college they moved into the apt in my parents’ house, so the frequency increased then again. I did get to see second-hand how much of the elder care my mom assumed in later years, which is not something I am looking forward to taking on (and we are likely to be the closest in geography to my parents, making it more likely it will fall on me).

    My parents are GREAT grandparents – they visit frequently (probably once a month), babysit for weekends or the nanny’s vacation week if asked, and change diapers/wipe bums as needed. (They also always come down for my choir concerts, which is awesome!). My mom visited for at least 2 weeks when each of the kids was born – SUPER helpful, especially with the first, when she was around for at least a month. DH’s parents are much less involved, and tend to come for whirlwind visits of 1-2 days, but we do see them for a week’s vacation every summer, so that’s enough for the kids to feel connected to them. Then DH’s mom comes once a year and stays for 3 days, always in the middle of the week, and gives the kids presents when neither of us is in the room, so she is more of an inconvenience and definitely what I would think of as a hands-off grandparent.

  10. Also, forgot to mention that my mom was a SAHM and hasn’t taken up a paying job since the kids left home, so this is why she has TIME to help out. If we are still working when our kids have kids it will be a lot harder!

  11. Paternal GP: grandfather passed before I was born, saw grandmother 1x per month until pretty much college. Never was close – she really didn’t like me from what I could tell, she treated me different than the other grand kids.

    Maternal GP: close with both. Practically grew up in their house, and they were after school care my entire life. Grandfathered passed when I was 11 and I moved in with my grandmother by 14. They were surrogate parents to me in so many ways. Complete with spoiling, and a good hand of discipline.

    My mom is live in and full time day care (she asked to do it). She seems to really like it, and health wise, has turned a corner because DS keeps her moving. She’s very comfy going out and about with him, and loves doting on him. There are times he goes to her first (followed usually by “mom and dad said no, grandma says no”). That hurt a bit, but it’s good that he has a relationship with her.

    My dad and DH’s parents are in NJ. We see them as often as possible. DS has the best relationship he can with them, and is very warm to them, despite not seeing them frequently. We still have to figure out the “grandma” name thing – both are called “grandma”… DS will let us know who is who. The dads are easy – pops and grandpa. We hope to keep the relationship as solid as possible and incorporate more facetime and skype when schedules get in the way.

    I love that my mom wants to be hands on. It relieves me of so much stress. I hope to be the same, if I can. It’s so nice to know I don’t have nearly as much to worry about as my friends who don’t have as active of grandparents as DS does. I’m trying to plan a getaway for DH next year – and I know that if I ask NJ grandma to come up for the weekend, both grandmas will love doting on the 2 babes. They won’t leave the house, they’ll just play all day long.

  12. My grandfathers both died before I was born, and one grandmother died when I was a baby. My other grandmother, however, lived with us for the last 20 years of her life. This was very common in our culture of origin — it would have been unthinkable for an elderly widow to not live with one of her adult children.

    My father died before my kids were born. My mother loved being hands-on when she was well, but sadly her Alzheimer’s disease meant that her widow of being able to be hands-on was quite short.

    I had my kids in my late 30s, so I expect I’ll be fully retired when (if) my kids have kids of their own. I would love to spend my retirement years helping as actively and regularly as possible with their little ones, should they ever have any.

  13. “gives the kids presents when neither of us is in the room”

    These presents are inappropriate, as in toys that make loud noises or similar? I’m not completely understanding why this is a problem.

    I don’t see the author as whining, just explaining her mother’s preferences and how they might differ from hers in the future.

  14. CoC – of course, always loud toys and stuff. She also has a history of giving bad presents and leaving stuff in our house that we don’t want – one time they smuggled in a table and left it in the room where they were staying. Very odd. (We freecycled it.)

