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Being a grandparent is a major milestone in the journey of life. For those who have taken years to learn how to parent, becoming a grandparent requires a completely different set of rules, and often times, the ability to readjust as the family dynamics change. It’s important to understand these unwritten rules in order to maximise your joy in grandparenting, as well as maintaining a loving and fulfilling intergenerational family life.
59-year-old kindergarten teacher Erja Jappinen is the proud grandmother of five grandchildren. She sees herself more as the ‘fun grandparent’ without the responsibilities she once had in raising her own children.
“It’s absolutely very different, because you feel the responsibilities are very different. I do have a very open communication with both my son, and daughter, and daughter-in-law, and son-in-law, so I value that I’ve had my time raising my children, so now it’s their time to raise their children, so I take on board the way they want to raise, of course, if they want my advice, or help, I’m always there.”
Many multicultural families tend to place great value on the harmony of family relationship.
This open line of communication is strongly recommended by clinical psychologist Karen Marshall of Relationships Australia Queensland, who resolves family disputes arising out of intergenerational conflicts due to different cultural values and ideas of bringing up the grandchildren.
“They have to clarify with the parents how those parents want them to be as grandparents, so that might be quite a different approach than what they might have had in their own country.”
This is especially important for migrants whose adult children have married a spouse of another culture.
“There can be a difference between those cultures. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a clash but there can be a real difference, so imposing their traditional values on that new family may not be as appreciated as they would like it to be.”
April Hoang is a researcher at Queensland University’s Parenting and Family Support Centre, which is working towards releasing a grandparenting program soon. She’s surveyed over 500 people to explore common grandparenting issues as part of her research on the parent and grandparent relationship among Asian families.
“One of the biggest challenges for grandparents, specifically, is the unwritten rules of being there but not interfering with the parenting.” - researcher April Hoang, The University of Queensland
This problem doesn't just affect Asian families. It’s a common challenge faced by grandparents of many different cultural backgrounds when it comes to what is perceived as the best thing for their grandchildren which may be contrary to the parents’ approach.
“The grandparents perceive themselves as the parenting figure as well, so they think that they can interfere with the parenting of the child, and that is because of the benefit of the grandchild because they think the parents, they are too aggressive, or the parenting practice their adult child is doing, is not good, so they think that it’s their right to interfere to protect the child.”
April Hoang’s research finds that parents see parenting and disciplining their children as their own responsibility, and the disagreement from grandparents can often lead to unresolved long term conflict. She suggests setting clear expectations and boundaries with the parent about your role.
“Communicate with the parent whether they want you to be the discipline figure or not, and if yes, if you can discipline, how much you can interfere, but sometimes, I know it’s very hard to negotiate this relationship, but try not to undermine, or interfere with the parent’s parenting, sometimes, like, when the parents are doing the discipline with the child, and are teaching the child something, try not to interfere, discuss with them later.”
April agrees with Karen that communication is essential. Many multicultural families tend to place great value on the harmony of family relationship. She says, sometimes, in order to maintain a peaceful relationship, family members may feel hesitant to discuss issues of concern in the intergenerational family life.
“Don’t be scared of breaking that harmony in order to resolve a disagreement, so rather than keep silent, and keep the disagreement going on; having an open discussion with your child, or the parent of your grandchild about what you think that should be changed, or anything you can help with the discipline, or their parenting, and how both of you can improve the experience of parenting that grandchild.”
Karen Marshall from Relationships Australia Queensland suggests taking a wait and watch approach for first-time grandparents as they navigate the boundaries and rules of grandparenting in Australia.
“That new baby comes home, grandmother is the mother of the dad, she sees her new daughter-in-law doing things differently to the way that she would’ve done them, they’re not doing something that she thinks is the way that she would’ve done them; rather than coming in with a lot of advice and imposing their views, it would be better if she just stepped back, and watched, and asked if she could make a suggestion, or ask how the young mum would like her support.”
April Hoang warns that managing intergenerational relationships can be tricky when you value the grandchildren’s desire over their parents’.
“Don’t get yourself stuck in the middle of the child and the parent, because, sometimes, the child can take advantage of the relationship and might complain, or ask you to do something against the parent, but make sure that you respond to the child with sympathy, but at the same time, discuss with the parent how you can work together to help the child.”
In order to foster a healthy and happy family life, grandparents, who are used to traditional cultural ways of doing things, may need to learn to adapt to grandparenting your Australian-born grandchildren.
“Especially with change of society, and especially in Australia, as well, the young parents, they might have their own way of parenting, and they need space to build their own parenting, as well, so the grandparent also need to learn how to let go of their way of parenting, and respect their child as the role of a parent. Sometimes, you might disagree with their parenting, but trust your children as a parent, and support them.”
It may be hard not to have full say in the way your grandchildren are raised, clinical psychologist Karen Marshall suggests that grandparents find other opportunities to enjoy life beyond their role as grandparents.
“There are clubs, they have particular skills they may be able to share in community groups at their community centre, if they’re involved in church groups - there’s lots of other ways that they can contribute to the community, as well as to their families and their grandchildren.”
That is precisely Erja Jappinen’s strategy in balancing her own life with her role as a grandparent.
“I spend quite a lot of time with my grandchildren. I have five, all different ages, from two to fifteen, so they all have very different needs and at different levels of growing, so I try to spend individual time with all of them. As well as with all of them, but when it’s time to back-off, we take time, and have fun with just my husband and I. Sometimes, it’s nice to go and just be like adult and have dinner.”