July 16, 2021

Reflection / John Shaughnessy

The lighthearted reality and the double blessing of being a parent and a grandparent

John ShaughnessyWhenever I meet a fellow grandparent, it’s been universal that he or she will flash a smile that exudes pure joy and say, “Isn’t being a grandparent the best ever?!”

Then that wondrous smile will often quickly become a mischievous grin when he or she adds, “You can spoil them all you want, give them all the sugar they can handle and more, and then you hand them back to their parents and you can just walk away without a care in the world!”

These conversations often leave me with the impression that they consider their time as a grandparent as being better than their time as a parent was.

For what it’s worth, here’s my perspective: Few parts of life are more challenging, fulfilling, occasionally heartbreaking, frequently joy-filled and overall rewarding than being a parent. And if God has doubly blessed you, your extra reward for being a parent is becoming a grandparent.

Pope Francis has recognized the importance of grandparents by proclaiming July 25 as the World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly. And the stories that begin on page 1 of this week’s Criterion show the dramatic and touching ways that grandparents influence the lives, marriages and faith of their grandchildren.

Beyond that impact, the blessings of being a grandparent include welcoming a new life into the world and the faith, witnessing again the miracle of a child’s development, and getting the gift of seeing your child grow as a parent.

At the same time, there is another side of being a grandparent—one touched by lightheartedness and the reality that the undeniable special bond between grandparents and grandchildren is marked by a shared mischief and a mutual childlike joy that is different from the parent-child relationship.

Consider these differences between being a parent and a grandparent.

• When you’re babysitting as the grandparent of small children, you listen attentively and solemnly as the parents give you detailed instructions on how to take care of the children. Then as soon as the parents leave, you ask, “OK, who wants ice cream?!”

As the parent of small children, you give the grandparents specific instructions about your children, sometimes even writing a list—because it’s not like they’ve ever raised children themselves. Then as soon as you leave the house, your spouse asks, “Do you think we covered everything?” To which the other parent says, “It doesn’t matter. They’ve already tossed away the list, and they’re asking our kids if they want ice cream. But who cares—we’re out of the house for three whole hours by ourselves!”

• As a new parent, you will consult the advice of so-called experts about caring for your child, valuing a complete stranger’s input over the time-tested knowledge of your parents who gave you life and helped make you the person you are—which may explain why, in many cases, new parents consult total strangers.

As a new grandparent—and this probably just applies to grandfathers—you will be initially insulted that your son or daughter prefers the child care advice of strangers over you. But then you remember that most of your own approach as a dad can be summed up in this way: just “winging it” and making it up as you went along.

• As a parent, you sneak Halloween candy from your children, rationalizing that you are looking out for their teeth and their overall health—all the time feigning ignorance about how all the good candy suddenly disappeared.

As a grandparent, you sneak candy to your grandchildren and then feign ignorance as to why they are suddenly racing around the house like Road Runner.

• When grandparents babysit, they believe they’ve been successful if they can say, “Hey, the kids are still alive.”

When parents come home after having the grandparents babysit, they consider it a success when they can say, “Hey, the kids are still alive.”

• As a grandparent, you have a renewed license to act like a kid again. Through the years, I’ve done a crazy dance that has brought joy to my now-6-year-old granddaughter. I’ve also stood on street corners for hours with my 20-month-old grandson—who has a fascination with trucks—so he can see various Jeeps, buses and trucks passing by. And I’ve made weird faces and talked gibberish with my 7-month-old grandson.

In response, they’ve given me a look of joy that says, “You are the coolest dude in the world!” And since I’ve rarely—OK, never—received that look in my lifetime previously, I’ll do anything with my grandkids that’s just short of me needing CPR.

I could continue with this list, but my grandchildren are telling me they need more ice cream, and I have to hide the first carton before their parents get home.

(John Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion.)

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