Grandparenting Multiples: Hints, Do’s and Don’ts

Lynda gratefully acknowledges the support and input of two Exceptional Grandmothers, Adiva Sotzsky and Sue Purdon, in preparing this article.

I love the bumper sticker that reads “If I had known what fun having grandchildren were, I would have had them first!”

Grandfather with twinsBasically that says it all. A time of their lives that many parents look forward to is to the time they will become Grandparents. While we have enjoyed (and asked ourselves along the way “What the heck am I doing?  I am useless at this!”) the journey of raising our own children, the time of becoming a grandparent, is an exciting and natural progression in Life’s Journey. But wait a minute, there’s more – not only are you to become grandparents, you are to become grandparents to twins, triplets, quadruplets or more. It doesn’t get more exciting than that?

As parents yourselves, you have “been there, done that” and when your grandchildren arrive, it can be very tempting to rush in, offering advice, shortcuts, feedback and opinions regarding parenting style to the new parents. Add to that the 20/20 hindsight of your own parenting experience, and of course you have lots to offer! Who wouldn’t want to share their years of experience with the ones they love and to help them avoid some of the mistakes you made? After all children don’t come with instructions.

Grandmother with multiplesAh, if it was only so simple. Grandparents are an important part of the childrearing equation but grandparents also walk a very fine line. It isn’t unusual for grandparents to either attend the births of their grandchildren and/or to at least move into the family home for a few weeks after the births to help the new family establish routines and get accustomed to their roles as round-the-clock caretakers. The more difficult part of the equation for grandparents, is to support the family while allowing the parents (i.e. their own children whom are now parents) to discover their own balance, make their own mistakes and find their own comfort levels. Grandparents need to remember that, while their children’s parenting choices may not mirror their own, these new parents have a right to learn in the their own manner and also benefit from the expertise and helping hands around them. It is a wise grandparent who knows when to be loving, sympathetic, caring and when to also hold his/her tongue.

Children greatly benefit from contact with the different generations. As a result of such interactions, children have a first hand “peek” into their history, roots and Family Tree, learning about “the olden days” as stories from their grandparents’ lives unfold. We all like to know about our roots and where we come from and children are no exception. Such stories from grandparents offer a sense of belonging, comfort and continuity. Along the way, the grandchildren can also enjoy some special attention from their grandparents. Prolonged bedtimes, favorite foods or the relaxation of parental rules and regulations make the grandparent-grandchild relationship unique.

There is no doubt that being a grandparent is a rewarding and exhilarating experience. But (yes, there is a “but”), there are some very important points to be aware of which can help grandparents be an important, loving, caring, sharing part of their grandchildren’s lives.

Being grandparents to multiples involves some additional layers of which even the most involved grandparent needs to be aware. The following hints and tips have been prepared to assist you in being the best support system you can be, while remaining a positive, caring and extremely important person in not only your grandchildren’s lives, but in the lives of their parents’ as well.

Congratulations on becoming the Grandparents (or Great-Grandparents) of twins, triplets, quadruplets or more!!!

Before your multiple-birth grandchildren arrive, educate yourselves so that you can get an accurate idea of what having twins, triplets or more entails. There are many excellent books on multiple births available which can enlighten you as to what the parents are facing.  You can find some of the titles here.

You may wish to talk to other parents or grandparents of multiples or join your local Multiple Birth Support Chapter. They have regular meetings, educational speakers, can recommend appropriate Internet Sites and much more. Many Grandparents have taken my Multiple Birth Prenatal Classes to learn firsthand how they can be the best support they can be to the new parents. Grandparents have taken the classes and passed along the information and handouts to their children who live in areas of Canada with no such prenatal support systems. They have even sent prenatal information Overseas to their families posted abroad. How’s that for commitment?  Educating yourselves before the babies’ arrival will assist you in becoming a positive and supportive Grandparent and a tremendous asset to the new parents. 

If you are parents of multiples yourselves, you already have a pretty good idea of what the parents will be facing. Nevertheless, it will be important that you remember to be supportive to the parents and not try to compare your own parenting experiences with their current one. Even in one generation, times and parenting practices can change. It is important to remember that the new parents need love, support and their own chance to parent. They don’t need judgments or unsolicited remarks.

Which leads us to: Don’t give advice unless you are asked. Remember that everyone is learning and doing the best that they can. The parents are no doubt already feeling overwhelmed and somewhat out of control. In the heat of the moment, unsolicited advice or judgmental comments will not make things better. It is very tempting to sometimes speak up and offer advice, but the wise person knows when to keep quiet. If you really feel that you may have a piece of helpful advice, wait until a quiet moment and express yourself using supportive, caring and loving words.

