10 Ways To Get Grandparents To Be More Hands-On

Grandmother with Grandson
Grandmother with Grandson

If your perfectly-able parents or in-laws don't seem to lift a finger with your kids, you may be feeling a bit short-changed.

"All my friends' parents seem get stuck in with little outings and after-school care, yet the rare times my mother comes over, she just wants to talk to me and treats my kids as if they are a TV programme in the background," laments one mum.

"When I asked my mother-in-law if she'd change my baby's nappy recently, she said she's had her time of child-rearing!" says another.

So how can you subtly get your kids' grandparents to be more hands-on?

Aim for the bond between grandparent and grandchild, not the free childcare.

This should always be the starting point of the grandparent-grandchild relationship, says Dr Lynne Jordan, psychologist and director of Jordan Psychology. "Find ways for your children and parents to establish their own relationship, so your parents naturally seek out the contact with the children."

That way, it doesn't feel so much of a continuation of actually caring for your needs, but for their grandchildren in their own right, she explains. "Grandparents have sometimes worked quite hard to let go and move on as their children leave home and it can feel like going backwards if the childcare requests are most of what is offered as contact between grandparent and child. But building bonds or attachments can draw out an enjoyment of, and even a longing to be with, the children."

Always show excitement when it's time to see them.

Whilst your instinct may be to take a deep breath or groan out loud as you pull up the driveway, you'll need get a fixed smile ready, no matter what, says Dr Amanda Gummer, psychologist and founder of the website www.fundamentallychildren.com.

"Get excited and encourage your children to get excited when seeing their grandparents and find things to compliment your parents on when they do engage with the baby," she says.

For older children, find special activities or routines that the grandparents can do with the child. "It doesn't have to be anything fancy. I remember making scones with my nan and my grandad showing us how to make stuff in his woodwork shed. These memories are treasured by both child and grandparent alike."

Seek their advice

The complete lack of interest from your parents or in-laws in your little darlings (along with a few scary stories from your partner about their own childhood) might make them the last people on earth you'd want to seek parenting advice from. But actually it might hold the key to unlocking their love of kids, says Gummer.

"Talk to them about your/your partner's childhood and ask them what they did in situations that you find challenging," she suggests. "Talking about their own parenting experience will help them remember the challenges, as well as the good times, and they may be more willing to offer to help."

Take the help they offer graciously, even if it's not the help you really need.

"No, no, Mum, nobody uses that method of disciplining toddlers nowadays."

"Ah yes, but she's a windy baby, so it's better to do it like this."

If these are the kind of comments that slip out of your mouth, albeit well-intentioned, you might want to think again.

"Many grandparents are very wary of interfering and a couple of early rejections of help or criticisms of their approach may prevent them from feeling able to help going forward," explains Gummer. "Show them that you really need their help and make them feel valued by respecting their time and efforts."

Find a way of asking for help that they will enjoy and find easy to do.

"Whether it's bringing your shopping in or picking up a child from nursery or school, play to their strengths. That way, they'll feel valued and more likely to want to help in the future," says Gummer.

It might infuriate you that your mother-in-law is prepared to spend three hours making a beautiful cake for you all, when actually you'd kill for three hours childcare, but it's all about starting with the things they like doing. Similarly, if your mum will only babysit for an evening with gritted teeth, think again about asking her to do something she'd be more likely to enjoy, like walking your child down to the shop to buy an ice cream.

Sell everyday tasks as treats.

If you really want your grandparents to get stuck in, you're going to have to learn a few marketing skills. Instead of, "Just this once, could you help with bath time?" in a tired voice, try this with a big excited smile on your face: "Oh mum, do you want to see them in the bath? It's so sweet and they've especially asked for Granny to watch their boat game. I'd love to do it, but it's you they really want!"

Never say, "I can't face another feed. Can you please just help this time?" But rather, "I saved this feed for you, if you'd like it, that is? You'll love the way she snuggles up at the moment. Such special times."

If necessary, take out the boring bits, at least at first – the drying off afterwards or winding the baby.

Remember they may be nervous

It's easy to assume that just because someone's had children, they remember everything. But many years have gone by since you and your partner were wee tots and consequently, your parents or in-laws might be terrified about handling a newborn, feeling they can tell off your toddler or driving your precious child to a lesson.

Men may never have got stuck in the first time round. How many of us remember our dads leaving for work before we went to school and not coming home until we were in bed?

Find ways to minimise their anxiety, based on their personality. For example, don't watch, give them more responsibility or help a bit to start with without patronising.

Don't compare

It's unhelpful to think, "My best friend's mum has them every day after school, yet mine won't even babysit once!" says Gummer. "Instead, be realistic about their personality and lifestyle, as well as what you think they can handle and are prepared to do."

All families are different, she points out. "Just as you shouldn't compare your children to your friends' children, don't compare your parents to those of your friends. If you've benefitted from an independent, strong mother as a role model, you shouldn't be surprised if she's filled her life with things since you left home and has commitments that she doesn't want to neglect. If your mother found parenting difficult and suffered from postnatal depression, she may find dealing with your children too painful a memory of a difficult time in her life."

Book a short break away all together.

I know, I know, it could be heaven or hell. But provided you're prepared to adhere to all the rules outlined here, it may be a good way to try to find small ways of getting the grandparents stuck in with the kids and to help build the bond between them.

Be prepared to bite your lip a lot, though, without showing that's what you are doing. And don't book anything too long. If it doesn't work out as planned, don't assume all is lost and go back to shorter day visits.

If all else fails, remember hands-off behaviour doesn't necessarily equate to not loving the grandchildren.

It might just mean they have a life that doesn't revolve around your kids, says Jordan. "So try not to jump to negative conclusions."

Grandparenthood isn't what it used to be – old dears with blue rinses with all the time in the world for grandchildren. Many of today's grannies and grandpas have full-time jobs or have found new and exciting interests. "My mum is dating and has been quite clear that she puts her romantic life ahead of my kids – and why shouldn't she?" says one understanding mum.

That said, don't assume hands-off behaviour is there to stay, says Gummer. "Nothing is set in stone and grandparents who may not want to be involved with new babies may become more engaged as your children start to walk and talk. Try to keep the relationship as open as possible and talk to them about how they want their relationship with their grandchildren to work and how you are finding parenting.

"They may not want to babysit every week, but there may be other things that they can do to support you and help you and your children thrive."