  15. Yeah, I also didn’t see the author as whining. I saw it as more of a progression of her own thinking — that at first she was comparing her mom to other moms, and that by that standard her mom seemed hands-off. With maybe a slight niggling hint that that bothered her. But by the end, when she’s reciting how her mom did jump in on the harder stuff when she really needed it, she has realized that it isn’t just about her mom selfishly deciding to have fun with the grandkids — but that her mom was actually looking out for and trying to take care of her. I found that really touching (actually teared up a bit). Because once you produce cute little grandkids, it’s easy to feel irrelevant, because of course all anyone really wants to see is how cute the kids are and how they’ve grown and what new tricks they have, etc. So to realize that this whole time, your mom has still been looking out for you — that maybe she’s been doing what she’s doing because she thought it was what *you* needed as much as what she herself wanted — that’s just really special.

  16. I’m glad you posted this today because I have to go visit my grandmother. I’ve been a slacker because she doesn’t really know me, but I should still go to visit her. She still lives in the same apartment and it is only 10 minutes from my old childhood apt. I saw my maternal grandparents all of the time, and at least once or twice a month as an adult. My grandfather died when I was 30.

    I never knew my paternal grandfather because he left my grandmother for another woman. My father has tried to trace him, but we hit dead ends. The name is too common and my grandmother knew very little. She died when I was 13, but I did get to know her because my father would share our part of our weekends with her.

    My parents hated each other, but they both loved their inlaws. My mother stayed in touch with my grandmother after the divorce so she always encouraged our visits.

    My father and my step mom live near my mother’s mother and they used to have lunch with her until she started to really decline last year.

    My parents are hands on. They were both still working full time, but they were our babysitters on the weekends. They still try to see DD or other grandkids at least twice a month. It’s harder because kids are so busy. They definitely changed some diapers if it was a Sat night.

    We do try to visit my FIL every 4 to 6 weeks because he adores DD. He is older than my parents so he has never been as hands on, but he lives for seeing his grandchildren.

    I’ve posted before about how fortunate we feel to still have our parents involved with DD. It’s one of the primary reasons that we never left this metro area.

  17. I really hope that I live near my grand kids. I want to be an active and involved grandparent. My parents were hands on when they visited, but they were only here for birthdays and holidays. When the kids were older, we sent them to visit my parents for a week or two each summer, which both grandparents and grandkids looked forward to.

  18. I hope to be a hands-on GP, if for no other reason than it would mean I am still healthy and vital enough for such tasks.

  19. When I was a kid, I still had three great-grandparents and all four grandparents, so I was lucky that way although of course I took it for granted. With great-grandparents, it would be the once or twice a year restrained visit in their not-child-friendly house or then in a nursing home. My paternal grandparents still had kids in the house when I was born plus they were far away. My maternal grandparents were closer, although still working at that time. We would stay with both sets of grandparents as a family during vacations, so although I don’t remember them ever doing regular childcare or having an unaccompanied visit, we still knew them well. There would be assorted cousins around during these visits, and usually some extra kids as well, so the kids entertained themselves. My g’grandmothers died when I was 10 or 11; one grandmother died when I was 13 (and that was the beginning of the end for those extended family visits with all the cousins), my g’grandfather when I was 20, my other grandmother when I was 21, and then my grandfathers were around till my kids were born — the one at a distance got to meet the oldest two (daughter was an infant) before dying a year or so later, and the other we visited regularly until he died when the kids were about 3, 7, and 9.

    My parents never wanted to be regular childcare, but they are definitely involved, changed diapers and chased kids, and provided occasional babysitting including welcoming visits by unaccompanied kids. My husband’s parents are farther away but we visit fairly regularly and stay with them for a week or so when we do, and they’ve also had unaccompanied kids stay with them for a week or two at a time on multiple occasions, so they’re close to the kids too.

  20. Kids were 3, 5, and 7 . . . either I can’t do simple math this morning or I don’t know my own kids’ spacing, not good either way.

  21. My parents and my in-laws fell on either side of the Great Diaper Divide, partly due to age and partly geography. So as a result my father changed grandchild diapers when the occasion arose even if the parents were home at the time, whereas my FIL has probably never changed a diaper in his life and wasn’t going to start doing so with grandchildren.