Here’s another important rule: Don’t judge your children’s parenting style. The advice and experience that you have accumulated cannot be denied, but it is important to remember that you remain the Grandparent and not the parent. If you do step in and either comment or “take over”, you will be undermining the parents’ authority with their children. While you may not agree with the parents’ choices or decisions, they ultimately, have the final say.

You have an important contribution to make each time you visit. The new parents are on duty 24-hours a day (remember?). They may be sleep deprived, falling apart at the seams, overwhelmed and feeling very guilty about it. You might take the initiative and suggest that the parents take a little break. For example, suggest they go for a walk around the block, to a movie or a local coffee shop for some relationship time. Or you may offer to take one baby for a walk in order to change the family group dynamics for a short while. Even these small respites can be valuable for everyone in the family.

If you are in doubt about how to help out, ASK what you can do to assist. Let the parents tell you what they need. It could be anything from throwing in a load of laundry, preparing a meal, bathing a baby or just listening. Do not underestimate the healing power of listening (with no judgments, of course). You can no doubt remember how overwhelmed you felt at times. While the feelings of being overwhelmed will have not changed, parents feel much better when they feel heard and someone is sympathetic to their situation. Listening goes a long way to getting one back on track in order to tackle the task at hand (Gosh, that lesson can be applied in many other areas of our lives too!).

You may look around and see some jobs that might be done. DON’T WAIT TO BE ASKED. Clean up the kitchen, throw in a load of laundry, pick up a crying baby, make a nutritious meal, cut the grass or shovel the snow. Sometimes an overwhelmed parent can’t voice what they might need but can appreciate someone taking the initiative. 

(Author’s Note: These two previous points seem contradictory and you are right, they are! What you need to evaluate is when to ask what is needed in the way of help and when to be proactive and take on a task without being asked. You will also need not to be critical or act as if you are “taking over.” Didn’t I warn you that you walk a fine line? I have faith in you – you can do it!)

Do not “fight” the parents for the babies. If you live a long distance away and your visits are few and far between, you will relish every moment with your grandchildren. However, “fighting” the parents for the babies’ care, will not win you any brownie points. More often than not, the parents are trying to establish a routine with their babies. Having you step in and try to “wrestle” one away from them, will only make things unpleasant for all of you. If the parents are involved with the children, perhaps offer to do a job around the house (e.g. wash the kitchen floor or vacuum a room or two.). You will be a hero and there will still remain lots of time to interact with and care for the babies.

If you live within driving distance and it is possible, set aside one day a week to come into the home and look after the babies, allowing some personal time for Mom & Dad and any siblings. This is extremely helpful during the initial few weeks after the babies’ arrival. Such was the case with one family and Mom felt secure in that she knew that every Thursday her parents would make the 2-hour drive to her house to care for the babies, feed them, bathe them and do some laundry. All she needed to do that day was to nurse them. If things got hectic earlier in the week, she knew she only had to make it until Thursday when she would receive some much needed adult conversation and loving support. As the children grew, they too began to look forward to their Grandparents’ visits.

Make a nutritious meal. Double the recipe and put some away in the freezer. It is very difficult for parents with twin, triplet or quadruplet newborns (and sometimes singletons too) to have the time to cook meals. This could work out very well as you all sit down to share the meal, stories and the day’s events with each other.

This Rule is a Golden One: Do not play favorites amongst your grandchildren. In reality, it may be that you do prefer one grandchild over another but IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT YOU DO NOT LET YOUR PREFERENCE SHOW. Children pick up very quickly if they are the favorite or not. To not feel like a favored child is extremely difficult on a child’s self-esteem and can result in long-term negative feelings and even to bad feelings and jealousy between the children themselves. Treat each grandchild equally. Every grandchild deserves to feel cherished and loved by all of the adults in their lives.

If you live in the same area as your children and grandchildren, you may be able to take a baby/child home overnight on a rotating basis. Be sure and have age-appropriate toys, books and clothing on hand. Find out what interests each child and gear your play towards his/her interests. You will need to be prepared to engage in appropriate age level play. Each of you will benefit from this one-on-one time and you will learn much about your grandchild that you never would have noticed in the group setting. (WARNING: In the process, be prepared to rediscover your own inner child as rhymes, stories and songs come back to you from your own and your children’s childhoods!)

