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Can Grandparents Actually Do More Harm Than Good?

Jennifer Mattern

My mom’s answer for all of my 16-year-old daughter’s “lady problems”? A sloe gin fizz.

My daughter and her uncooperative ovaries have so far politely declined the offer to sip sloe gin fizzes with her grandmother, even chiding my mom affectionately, “You know the drinking age is 21, right?”

Still, my mom insists it’s what her mom and grandmother did for her when cramps were bad. She is convinced that sloe gin fizzes have medicinal properties besides the alcohol content, but bless her heart, I’m not buying it.

My mom is pretty benign as far as grandmothers go, but I was intrigued to see three new studies that suggest that grandparents who adhere to dubious parenting moves from the olden days might be putting their grandkids in danger.

More: How to handle overbearing grandparents?

Honestly, I think that’s kind of an alarmist stretch. Most grandparents are not plunging their grandkids into ice baths or force-feeding them broccoli until they puke. Most of the grandparents I’ve met — even the really old-school posse — just seem to have very strong opinions. But how many are actually enforcing mandatory sloe gin fizzes?

“When grandparents step up to the plate, it can be wonderful for grandchildren but can also pose challenges in terms of lifestyle, finances, and mental and physical health to a somewhat older or elderly cohort,” said senior investigator Dr. Andrew Adesman of the studies he’s headed. “In their questionnaires, a fairly large sample size of grandparents felt they were doing a good job but acknowledged they didn’t have the support they often needed and that their role could be alienating in terms of their own peer group.”

I didn’t realize that according to U.S. Census Bureau data nearly 7 million U.S. kids are being raised solely by their grandparents, of which there are 2.7 million. Who can blame the grandparents for suggesting a stiff drink when they’re outnumbered nearly 3 to 1?

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Adesman found in his studies that grandparents tend to be unaware of what most parents consider obvious health and safety choices for kids, like not putting infants to sleep on their bellies (because that’s what our parents’ doctors told them to do with us in case you didn’t know). Adesman also discovered that a whopping 44 percent of 636 grandparents surveyed really do believe that ice baths can be therapeutic to reduce a very high fever.

(Psst… Grandma and Grandpa. Ice baths can cause hypothermia in kids. Go with lukewarm water. Pass it on.)

Adesman’s research suggests it might be beneficial for grandparents to take caregiving courses before helping out with the kids even on a part-time basis. This made me laugh, as clearly, Adesman knows some very docile grandparents. I think most current-day grandparents — having (mostly) successfully raised creatures who also successfully reproduced — would be offended by the suggestion that they now need a refresher course to care for their own grandchildren. Hell, I know I would be offended 20 years from now if my daughters insisted I take a class at the local Y before babysitting my own grandkids.

This is what communication is for, people. “Hey, Mom, we don’t give sloe gin fizzes to 16-year-olds or 13-year-olds with menstrual cramps,” should suffice for most grandparents, no? And if you don’t trust your parent to make safe choices when it comes to your child, well, maybe a hired caregiver is the smart way to go.

But what happens when you’re out of the picture — and your parents are the ones caring for your kids full-time?

Adesman says that modern grandparents often lack a support system and their social lives are strained by caring for their grandkids — meaning they’re not getting a chance to talk with friends about the stress of caring for children at a later stage in life.

“One major takeaway from this study is that for grandparents who are raising grandchildren, their parenting can often take a toll in terms of their own physical and emotional health, and support groups can make a difference,” Adesman explained. “I think pediatricians need to also evaluate not just the health and well-being of the child, but really ask about the physical and social health of the grandparent that has assumed responsibility for raising that child as well. Because although the grandparents often elected to take on this role, it’s not something they planned for and it can represent a challenge in many domains. Many grandparents are up to the challenge, but it may come with certain costs.”

The moral of the story? It may not be safe to assume that your idea of common sense will automatically match up with your parents’. Talk about your expectations (no ice baths, no roaming the neighborhood unsupervised for hours before dinner). Be clear about what’s OK and what’s not for your own kids. And go easy on your parents. By and large, they want to rock this grandparenting gig — and maybe even be better at it than they were at parenting you.

And remember: Our day is coming. I can already picture my daughters being horrified that I forgot to take my grandbaby for her daily high-altitude drone flight for fresh air and visual stimulation or mad that I didn’t know how to work the robot nanny. Oops.

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