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The Tyranny of Expectations: Grandparenting with grace during the holidays

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A very wise woman and poet, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, wrote recently, 

“During the holiday season I find that I and many of those I counsel find ourselves missing a family that only ever existed in our hopes and imaginations. I wonder if we sometimes miss the opportunity to create something new and real in our communities, amongst friends, lending a hand, celebrating in new ways. . . because we are caught in looking at what Helen Keller calls the closed door. May we turn away from closed doors to explore, that we might find and create new ways to celebrate life and love.”





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As my generation ages and focuses more and more on grandparenting and being the parents of adult children, the tyranny of expectations seems to grow in proportion. How many of us understand that our desires and expectations are not all meant to be automatically satisfied or accepted by our adult children. Let’s stop and think about what our lives were like when we were raising our families. When we were in our 30s and 40s, we were working our way into building lives of independence and cutting off traditional ties hoping to create some kind of new world order. What happened to those ideals and to the idea of living lives of independence? We all got older, and we seem to have decided to make up for lost time and capture what we thought we had missed in letting go of traditions that we now seem to want so badly.

As we come to our senses and look at the closed doors of our past, we can move ahead living life more fully present and mindful of the real needs and desires of our own children and grandchildren. Do we need to make our own children feel as if they need to silence their own needs and desires in the face of our unrealistic expectations? Part of our experience as grandparents is our own continued growth and development, and part of that is recognizing the patterns of behavior, the stages of life, and the series of closed doors that allow us to move into a new phase of life. When we insist on living according to some ideal we have created in our imagination (“I am going to be the family matriarch”, or “I am the head of the family, and I shall be obeyed,” or “my children owe me unconditional access to ‘my’ grandchildren’ and their lives”), we fail to live in the reality that we have before us. As holidays are upon us, we may find ourselves putting even more pressure on ourselves, our adult children, and indirectly, on those grandchildren we care so much for. Spend some time in reflection and discernment noticing what doors have closed, and what new paths lay before you.

I’m right in there with most of you. I would like to live across the street from my family, and see them on a daily basis. Instead, I have to fly back and forth 3-4 times a year so I can spend time with my family. My visits are no doubt somewhat disruptive, and end up putting more pressure on my daughter who already has more than enough to do. Planning time to spend with our children and grandchildren may be something we should think more carefully about. Because we have such easy access to travel and communication, does not necessarily mean we should take advantage of our children’s hospitality. What are some of the ways we might be more considerate of our children’s desire and need to establish independent lives of their own?

What is best for others? Instead of announcing my arrival or ‘surprising’ my family with an unplanned visit, I have learned to consult my daughter with what works best for her family’s plans. Watch the way you word your inquiries about upcoming visits. Are you demanding or setting unrealistic ultimatums? Watch your tone, for your tone can still set off a lot of unconscious, unhealed responses if your are not considerate of your childrens's feelings and needs. Families with young children lead very busy lives, often with both parents working full time. Delaying our own pleasure and gratification is important when it comes to creating better relationships and communication with our adult children.

How can I be more thoughtful and generous? Can we take turns? Do we allow our children and grandchildren time on their own to create their own traditions and special times? Does what I want go along with their needs and desires, or am I simply trying to get my own needs met? Even very thoughtful and kind people are capable of seeing the world through their own perspective without thought of the perspectives of others. Check your ideas out with your children before you make a decision or take an action to make certain you are in synch.

Have I got my own life? How many of us are trying to live our lives through our children? We do not have the right to force ourselves on our children to fulfill our own needs and desires. It is important for us to develop our own social circles, and have personal goals of our own.

What is realistic? How can I be more flexible? Wanting and expecting are not the same thing. I may want to be with my children all the time; realistically, that is not possible nor is it desirable. We have to have our own lives and should avoid expecting our children and grandchildren to fulfill all our needs and desires.

How can we be more creative about staying connected? The changes in technology have made communication and travel much more accessible for us all. If you are techno-phobic, get over it, and learn how to use technology (it’s not going away) to improve connections.

  • Discount long distant phone plans and phone cards. Set a regular time to talk to your grandchildren, if possible. Take note of their interests and follow up with them about their activities and interests.
  • Exchange letters. Children love to receive mail, and writing letters and postcards is a special kind of communication that can help you stay connected with your grandchildren and children. Some of my favorite memories are contained in letters I still keep.
  • Make video and audio recordings. Record a book, poetry, or tell some jokes, and share them with your grandchildren. Make a video and exchange video recordings of events, special conversations, or showing them something special (how to crochet, or how to draw a picture of a cat) on a video. Send music or sing some lullabies for your grandchildren to listen to.
  • Make a scrap book and/or a photo album for your grandchildren. Keep an album of photographs in your home so that when they visit, they can see how you have kept track of their life. And make a photo album or book for them about their lives. This is fairly easy todo now with all the online resources. If you do not have access to an online resource, make the book yourself by hand. Have some photos developed and write, draw, or collage a book just for your grandchild.
  • Plan special times. When you are with your grandchildren, focus on special one-on-one time with them. When visiting my granddaughter, I make a point to do yard duty at her school, or in some way help her teacher (if requested; avoid foisting yourself on their teachers). We meet after school, and walk to a local cafe for hot chocolate, and we got to special places to do art together. We take our sketch pads to the museums, or our cameras to photograph a special sports event or the bridges in the City.

Whatever we do and however we do it, we do set examples for our children and grandchildren. It’s not so much what we say we believe or what we imagine we are doing that stays with them. Our lives and the way we treat one another and the way we live teaches by example. Author, Jennifer Megan Varnadore wrote, “You are always someone’s example. Someone is always trying to follow in your footsteps. What will you leave them that is behind you?” The very least we can do is to be a good example. Grace is a gift given without thought for our own needs and desires. Give with grace during these holy days, and set a worthy example for those you hold dear.

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