Enemy at the baby gate: When grandparents go bad

C-VILLE KIDS

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As a new father with no significant prior experience with small children, I worry I’ve missed something big and obvious about infant care. I’ve taken classes and read a little bit here and there, but there’s no substitute for experience. I have a gnawing suspicion there are things I should know that were not covered in my classes or readings precisely because they’re so obvious (to those with experience with small children) that it’s assumed all parents know these things; I’m worried about the things that should go without being said. At a minimum, I’m worried I’ll be uncovered and humiliated as an impostor parent.

My strategy for filling in the gaps and successfully “passing” in the world of parenting is to ask other parents a lot of questions. I cast the widest net possible by posing questions in very general terms in the hope I’ll pull in something useful.

A particular area of anxiety for me is child safety because, well, it’s child safety, and they didn’t have that when I was a kid. I truly have no experience with any of this. When I was my daughter’s age, mothers who smoked and drank through-out their pregnancy raised their children in homes coated in lead paint. There were no child-proof caps, car seats, baby gates, flame-retardant clothing/bedding, and no safety standards for strollers or cribs. On top of that, parents made little or no effort to baby-proof their homes; I played with the sharp knives whenever my mother took a cigarette break from cleaning the asbestos couch covers.

So, I’ve been asking parents what their biggest child safety concern is. The parents I spoke to described several familiar dangers, but I did manage to pull up something new and surprising: At least a few parents (a small but vocal minority) said their biggest concern about the health and well-being of their children was (drum roll) the grandparents. While the overwhelming majority of grandparents are fine and lovely people, there are, according to my informal survey participants, some grandparents who routinely put their grandchildren at significant risk of bodily harm. I’ve had very little experience with grandparents of my own, so this was news to me. By the time I was born, only one grandparent was still living. My only grandparent was geographically and emotionally remote but well-meaning and harmless.

These outliers are not motivated by malice, and dementia is not a factor; the source of the heedless behavior is not clear. Jennifer, a mother of two, attributes it to demographics: Today’s grandparents had children who typically postponed producing children of their own much longer than previous generations. The result is that there’s a lot of pent up demand for grandchildren out there. Second, today’s grandparents were also part of the first generation for whom divorce and remarriage was fairly common, so it’s not unusual for grandparents to outnumber both parents and grandchildren by huge ratios.

There may be something to that. My daughter has seven grandparents who, in turn, have not a single other grandchild between them. So, there are too many grandparents pursuing too few grandchildren that they’ve waited too long to enjoy. The behavior of these grandparents during holidays and family gatherings is similar to that of drunken sailors on overdue shore leave: Things can get out of hand quickly.

Hayley, mother of two, joked that some grandparents should have to carry lifelike baby dolls with them everywhere they go. Once they’ve proven they can take care of a doll, they can see their granddaughter again. Greg, father of one and clearly at his wits’ end, says heedless grandparents should be required to display warning labels during all family gatherings. “My daughter’s stroller is covered in ridiculous warnings for highly unlikely scenarios. Why not create warnings that describe the kinds of things that happen during every family visit?” Here’s a sampling of the labels he’d like to affix to his parents and in-laws:

Has been known to actively obstruct her grandchild’s sleep patterns with full awareness that the parents will have to suffer the consequences of a sleep-deprived baby.

During the height of flu season, will pass her grandchild around at large parties like a bowl of cheap guacamole.

Will take stupid physical risks with his grandson like repeatedly attempting to touch him on the nose while he’s on a swing despite the very obvious risk of poking him in the eye.

Will put a treat in her granddaughter’s hand and shove her into their high-strung dog’s face immediately after noting said dog seemed to react aggressively toward the only other small child it has ever been exposed to.

Will deny having a cold or the flu so as not to jeopardize unrestricted access to his grandson and will actually say “I feel terrible,” “I have a sore throat,” and “I may call in sick to work tomorrow” with no more than a 10-word separation from other phrases such as “I just gave her a big slobbery kiss;” “It’s so cute the way she likes to put her hand in my mouth/up my nose!,” etc.

I learned something new that they don’t teach in pre-natal classes: Some grandparents can’t be trusted with their grandchildren unless an adult is present to supervise.

Have a grandparent horror story? Share it below!

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