PRIMETIME Be like Mick
Boomer grandparents offer guide on being hip and helpful
By Samantha Critchell
NEW YORK -- Erase the image of grandpa in his rocker on the porch with grandma sitting nearby knitting baby booties while nursing a cup of tea. That was your grandparents' grandparents.
Today, grandparents, many of whom prefer to be known by their other moniker -- "baby boomers" -- can be both hip and helpful.
"Boomers are going to redefine aging. Mick Jagger is a grandfather," says Allan Zullo, a grandfather who co-wrote with his wife Kathryn "A Boomer's Guide to Grandparenting" (Andrews/McMeel).
"Fifty today is not the 50 of a previous generation; 50 is like 30, or we'd like to think so," Zullo says. "We're more active, healthier and as a result we're able to do more, but we're also being pulled in more directions."
Zullo, who has two daughters and two grandchildren, says that people in their 50s and 60s have a lot more on their mind than wondering if they should retire to Florida or Arizona. Their days are often filled with careers, exercise, volunteer work, hobbies and their relationships with spouses, adult children, grandchildren and elderly parents.
Family relationships can, of course, be particularly delicate and demanding, especially since all the roles of a family are being redefined, Zullo says. It's not uncommon for adult children to need financial help from their parents, or elderly parents to need physical help, while grandchildren need a ride to soccer practice -- and then there are divorces, remarriages and adoptions to further uproot the traditional family tree.
"Being a grandparent is not an honorary position; you have a strong role to play even if you're not living in the same town (as your grandchildren)," says Zullo, whose "day job" is writer of the "Sports Hall of Shame" and "Amazing but True" books from his home in Asheville, N.C. His grandsons live in Florida.
Grandparents can be the best pinch-hitters, according to Zullo. They can come in and offer relief to weary parents who also have busier lives and more worries than might have been previously imagined.
What's not helpful, though, is grandparents who add to the stresses of their adult children. It's important to remember who are the parents in the equation, and grandparents need to respect the decisions being made by the adult children, he says.
Sure, there might be differences and it's OK to make an occasional suggestion or offer an honest opinion when asked, but, otherwise, grandparents should be there to help, not hurt. If grandparents make themselves unwelcome, they are the ones who'll lose out since parents are the gatekeepers of the children, he says.
"Vital, healthy grandparents should take a little pressure off parents, not ratchet it up," Zullo says. "In the ideal situation, before you become a grandparent, when you find out your son or daughter is going to have a kid, you have an open and honest discussion about guidelines. Say, 'I won't be the baby sitter' or 'I'll be whatever you want or need me to be.' Just make it clear."
For families marred by fights and cold shoulders, grandparenting might help smooth things over.
"There are a lot of rocky parent-grandparent relationships out there, but if everyone stops and puts one thing first -- what's in the best interest of the child -- things probably will work out," Zullo says. "Everything should be geared toward the kids."
He adds: "The older we get the wiser we get. We'll realize that even if we weren't the best parents, we can have a great impact on someone's life and we want to share the good things we have learned and make someone else's life better."
Parents, however, have to cut the grandparents some slack, too. "Grandparents are going to spoil the kids. It's our job," he says matter-of-factly.
They'll do it with an extra cookie (maybe even before dinner) or they can offer to pay for an activity, such as karate or ballet lessons, which is a way of giving a little financial assistance without the parents having to ask for it -- something adult children might find embarrassing or even ashamed to do. Plus, the children will probably enjoy it more and it gives the youngsters and their grandparents something to talk about, Zullo adds.
Face time between grandparents and the grandkids is very important, especially as grandparents take on the role as comforter. "Kids need another adult who will answer questions honestly but will always reassure and love them. Zullo says. "Kids might be able to approach a grandparent about a subject they don't want to go to parents with."
Grandparents also can be playmates. He encourages busy boomers to share their passions with children whether they like sailing, hiking, windsurfing, gardening or even making birdhouses; if the children develop a similar taste for the activity they'll likely form a long-lasting and deep bond with their mentors.
What's in it for the grandparents? "You'll hear grandparents say, 'I feel younger. I see the world now as a child instead of a cynical old man,"' Zullo says.
He also encourages getting great-grandparents who might be healthy and active to get involved in the day-to-day doings of the family, too.
"Great-grandparents are not waiting to die. They are vibrant and have something to offer. What a gift to give to a child: a family history, a sense of family and their roots."