3 Important Tools for Grandparents

At our September GaGa Sisterhood meeting, Sheri Glucoft Wong shared three important tools for grandparents from her five decades as a parenting expert. Sheri is the co-author of “Raising Kids: Your Essential Guide to Everyday Parenting.”

In her presentation, she explained how to use these three tools with your grandchildren to help shape their character:

  1. Setting limits without feeling mean
  2. Building true self-esteem
  3. Dealing with disappointment

The role of a grandparent is often underestimated in what a significant part we play in our grandchildren’s lives. In everyday life, the incidental repetitive things that come up give kids messages that they absorb. These become the most influential messages in shaping who they are, their character, their social self, and therefore their self-esteem and capacity to deal with things and navigate life.

True self-esteem

Kids need to know two things to feel good about themselves:

  • They’re special and unique and no one else is like them
  • They’re just like everybody else

True self-esteem is both inward and outward – having self-regard and regard for others simultaneously. Many people can easily have one or the other but the challenge is to hold onto regard for yourself while having regard for the other. When you have that capacity, you have true self-esteem.

In the movie, Avatar, the love language of parents is to say to their child: I see you. When we let a kid know that we see them, we’re telling them they’re an individual and they matter. But when we also tell them you’re just like everybody else, we let them know they’re connected to other people and belong to a bigger human experience. It’s a huge comfort for kids to know that everybody has a hard time. The art of parenting and grandparenting is to know when to give which message.

Limit setting

We can help our grandchildren understand that what they’re doing is not terrible by setting limits. We set a limit because everyone has limits and boundaries. Everybody has to go to bed and get enough sleep. Or get out of the bath sooner or later. We all need to follow rules and accept limits.

By setting limits it’s not finger-pointing or being singled out but it’s part of the “just like everyone else.” It’s an important message because it doesn’t matter who did it. What matters is that we don’t want this behavior to happen here.

You want moments when you’re setting limits to just be a moment not a defining moment. A kid who tells a lie isn’t a liar. A kid who hits isn’t aggressive. A kid who cries all the time isn’t a crybaby. It’s just the thing that’s happening in that moment even if it happens in a lot of moments. Treat a moment like a moment and not a defining moment.

Helping kids manage disappointment

Disappointment is a feeling, not an event. Many parents and grandparents organize their lives around kids not getting disappointed because acting out or sulking when they’re disappointed feels like an event. It’s our job to let kids know – “you’re disappointed; it’s just a feeling. That feeling will pass and you’ll have other feelings.”

The way kids know that is when they have developed their disappointment muscle. Kids are born with a disappointment muscle and it needs to be strengthened. The way it gets strengthened is by experiencing disappointment, living through it and it’s no big deal and they move on.

There’s not a lot you need to do – just get out of the way but not get out of the way of them having the disappointment. For example, you’re walking down the street and you’re going to pass a bakery but it’s too close to dinner so you cross the street to avoid the bakery. You’ve just missed an opportunity to develop their disappointment muscle.

The cool thing about building this muscle is that there are plenty of opportunities at home every day to get disappointed. For example, losing a game is not a catastrophe.

Strategies for teaching behavior

Children’s behavior always makes sense if only you had the rest of the story. Many times you won’t get to learn the rest of the story. But if you start with the assumption that their behavior makes sense, then you’ll have an easier time. Just like babies cry for a reason but you don’t always know why.

You’ve got to give kids credit for trying inappropriate behavior. What happens if I talk back to you? Or refuse to get out of the bath? Or run away when you say I have to brush my teeth?

Kids are just developing beings who are trying to figure out how the world works. When you think of these behaviors this way rather than defining moments of opposition, you realize they’re just trying to figure out how the world works not oppositional human beings. When they do these behaviors, then you show them what happens.

Be curious, not furious: First, you need to figure out why they’re behaving this way – hungry, tired, misunderstood my directions? What does this kid need? More information, more clarity about limits, more contact or cuddles? Are you being clear that you’re making a requirement instead of a request? For example, to say “It’s not okay that you act like this.” Doesn’t say anything at all. It’s not involving the child in what you’re asking of them. But when you clearly say: “We don’t hit people,” then you make it very clear.

Lead with empathy: “I know you want to keep playing but it’s cleanup time.” Teachers don’t have a problem with kids cleaning up. They simply say: it’s cleanup time and they’re very clear about it. Parents often say: “I want you to clean up” or “I need you to clean up.”

Be on your spot: When you know vs. when you want something done, kids can tell the difference. It’s the vibe you give or how clear you are in your conviction that lets kids know this is going to happen no matter what.

You’re in alignment from head to toe. Your head has made the decision. You have the heart to insist. Your gut instinct knows it’s the right thing to do. When all of these are aligned, you’re able to walk your talk and stand firm. In every area when you’re that clear, things will go smoothly. When things aren’t going smoothly, take a moment and align yourself. Decide if this really matters or if you can realign your thinking.

When you’re on your spot, you can be both firm and kind because you’re not anxious or out of whack, desperate or fighting with yourself. You can also be flexible when you’re on your spot if a kid raises something reasonable. But when you’re not and a kid asks you to reconsider, it throws you off and you get more rigid.

Stay out of the nag zone: You’re able to say what you mean and mean what you say. Kids know when you lose your credibility by saying things you don’t mean. This happens when we nag and say five times, come on it’s time to clean up. Wait until you mean it to say it then follow through. Nagging undermines your credibility. It’s the clarity that makes it happen not the number of times you say it.

Remember your purpose of the moment: When it’s a 3-ring circus with lots happening, think of what the most important thing is and forget everything else. If it’s get them into bed, then just focus on that and let the other things go.

Keep things neutral: We don’t do that in our house. This is how it works. Then it falls in the category of just like everybody else.

Stay out of the shame zone: We don’t want to come up with a rap sheet and say, “I had to tell you three times this morning. Why am I having to tell you this again?” That was a moment that came and went. Now you’re in this moment. Give feedback that has a purpose about behavior that can change.

Sheri’s mom used to say: “now look what you did!” Instead, give your kid a paper towel or sponge. Something spilled and here’s what you need to do. Shame is not a productive feeling and creates a lot of barriers.

Don’t use threats: Consequence is the modern term for punishment. We threaten with consequences to get leverage. Parents wonder then if they can’t give time-outs. No, but leverage should produce results that make sense to a kid. Kids who keep fighting need to be in different spaces for a while until they can get along. It’s not punitive. When you can play well and I can count on you, then you can play again.

When we threaten, and say: If you do this, I’m going to do that then kids start using threats or they become susceptible to other people’s threats.

All you have to do is change your “if-then” to a “when-then.” Instead of saying, “If you keep fighting, then you can’t play together,” say “When you can get along, then you can play together. It’s empowering to kids and it’s incentive and encouraging and gives them agency when you say “When, then.”

When kids mess up, you want them to know it’s okay to make mistakes. That’s how we learn. When you do make a mistake, you need to make it right. Teach kids how to make it right.

The basis for learning to be effective in life is having trust in restoration. If you know you can mess up and make it right, then you can have confidence in yourself. Give kids opportunities to learn these three social skills they need out in the world:

  • Collaboration
  • Cooperation
  • Compassion

Kids who can be cooperative can ask for help. Kids who can be collaborative know how to join and wait their turn. Kids who have compassion also have compassion for themselves.

We cannot predict or control what experiences our grandchildren will have, but we can control what it comes to mean to them. And we can influence how those experiences shape them, their confidence, their faith in the goodness inside them, and the world around them. And that’s what we do in our everyday interactions with kids.

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