  22. The grandparent I was closest to was more of a hands-on grandmother. She stayed with my sister and me for 2 weeks when my parents went on a trip; came with us on a 6 week trip when I was young, and then helped take care of me when my sister was going through cancer treatment and my parents needed to be out of town to take her for treatment. My grandmother was awesome – so supportive. And it helped that we were naturally compatible – we both loved reading, window-shopping and eating. My brothers are 8 and 10 years younger than me (they were born after my sister died) and grew up mostly on the east coast. My grandmother lived in CA so their relationship was more distant (she was older when they were young and we lived much farther away).

    My kids’ grandparents are mostly hands-off for a variety of reasons. None of them live in the same town as us. Paternal grandfather was not really a kid person; he died when the kids were young.

    Paternal grandmother is the most hands-on of the 4. She was great when DD was young. Then she had cancer twice and so when she was going through treatment and had a compromised immune system, she couldn’t be around kids who were sick (both times, I had a one toddler with the chronic runny nose). She’s now 81, is having more difficulty getting around and she lives just far enough away that we can’t really drop by easily (it’s an all day commitment). So we see her for holidays, birthdays, and if the kids have a band concert, she will make every effort to come. She also drives DH crazy (she can be very critical) so that also factors into us not seeing her as often.

    Maternal grandmother (my mom) really wanted grandkids – but she liked the idea of them more than the reality. She liked to look at them, hear stories about them – but didn’t want to actually play with them or take them for walks or to the playground. She died 7 years ago so my kids don’t really have strong memories of her.

    Maternal grandfather (my dad) was more hands-on – he came and stayed with me after DD was born to help out. He’d be the first person to volunteer if DD was crying to walk her around. He was awesome. Now however, he’s pretty much a fulltime caregiver to his partner and they can’t travel so we don’t see them very often (I go more frequently on my own but it’s expensive to take the whole family as we have to pay for both airfare and hotel). I wish my kids could have had more time with my dad when he was younger.

    I hope to be more hands-on and more of a resource for my kids if they ever have kids.

  23. “I expect I’ll be fully retired when (if) my kids have kids of their own.”

    Ditto. I plan to retire while DD is still an undergrad, so I’ll be shocked if I become a GP before that.

    I hope DW and I can have at least a few years while we’re relatively young, healthy, and not tied to school vacation schedules to do a fair amount of travel before we become grandparents.

    OTOH, I hope they don’t wait so long that my health prevents me from being a hands-on GP.

  24. I don’t think my FIL ever changed a diaper (he must have, but he totally is *that* grandpa). But both my mom and MIL will jump right into action. My dad won’t change a diaper and loves to forget how toddlers are. Therefore, when I say “no” grandpa always says “yes” even when he shouldn’t (like giving DS something to play with that can harm him, or ignoring my authority as mom in a discipline or temper tantrum situation).

  25. I met an 80 year old woman today, and she has 7 grandchildren. They range in age from 17 to 26. She told me that she has been to Australia three times because they take each grandchild on a “wish trip”. They let the grandchild choose the destination. She isn’t as healthy as she used to be due to a minor stroke, and she advised doing as much as you can while you’re still healthy.

  26. It’s not necessarily that we can’t travel, but if we have grandkids, we might want to be close enough to see them grow up, and be there for our kids to help out.

    One thing we want to do is spend extended time at some favorite destinations, e.g., all or most of a ski season at or near a ski area.

  27. Do the grandparents who “don’t change diapers” not spend anytime with their grandchildren without the parents present? My MIL has probably changed one diaper on all my kids, but she wouldn’t refuse to change a diaper if she were home with the kids while I/we were out and about, because she realizes we can’t leave a baby with her if she’s not willing to change a diaper. My parents were/are both of the “We change someone who needs to be changed if we know where the supplies are” school of thought.

    I wouldn’t want full-time childcare duty but I might commit to regular babysitting. If I’m sufficiently healthy, I would definitely cover emergencies and planned situations like childcare closure for Veteran’s Day/spring break with school kids and I’d be willing to fly in to do so. What I will NOT do is tell my kids that even if I’m perfectly capable, if they don’t have a SAHM, they are completely on their own in terms of work/family balance.

