Listen Well

Critical ways to support adult children in their parenting.

By Mary Jane Sterne and Peggy Edwards | March/April 2019

We make all sorts of assumptions when we first become grandparents: we raised successful children, our adult kids will welcome our parenting advice; we will be able to see the grandkids whenever we like; we will buy a jogging pram and run with our new granddaughter along the canal; we will turn the den into a bedroom for the grandchildren. Somehow, it seldom occurs to us to check out the underlying assumptions we are making: that our parenting advice is still relevant today; that our need to see the grandchildren will take priority; that the new parents will be relaxed and comfortable having their one year old pushed in a pram by a jogging grandpa or having a sleepover at grandma’s.

Understanding our adult children’s expectations of us as grandparents is key to developing and maintaining a good relationship. This takes time and good communication skills. Hard as it is to see all of our hard-won parenting wisdom going to waste, good communication means more active listening and less talking. Active listening includes consciously paying attention (not multi-tasking), asking relevant questions to ensure understanding, and not interrupting. Guilty as charged. Interrupting sends a variety of negative messages: What I have to say is more interesting and important; I know what you are going to say; I don’t care what you think; I don’t have time for your opinion. Active listening also means listening without immediately jumping to conclusions. As soon as we indulge in judgmental bemusements, we have compromised our effectiveness as a listener. Thinking “I knew baby Harry shouldn’t have been picked up every time he cried,” may prevent us from asking and understanding why they pick him up. Perhaps like two of my sons, Harry has colic and letting him cry himself to sleep only exacerbates his discomfort.

Studies confirm that most of us are poor and inefficient listeners. The benefits of improving this skill, are worth the effort. Good listening will build trust with our adult children and their partners. They will be more likely to share what is happening in the family, their concerns and issues. Really listening will broaden our understanding of their hopes, fears and expectations as parents, and will help prevent misunderstandings and hurt feelings. My young friend Julie still talks about how, as a new breastfeeding mother, every time she complained about being exhausted, her mother would interrupt with long stories about herself as the mother of twins. Being one of the twins, Julie knew it must have been challenging, but all she wanted was a little empathy. Besides, Julie was twelve years older than her mom was when she had her twins, and she was going back to a very demanding job. As a result, Julie stopped having any real conversations with her mom, wanting to avoid the “I had it worse” conversation.

Our adult children are raising their children in a more complex and demanding world. Like Julie, they are coming to parenting older, which doesn’t necessarily translate to their being more confident in their parenting. Indeed, in our interviews with new parents, we discovered that many were apprehensive and concerned about their ability to cope. We asked them how grandparents could best support them in their new role and there were a number of recurring themes. In addition to practical things such as offering to babysit and having our homes prepared for little visitors, young parents made an urgent plea for grandparents to respect their parenting practices. They are also looking for encouragement and ongoing two-way communication. This is a summary of what they said:

Encourage us: Emotional support was at the top of the wish list.They want us to tell them when they are doing a good job: “Praise me, praise my partner.” New parents don’t want to hear how we handled things better, but rather that we are understanding and empathetic. Their lives having been turned upside-down, especially with the first child, and our adult children have lots of doubts and questions. “Be patient and gentle with us and our children. Being patient with my children is re- assuring to us all. It’s just so good to be with people who are crazy about our kids. And patient. The second child is easier.”

Respect our parenting practices: Parents want grandparents to observe their parenting practices and follow their lead. They suggested that we spend time watching their family in action so we can see and understand how they handle issues, and then respect these practices when we are with the grandchildren. That includes the three areas with which most grandparents are most likely to have issues and differences: feeding, sleeping and disciplining practices. Regardless of how we feel, our adult children want us to be consistent with things that are important to them, for example the use of “time-outs” to discipline. “Don’t bribe our children with cookies and candies instead of reasoning.” Parents are then stuck with a child who expects a treat to conform to a behaviour. And if we are giving advice (which they don’t really want), “do so gently,without crossing the line of challenging how we want to parent.”

Offer concrete support such as babysitting: Many new parents don’t trust anyone but family to mind their children, especially for the first six months. They said they don’t worry because they assume their parents can handle a crying baby. They realized they needed time together as husband and wife but felt they simply couldn’t have this time together unless their parents were available to babysit. Some actually had pretty high expectations of the grandparents — which would obviously have to be negotiated!

Be prepared: Parents were also very appreciative of grandparents who were well prepared. They said: “Child-proof your house, so we parents can relax there (no danger or fear the kids will hurt themselves or break precious knick- knacks)”. They also appreciated parents who have a room and crib available, especially when coming from out of town. The baby sleeps better and so does the rest of the family. “We worry about waking you up.”

Communicate with us: Communication was seen as the key to mutual understanding between the parents and the grandparents. “Tell us your expectations. Ask us before assuming things, such as what are appropriate gifts. When you babysit, talk with us about “weekly or monthly issues.” Is there something you as grandparents should watch out for or pay attention to; for example, what to do if our child throws food. We take it away. Don’t be a martyr: speak up! Tell us if we are asking too much of you. Let us know what kind of grandparent you want to be.” And lastly, they said “Listen and understand where we are coming from.”

As I was writing this column, I was thinking about my sweet mother who passed away last year at age 92. Always interested in what we had to say, always encouraging, never interrupting, never giving unsolicited advice, Mom was the one we all turned to in times of joy or sorrow. This mother of seven, grandmother of fifteen and great grandmother of twenty-three, truly had listening down to a fine art.


Mary Jane Sterne and Peggy Edwards are best friends and the authors of Intentional Grandparenting: A Boomer’s Guide, (McClelland and Stewart, 2005). Available from your favourite bookstore or online at Chapters.Indigo.ca. The authors live in Ottawa and have 23 grandchildren and five great grandchildren between them.