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Prepare kids, yourself for grandparent visits

By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 9, 2002

For many of us this summer will include a vacation with our kids' grandparents, be they our own parents or in-laws. And for many of us that means a fun but also sometimes stressful vacation.

As wonderful as grandparents are, they did certain things differently when they raised their children. And they like to make that known. Some may just make a couple of comments over the course of a week. Others pretty much decide they are the only hope for shaping their grandchildren into any sort of respectable human being.

My mother-in-law's big hang-up is meals. If she fixes a meal, be it steak or chicken salad, she wants everyone to eat it. It drives her crazy if I'm off to the side of the kitchen making a sandwich or cottage cheese for my girls to eat because I know they'll convulse around making dry-heaving motions if they put mushy chicken salad in their mouths.

I know of one mother-in-law who stepped in and started my friend's 4-month-old baby on cereal while she was visiting. My friend was away and didn't get to be the first one to put a spoon in her baby's mouth. Other grandparents think it's high time Junior was potty trained and that they're the ones to do it.

Another friend of mine dreads going home because her mother refuses to move the crystal candy dishes, vases and ceramic figurines from low tables and shelves throughout the house. "You learned not to touch, why can't they?" her mother says. And maybe that's a good point. But the babies and toddlers don't seem to learn this lesson in a short visit to grandma's, so their mom spends her visit nervously patrolling and guarding every breakable in the house.

I have an aunt whom I adore, but might not if she were my mother-in-law. When her grandson comes to visit she calls him by his first and middle name, because she can't stand the nickname his parents use.

The list could go on. We all do things that get on other family members' nerves. But when someone's actions or comments insinuate: "You're not cutting it as a parent," they cut with a sharper edge.

So what are we to do? Just grin and bear it.

"It's relatively unlikely that were going to change our parents' behavior," said St. Petersburg child psychiatrist Mark Cavitt. "If any change is going to occur it is probably going to be with us and our children."

Instead of being defensive and explaining why you do things the way you do, just agree with your mother or in-laws that your child isn't perfect, advises Ruth Peters, a Clearwater child psychologist.

"It's really hard to argue with someone when they are agreeing with you," she said. "Just say: 'You're right, Mom, I haven't been as consistent as I should on that.' And maybe the reason you've been inconsistent is because you're working on 10 different other things at the moment."

And if you're getting guidance from a book or favorite parenting authority, it usually doesn't help to offer that up as your explanation as to why you do things your way. Most grandparents think they know more than those books to begin with.

If you know the hot points you'll face when you visit, you can try to work on them ahead of time with your kids. They may not pass a crash course on acquiring a taste for broccoli, but you can teach them how to try one bite without making a scene and spitting it out of their mouth. Explain that they may not get their favorite food at every meal but they can have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or cereal for a snack to make up for it.

"A week or so of eating different or eating less is not going to be detrimental to the child," Cavitt said. "They will not be in a malnutrition clinic a week later."

Cavitt and Peters both suggest discussing some touchy issues with grandparents before the visit. This is good advice, but I was still at a loss for what I would say that didn't sound defensive or critical. I asked them for an actual script I might follow word for word.

"This is how we're raising our children and it works for us. I understand it's different from your style but don't be surprised when we do this," Cavitt offered. "If this is a problem, how can we make it better for you?"

Peters suggested an e-mail or letter ahead of time in which you point out that there is usually friction over this issue or that and ask what you can do to avoid that this summer. If your son loves wearing his dinosaur shirt every day and you wash it out each night, tell your mom in advance you plan to do this. Admit that you realize it's not normal behavior, Peters advised, "But tell mom that he's a good kid and you're just going to do this so we can have fun and not worry about it while we're all together."

Just because I say grandparents have hang-ups about how we raise our children doesn't mean I don't enjoy visiting them. We have great summer vacations with my parents and in-laws. Grandparents can be remembered and loved just for some of the simple rituals children enjoy when they visit.

My father always buys a box of Klondike ice cream sandwiches to keep in the freezer when we visit. I could buy them here, but I never do. That's something they savor thanks only to "Snowdaddy." My mom has a few favorite books that were my sister's and mine when we were little that she reads to the girls every time they visit. They know they only hear those stories at their grandparents' house. And only at Mimi's house in North Carolina is it cool enough in June to "camp out" on the screen porch.

Either parents or grandparents can go to www.igrandparents.com and download activities. There are more than 100 coloring pages you can print out, featuring such subjects as Thomas the Tank Engine, the American flag, kangaroos and scorpions. The site also offers riddles, award certificates to make and print and song lyrics. Craft ideas include making a vase from a coffee can and twigs collected on a walk.

If your children get antsy when they don't have their own toys and friends, plan to get them out of the house with or without the grandparents. My parents still live where I grew up, so we often go visit my old elementary school and play on the playground.

Whether it's your hometown or not, call the chamber of commerce ahead of time and get a list of attractions, recreation centers, pools and city parks. Ask Grandma to go to a yard sale the week before you come and buy a few used toys or books that will seem like new to your kids for the short time they visit.

But of course, if Grandma thinks your children already have too many toys, don't try that one.

-- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at Oliviachar@aol.com; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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