We’ve all heard the grandparent warning: keep your mouth shut and your wallet open as a prescription for preventing inter-generational conflicts. But Jerry Witkovsky, author of The Grandest Love: Inspiring the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection, strongly believes that we’re headed in the wrong direction, as families and as a society, if we embrace the notion that grandparents must serve as unequivocal cheerleaders who risk banishment if they express what’s on their minds.
Witkovsky offers a method of achieving that elusive balance between overstepping our bounds and feeling muzzled and being able to express what’s in our hearts. He says we are doing ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, and even future generations a disservice if we’re not actively teaching that there are other ways for families to communicate besides those problematic, polar opposites of yesteryear’s unrestrained “say everything” and today’s mandated “say nothing.”
He calls it speaking across the generations using “TLC” — tender, loving communication. Witkovsky has observed that the reluctance to speak candidly but carefully about areas of potential conflict is the very thing that guarantees eruptions of anger and hurt and makes the conflict even harder to resolve.
Many grandparents, especially new ones, feel immense uncertainty when it comes to boundaries in their relationships with the “gatekeepers,” a.k.a. their adult children. The number one concern he hears is: How do I know when it’s appropriate to speak up about my concerns or opinions to my adult children and when it isn’t?
The TLC Top Ten List
He’s compiled a list of ten questions to help you decide whether it’s advisable to bring up a topic or whether you’re better off biting your tongue after all.
- Am I TEACHING myself something of value, by saying it, or is it better left unsaid? Be honest with yourself in asking: what is my purpose in making this statement to my child? Are you promoting a family member’s welfare, correct a genuine misunderstanding or are you following an impulse to be controlling?
- WHEN should I say it? It’s best not to delve into hot-button issues during times of high emotion. Wait until things have calmed down. Highly agitated individuals are seldom receptive to unsolicited prescriptions for how to fix things.
- How will I know if it’s the RIGHT time to say it? Witkovsky advises you ask the following: Would you like me to tell you what I think? Or should I choose a better time? Or should I say nothing at all?
- HOW do I say it? Tactfully and with gentleness and kindness.
- Should I say it in PRIVATE? Family meetings can be a good forum to bring up topics that are difficult to discuss; some family members can inspire others with the courage to speak frankly. When in doubt, ask. The more comfortable you become with asking instead of assuming, the fewer mistakes you’ll make.
- Must I say it in PERSON? Gender can play a role in how receptive an adult child is to various modes of in-person interactions. Women tend to prefer face-to-face conversations while men prefer side-by-side.
- Is it ever BETTER to say it over the phone or email? Sometimes it’s easier to delve into uncomfortable topics via telephone but be careful about putting delicate matters in writing. They can come back to haunt you or be forwarded to people you had no intention of sharing your personal business with.
- If I inadvertently cause PAIN by what I do or say, how do I take responsibility and learn from it? It’s inevitable: we who try will occasionally fail. If your actions cause ill will, regardless of how well-intended they were, apologize immediately and make sure you ask what was hurtful about your actions so that you understand why this occurred.
- If I’M the one stung or confused by my children’s or grandchildren’s words or actions, am I able to teach by candidly sharing what I’m feeling? Honest conversations about adverse emotions or interactions can also create opportunities for enhanced closeness; they need not be swept under the rug.
- How do we fully resolve conflict if it DOES arise? Harmonious families triumph over conflict by remembering the mantra: slow to anger and quick to forgive. These attributes are among the most valuable ones for us as family elders, to model in our own behavior and interactions.
The Grandest Love: Inspiring the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection has so much wisdom to share with grandparents and one piece that especially struck me is for us grandparents to teach our family members the importance of saying the things that should be said while we’re still around. We need to tell each other what we mean to each other and not save it for eulogies after we’re gone. We should express our love to each other, unself-consciously and gratefully, while we’re alive.