If you do not live in the same area as your grandchildren, learn to work the computer! Once you get the hang of it, you will enjoy this rewarding and very easy way to keep in touch. Connect to Skype or Face Time and e-mail and write to your grandchildren often. You will make important connections that you, and they, will cherish for a lifetime. The Internet is a wonderful medium for sharing uptodate photos of your grandchildren with friends and family. With a scanner, photos can quickly and cheaply be sent so you can see the changes in your grandchildren as they grow and thrive. Computers today are user-friendly and it takes no time at all to learn how to work your way around them. My 85-year old mother and nearly 89-year old father-in-law were regular computer users and our children thought their grandparents were “cool” for knowing how to use them. Shop around for competitive prices and give it a try.

Remember that your multiple birth grandchildren are individuals even though they share the same birthday. They will not necessarily have the same interests, talents or abilities. Keep in mind their uniqueness, individual interests and capabilities, especially when buying them gifts. Grandparents often like to be fair and spend equal amounts of money on each grandchild. Depending upon what you are purchasing, it may be more advantageous to focus on their individual interests rather than the amount of money spent on each gift. 
 Or if you feel strongly about spending equally, make up the difference in price of gifts with a cash top up.

Speaking of gifts: Don’t necessarily feel that you need to purchase the same gift for each child. Variety gives the children a broader toy/book base from which to choose. However if you notice that each grandchild prefers a particular toy, you may purchase two (or three or four) in order to reduce any arguing over it. In such cases, put each child’s initial on the bottom of the toy so that it is clear to all who owns it. We all know that a child often wants the exact toy that their sibling is currently enjoying. By putting initials on the toy, you can patiently explain that his/her toy is on the shelf and ready to be played with. You might also consider purchasing a game that everyone can play together. Be prepared to join in if you choose this latter route.

Don’t be overly worried if you cannot tell your multiple birth grandchildren apart if they look quite a bit alike. Even monozygotic multiples are not completely alike despite what you hear. Focus on their differences and not how alike they are. Spending time with each child alone will enable you to quickly recognize those differences (e.g. hair whorl, a mole or freckle, shape of earlobes, body language.)

Grandchildren love to hear about their parents especially when their parents were young. So dust off those memories, give them a good shake to get rid of the cobwebs and reconnect to your own experiences with your own children. You will love sharing every second and your grandchildren will love listening (WARNING: Habit forming. Be prepared to have to repeat your stories time and time again.).

Don’t forget singleton siblings of your multiple birth grandchildren. As you can appreciate, they will need extra love, hugs and encouragement as they make the transition from “centre of the universe” to big brother or sister. Your attention, inclusion, patience and understanding can be very important at this critical time in their young lives as they adjust to the new family structure. Your ongoing support will provide them with the reassurances that they continue to be an important and much loved part of the family.

Make sure that you are aware of the many unique Safety Issues around multiples. Two, three or four toddlers can physically accomplish many tasks that a singleton could not. Together they can push a chair across the kitchen floor in order to climb up on the counters. One child will have “the plan” and the others will help carry it out (how they communicate “the plan” to each other remains a mystery). Remember when you are looking after them that when one falls down and skins his knee, you remain responsible for others at the same time. While attending to the child in need, you will need to be aware of the proximity of his/her co-siblings. The consequences of not doing so could be dire. To learn more about safely looking after your multiple birth grandchildren, check out the article Multiples and Safety. Being aware of the possible pitfalls ahead of time could save someone’s life. You may want to think about taking a First Aid Course before the grandchildren visit you.

As we age, it may be necessary for grandparents to take any of several types of medication, e.g. blood pressure control pills, daily aspirin for heart problems, diabetes control medications, vitamin supplements, iron pills and/or many others. Over the years your home has also become less “child proof” and some of these medications may be found on bedside tables. When your grandchildren are visiting, make sure that all medications have been collected and have been put out of reach of their exploring hands. Many children are poisoned each year by ingesting medications that they have found while visiting Gramma and Grampa. Don’t let your grandchildren become one of those statistics.

There are often two sets, or more, of Grandparents (and sometimes even Great Grandparents) in the equation. If this is your situation, don’t compete with each other as to who is or who can be the “better” grandparents. Don’t bother with who gave the better or bigger gift or even who spent more hours with them. Negativity takes a lot of energy. Don’t make the parents have to choose sides. To follow this path will cost all of you in many ways. Take your energy and focus on the beauty of the gift of grandchildren that you share in common. You are all important to your grandchildren and to their parents. Each grandparent provides unique experiences for their grandchild. Take this time and opportunity to experience harmony, family, loving, and caring. Everyone will benefit.

There is an African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child. Each of us can make a positive difference in a child’s life. It would be tragic to not take these opportunities to do so. Grandparents and great-grandparents are an integral part of the support system that children need so they can grow and flourish.

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