Good friends of ours, who are also grandparents, are dealing with an issue that is, I fear, all too common. Here is the situation: They are carrying on a long-established tradition of Sunday dinner at their home hosted by them as the grandparents, with lots of extended family members in attendance. Over time, this cherished family gathering has evolved into both the parents and their kids sitting at dinner texting and not really interacting with each other.
Our friends hesitate to say anything because they fear people getting upset and not coming to the family dinners anymore. I’m interested in what you have to say about this.
I think you raise an issue that is bigger than just the use of digital devices at the family dinner table. I want to suggest that concern over use of profanity, “forgotten” p’s and q’s, texting and baseball caps at the dinner table, has arrived at a point where too many grandparents suffer in silence. They feel it is not their place to speak up or to interfere.
A major complaint I get from young parents is that the grandparents constantly offer unsolicited parenting advice. In turn, a major complaint from grandparents is that young parents reject the advice and experience they have to offer on how best to raise the grandchildren. I typically side with young parents and encourage grandparents to “zip it” and wait to be invited to share their advice.
However, I do think there are a few situations involving grandchildren when grandparents are justified in setting the ground rules they expect to be followed – even when they have not been invited to do so. These are situations that do not require permission or clearance from the grandchildren’s parents before being addressed by the grandparents. Let’s start with the one you raise, followed by others that I think fall into the same category.
Use of digital devices. Grandparents can decree “digital-free” zones and times in their own home if they don’t want family members texting and reading e-mails at their dinner table. And this includes everyone, especially the young parents, who are often the main offenders. If there is rebellion and threats, e.g., “Well, then we’re not coming to Sunday dinner anymore if we cannot stay connected while we’re eating,” then so be it.
Such a display of disrespect and self-centeredness should be countered with the grandparents stating that family members are always welcome at dinner when the devices are not being used. Alas, grandparents may have to be prepared to tolerate the use of the devices at others’ dinner tables, but they certainly don’t have to in their own home. Sometimes, not allowing digital devices at dinners in the grandparents’ home catches on and other family members adopt it in their homes, too.
Language. Profanity may have become commonplace, but those grandparents who are offended by their grandchildren using what the grandparents consider inappropriate language in their presence should not suffer in silence. In fact, grandparents can be instructive and helpful by saying to their grandchildren something along these lines: “You need to know that we are offended and uncomfortable when you swear and curse in our presence. We would appreciate you not doing that anymore.”
No apologies are necessary, such as, “We’re sorry, but that’s how we feel about it.” There is nothing to be sorry about. This approach isn’t saying stop using the vulgar language; it is merely saying please don’t use it around us.
Dress. Grandparents should let their grandchildren know when they would like them to make different fashion choices when in their presence. I once advised a grandfather to say the following when his granddaughter ignored his earlier requests to dress up a bit at family gatherings: “When you’re with us in our home, your grandmother and I would so appreciate it if you didn’t wear sausage-tight clothes and expose your gluteal cleft, breasts and cleavage, navel, and upper thighs. It makes us uncomfortable as we feel we’re seeing waaaaaaay too much of you.”
The granddaughter complied by dressing more conservatively when she visits her grandparents in their home, as well as when they visit in her home. A related example is when grandchildren wear baseball caps at the grandparents’ dinner table and the grandparents would rather they did not. Grandparents should ask them to remove them during dinner. (The kids can store their baseball caps with the digital devices that have also been banned!)
Manners. If having their grandchildren use please’s, thank you’s, and no thank you’s is important to them, grandparents should let their expectations be known, and then enforce them: “I appreciate being appreciated, so I need for you to thank me when I do something for you.” It may take a few go-rounds, but after a while, a simple “Manners, please,” from a grandparent should trigger a grandchild’s proper response.
The same goes for handwritten thank-you notes. If grandparents feel that a group e-mail from a grandchild thanking everyone for “their great birthday presents” is an underwhelming show of appreciation, then grandparents should let their grandchild know that a personal card, phone call, or note of thanks would be greatly appreciated.
In each of these situations in which I am urging grandparents to share their preferences and expectations regarding their grandchildren’s behavior, it is not uncommon for the grandchildren to point out that their parents don’t care if they: swear; text at the dinner table; wear whatever they want; don’t write thank-you notes. The grandparents’ response can be something like this: “We care, and this is between you and us. We have shared with you what is important to us when we’re together and we are counting on you to accommodate us. Thank you.”
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