Relatives also are an important and usually valuable influence on a youngster’s ability to get along with other people. Children need and enjoy the extra feeling of security gained from belonging to a large family of grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Cousins can be very special and important friends as children are growing up. Fortunate is the child who can grow up with a large family circle of relatives about him. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthdays are all looked forward to as big family celebrations.
It is very true that relatives are sometimes difficult and add problems to the family circle, but the value to the child can often outweigh the difficulties.
Grandparents may spoil their grandchildren, but children usually accept with understanding the bit of indulgence which grandma and grandpa enjoy giving to them. Most children will not confuse this with the way in which things are done at home, but will think of it as something entirely apart and special, if mother and father do not get upset by the “spoiling” but keep steadily and firmly to their way of guiding their children. One situation which parents cannot accept is open criticism by the grandparents of their management of their children, or an attempt on grandma’s or grandpa’s part to permit the children to do something they have been forbidden to do. Another situation which cannot be accepted from relatives is open criticism of the child that takes away his confidence in himself. In both these cases it becomes necessary for parents to talk things over with grandma and grandpa or the other relatives involved, and to come to an understanding, if possible. Too much affection will not spoil a child, but too much criticism will.
Talking things over with relatives is not easy. It is important to let the grandparents or aunts and uncles feel that they are appreciated and valued, or they will become hurt and defensive. But at the same time, parents must make it quite clear that although they want the relatives to love and enjoy their children, it is bad for children to be torn between two sets of adult authority. Grandparents can be of such value to a little child that it is worth a good deal of effort to get matters worked out.
Sometimes it is necessary to interpret the relatives to the child. Parents may have to say in a kindly manner, “That is the way grandma did things when daddy was her little boy. She does not know that we do things differently at our house.” Or if the grandparents have criticized a child it may be best to say, “Grandma did not understand how you felt. She didn’t mean to be unkind.”
If a child is going to visit relatives it is best to prepare him ahead of time for any differences in routine or in the way things will be done. Help the child to look forward to such visits eagerly and as if they were something special. If the situation with the relatives is a difficult one, the visits should be very short and planned at a time of day when the child is not tired. If the grandparents cannot co-operate at all, then it is better to make the visits short and as few as possible.
Living with grandparents is a difficult and special problem. Unless the grandparents are unusually flexible and there is excellent ability to get along between the older and the younger families, living together should not be considered unless no other plan is possible. If the two families must live together, the younger couple must expect to make the more compromises. It will be much more difficult for the older couple to give up their ways than for the younger parents to fit into the new situation. However, there is one point on which there can be no compromise: a child cannot have two sets of parents, and even if the grandparents and parents live together, the parents must keep the right to guide their child in their own way.
One of the reasons why it is so difficult to talk things over calmly with relatives, especially with grandparents, is that they naturally cannot accept the fact that their son or daughter has grown up, while sons and daughters are still unable to free themselves entirely from some of the feelings and attitudes toward their parents that they had when they were children. Suggestions, even good ones, are still resented, and many grownups still feel guilty as they did when they were children, if they do not do what their parents ask. If it means going against the opinion of the children’s grandparents, all these feelings from the past sometimes make it hard for parents to play their own role with their own children.
Young parents must be able to realize that they may still love their own parents and respect them, but at the same time they have an obligation to bring up their own children, even if it means doing things in a way that grandma and grandpa do not understand or of which they openly disapprove. If the child sees his parents take grandma’s ideas in their stride, they will take the ideas in theirs too: “That is just grandma’s way. We love her, but we don’t have to agree with her.”
It is important to give grandparents the feeling that they are loved and wanted in the family circle. Go to them for advice, talk things over sometimes, even if their suggestions are not always followed. Keep them in touch with what the children are doing, let them feel as useful as possible when they are in the home, and let them do things their way in any situations which will not hurt the child. The generations can then mix very happily together. (Continue below to page 6)