Dear Mr. Dad: I have two grandchildren, ages 4 and 6. I love them dearly but really don’t enjoy babysitting. They run around, climb on the furniture, break things, and generally wreak havoc in my house. It takes me a good hour to child-proof the house before my daughter drops them off and then another hour to put everything back. I’m exhausted! How can I be a good grandma and enjoy time with the kids?
A: Let’s start by defining “good grandma.” I’d say that taking two little terrors into your house and keeping them entertained for hours on end without getting paid for it—more than once—is a good start.
Another important ingredient is the desire to be a regular part of their lives. The foundation you’re laying now will hopefully blossom into a close, nurturing relationship as your grandchildren get older. The trick is to find a way to turn those frustrating and infuriating visits into something more fun—for you and for them. They can definitely feel how tense you are when they’re around and they probably aren’t much happier to be at your house than you are to have them there.
One solution is to do your babysitting at your daughter’s house instead of yours. That way, you’ll save a few hours on the childproofing, and any property damage will be covered by your daughter’s homeowner’s policy, not yours. The downside is that children usually like spending time at their grandparents’ house. The rules there are often more lenient than in their own home, and they get to do things they wouldn’t do with mom and dad around. There’s something about sharing that feeling that helps strengthen the grandparent-grandchild bond.
You’ll need to establish some simple ground rules. Your grandkids are old enough to understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. For example, at grandma’s house, there’s no jumping on furniture or touching things without asking first. Explain to them that you have to repair anything they break or damage, and that’ll cost you time and money. Remember, though, that kids sometimes break things accidentally, so keep anything valuable well out of reach. You can’t reasonably forbid them from touching everything in your house—that’s just not realistic.
As a workaround, do you have a room in your house that you could designate as a play space where the kids won’t have to worry about breaking or destroying anything? It doesn’t have to be fancy: a few pieces of child-friendly furniture, a table, some chairs, and a good assortment of age-appropriate toys, coloring books, arts and crafts supplies, blocks, and so on. If money’s an issue, you can probably get most of these items used at garage sales or on Craigslist.
Before each visit, think about what you’ll do while they’re there. Build in a good mix of indoor and outdoor, active and quiet, group and solo activities. Give them some choices, but don’t forget to include activities you enjoy. For example, my mom loves to draw and paint and she makes doing art a regular part of many of her visits with her grandchildren. My 7-year old’s maternal grandparents are avid bird watchers and they’ve taken her on many backyard outings. Do this now. It’ll be a lot harder to convince a tween or a teen to go to a museum with you if they’ve never done it before. But if it’s been a regular part of their routine, you may actually be able to get them to stop texting for a few minutes and enjoy the artwork.