Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandmother Taken to Task For Sharing Personal Experiences

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Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,

My daughter Rose, who is not speaking to me at the moment, texted me that I should read your column “Should Grandparents Share Their Views on Sex, Drugs, and Alcohol?” Here is why she isn’t speaking to me.

My 14-year-old granddaughter Melissa came to me very upset. She said that her mother (Rose) was really angry with her because she [Melissa] snuck out of the house to meet up with her boyfriend and then lied about it. Melissa said, “Mom thinks she is so perfect and that everyone else should be perfect too.”

I assured her that her mother was not perfect and I gave the example of when her mother got caught drinking at a high school football game and ended up in big trouble with the principal. Melissa thought this was great and asked me for other examples of when her mother had messed up. Right then Rose entered the room. Melissa said to her mother, “Grandma is telling me that you weren’t such a perfect child after all.”

Rose was furious with me, told Melissa to get in the car, and they left. This was a few days ago and we haven’t spoken since. My husband thinks I should call Rose and apologize, but I don’t think I have anything to apologize for. I was telling the truth. All I was trying to do was make Melissa feel better by knowing that her mom was not always perfect, and that these things pass.

What do you think?

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

I think your daughter wanted you to read that particular column [referenced above] because it raises the issue of grandparent involvement in their grandchildren’s lives, specifically when it comes to sharing opinions and personal experiences. To be most helpful, I want to give you two issues to think about: (1) Sharing your grown children’s personal experiences with your grandchildren; (2) Sharing your own personal experiences with them.

Sharing Your Grown Children’s Personal Experiences

It’s one thing to share with your grandchildren positive things about their parents when they were young, e.g., “From the day your mom was born she has loved animals, always wanting to learn about them . . .” or “Your grandfather and I were so proud the time your dad sang a solo in a school play . . .” It is quite another matter when grandparents share negative and embarrassing things about their grown children with their grandchildren without permission. It is up to your grown children, not you, to speak for themselves and decide what to share about times when they misbehaved or acted inappropriately. Quite simply, it is not okay to try to soothe Melissa by bringing up youthful transgressions committed by her mom or dad.

In effect, your good intentions aside, from your daughter’s point of view I suspect she was feeling that you:

  • Trivialized whatever transpired between your granddaughter and her.
  • Usurped her role as chief disciplinarian.
  • Redirected the focus from your granddaughter’s behavior to her behavior.

If you can appreciate how your daughter may have experienced your interactions with Melissa, perhaps you can see your way clear to extending an apology for causing her to feel resentment towards you for overstepping your bounds. You can empathize by saying something such as, “I can understand how upsetting it was for you when I butted in the situation between you and Melissa. If I were you I would have felt like I was undermining your parental authority, not to mention that I should never share things you may have done when you were young that can embarrass you. I was out of line and I am truly sorry. I will never do that again.”

Sharing Your Own Personal Experiences

Although you did not specifically reference this, there is the matter of you sharing your own personal experiences when it comes to important quality-of-life issues. For example, your grandchild may want to know if you’ve ever done drugs, or at what age did you first have sex, or did you ever get drunk.

Hmm, how to respond?

The Center for Parenting Education provides excellent advice and guidelines: “What to Tell Your Children About Your Past.”  (You may want to discuss this article with your grandchildren’s parents to determine how they would like you to handle issues about openness and honesty.)  Here is an excerpt:

“As you decide what to tell your teen about your past, remember that lies of omission and focusing on their current issues rather than on your past [helps them develop the right values and to stay safe] . . . Whether you answer yes or no to your teen about whether you did something or didn’t, the discussion will be focused on you. Better to ask: ‘Why do you ask?  Do you know of kids who are [doing such and such]?’ . . . Teens are not inclined to learn from our mistakes, and we don’t want to give them what they may interpret as sanction to make their own.”

One final suggestion: If your grandchildren ever say to you, “I want to tell you something, but you have to promise not to tell my parents,” tell them that you cannot make that commitment because their parents have a right to know about anything that threatens their safety and well-being. Explain to them that although you will not keep secrets from their parents, you can help them figure out what to say to them — perhaps you can participate in a role-play so they have the confidence they need to deliver a difficult message. You can offer to be with them when they talk with their parents, if that would help.

The point is that you never want to be in the position where your grandchildren’s parents say to you, “You knew, and you didn’t tell us.” If is understandable that parents might view this as a betrayal of trust; it can result in the parents deciding to curtail or cut off grandparents’ access to their grandchildren.

So my advice is: Yes, grandparents, be a resource, be a sounding board, be an advisor, but do not become the keeper of secrets from your grandchildren’s parents.

I hope my advice helps you, and all grandparents, make appropriate decisions when it comes to sharing the experiences of the grandchildren’s parents when they were growing up, as well as sharing one’s own personal experiences with their grandchildren.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to [email protected]

Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Its All About Relationships: New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work

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