  28. Sorry I missed this fun topic! We are young GPs and though I am retired DH is working and traveling more than ever. The kids are several hours away but their other GPs live literally around the corner and are both retired. Not as young or fit but with 19 grandchildren under the age of 14 their lives are centered around those kids. The grandma recently spent two weeks sleeping on an air mattress in another DD’s home awaiting the birth of their child. The homeschooling daughter with 9 kids lives an hour away and regularly comes over to spend the afternoon, and their home is filled with hand me down high chairs and play pens for meals and naps. They love living this way, and the grandchildren all seem to be amazingly nice kids who get along with each other, look out for the many babies, and pick up after themselves. The moms aren’t working and so don’t need regular child care help, which these grandparents aren’t physically able to provide anyhow, but they know all about which baby is teething and who is not yet toilet trained and which ones can read chapter books. It’s amazing but I could not do it.

    We see the grandchildren pretty often. The one thing for which I was not prepared was how hard it is on the body to care for little ones. I was doing this 20 years ago without a thought but even as a reasonably fit person still in her 50’s it’s now a different story. Getting up off the floor with a toddler or walking a fussy baby around for just an hour or lifting them into strollers or car seats — ouch.

    It’s also harder than I thought to let the parents figure things out in their own. Unless asked for advice, I try to say nothing and to instead be supportive of whatever approach they take on feeding or sleeping or behavior. I always *hated* it when my parents or inlaws said things like, “Don’t be silly, of course he can have a cookie” or “He doesn’t need to be strapped into that stroller” or especially “Skipping his nap one day won’t kill him.”

  29. Great topic, but no time to say more than this: Scarlett – that’s great that you’re biting back your unsolicited advice and that will be my plan, too. I get the feeling Meme is the same way.

    My mother and former MIL were both very good about this and I always appreciated it. They said so many encouraging, approving things that in the very rare situations when they offered diplomatically-phrased advice, it was very easy to hear, and when I followed it, I always felt as though I had been genuinely helped, and not at all scolded or treated as though I had no idea what I was doing (despite that being the case).

    DH and I hope to be very involved, and to be respectful enough of our children’s parenting choices that our involvement is welcomed.

  30. I tend to be very forgiving/ charitable than some of you about meddling, advice peddling parents and don’t mind it so much. My mom must have trained me well to listen to her I guess. It is definitely harder to take it from my mil though than my mom. Thankfully both in laws have learned to keep their thoughts to themselves until they cannot hold them in any longer. Previously I have snapped at my MIL for unsolicited advice and seeing how that hurt her, I too try and keep my thoughts to myself.

    Both set of grands adore it kid always have a grand time together. But since both sets are in their 60s- early seventies, there isn’t much of soccer playing or racing going on there.

  31. I have very fond memories of my mom’s parents. Unfortunately they lived 6 hours away and passed away while I was in grade school. My brother and I were there only grandkids and they loved playing with us and attending our soccer games and school plays when in town. My mom still talks about how much fun they had with us and how much they loved us. My dad’s parents lived near us and we saw them almost weekly. They were completely different from my other set. I don’t recall ever seeing them at a soccer game, or taking an interest in any of my activities. But, i do have fond memories of my grandma playing endless card games with me and making apple sauce with her. My grandma is still alive and has close to 20 great grandchildren. She has never been one to brag (or even talk) about her grandchildren, and she admits that doesn’t enjoy children.

    My parents are a lot like my mom’s parents. They live far away, but when they see their grandchildren it is all love all the time. They aren’t extremely active in playing with them, but are there for them. My parents also mail cards and little gifts randomly, which my kids love. My MIL is nearby and does help out with childcare (but only after they were out of diapers…would not babysit them as infants/toddlers), but when she leaves for the winter it is totally out of sight out of mind. She never calls or sends mail to them. Never any reminders that she is thinking of them.

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