“Grandma, don’t leave me,” my two-year-old granddaughter wailed.
I started the car engine, ignoring my inclination to rush back into the house. Instead, I blew her one last kiss and pulled from the driveway.
What kind of grandmother could leave her granddaughter under these circumstances? The answer is simple: one who believes in healthy boundaries for grandparents.
My granddaughter wasn’t being mistreated, harmed or neglected. She and I had enjoyed a lovely time, gathering shells at the beach and satisfying ourselves on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before returning home for the afternoon. When her mother lovingly but firmly announced that it was time for a nap, I kissed my granddaughter good-bye and slipped out the front door. That’s when her dramatics began.
If I had returned, I would have overstepped my boundaries, undermining her mother’s authority and reinforcing my granddaughter’s attempt to postpone her nap.
Most of us are respectful of physical boundaries, which define our property lines. Boundaries such as split-rail or chain-link fences. Are we aware of the intangible boundaries surrounding our personhood or the personhood of our grandchildren and their parents? In order to experience healthy grandparent boundaries, we need to know what our role as a grandparent is, and what it is not.
Sadly, we live in an age when the role of grandparents isn’t clearly defined. Society is ambiguous, the Church remains uncharacteristically silent, and resources are limited. In order to find a well-defined job description for grandparents, we must turn our attention to Scripture.
Deuteronomy 4:9 states, “Watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” Psalm 78:1-8 commands us to tell the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord and to teach his commands to the fourth generation. In simple terms, our role as grandparents is to pass a legacy of faith to future generations.
When we assume false roles or responsibilities that do not belong to us, we trespass against the parents of our grandchildren, against our grandchildren or against ourselves. The following scenarios provide examples of each:
Trespass #1: Grandparents Who Co-Parent
Kathleen insisted upon giving her grandson a pacifier when he came to visit, contrary to his parents’ wishes. Now she’s devastated, because her son and daughter-in-law, exhausted from arguments about the blue binkie, refuse to bring the baby for a visit.
The breakdown in Kathleen’s family began when she failed to respect her son and daughter-in-law’s authority as parents. Decisions about child rearing, from pacifiers to potty training, bedtime to discipline, belong to the parents.
A grandparent who crosses the boundary and begins to co-parent creates the proverbial three-legged race, leaving the grandchild confused about the person who is in the position of authority. The question becomes, “Who’s raising this child?” Eventually, the child will use the confusion to his advantage, manipulating situations to get what he wants.
Our role as grandparents is to walk as allies and help the parents of our grandchildren become the best parents they can be. (Cavin Harper, Courageous Grandparenting, page 35)
Trespass #2: Grandparents Who Enable
Betty Lou’s grandson wants to attend an outdoor concert with his high school buddies, but he is scheduled to work delivering pizzas. Betty Lou, in her misguided attempt to be a loving and sympathetic grandmother, forges a work excuse for him. With the stroke of her pen, she not only commits a crime, she gives her grandson permission to do likewise.
“Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come,” Jesus warns. “It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of the little ones to sin” (Luke 17:1-2).
Trespass #3: Grandparents Who Buy Love
Dave and Brenda enter WalMart’s check-out line, their shopping cart laden with expensive toys and electronics, candy and clothes, everything on their grandchildren’s Christmas list and more. They flash a credit card without considering the cost; after all, nothing is too good for their grandchildren.
With each scan of a barcode, Dave and Brenda buy into the cultural lie that God created us to be an open wallet or a “fun factory” for our grandchildren.
We cannot help but ask if Dave and Brenda are buying their grandchildren’s love—and at what cost? Are they unintentionally teaching their grandchildren a monetary value can be placed on love and self-worth?
Trespass #4: Grandparents Who Are Taken for Granted
Tom heaves a sigh as he lifts the last bag of groceries onto the kitchen counter. He and his wife have been running a rent-free boarding house, since their daughter and her two children moved home. Tom and his wife share the responsibilities—cooking meals, cleaning house, doing laundry and caring for the little ones—while their daughter chats on Facebook. Tom suspects she is pregnant again.
Tom believes his daughter is taking advantage of their hospitality. He thinks she should assume household responsibilities or find a job and pay rent. His wife, however, fears if they make these demands, their daughter will leave with the grandchildren.
Tom and his wife are being offered a mulligan. If they failed to teach their daughter responsibility when she was a child, they now have the opportunity to fix their mistake. They need to ask her to share the workload, pay rent or both. They need to model and establish boundaries for the sake of their daughter, themselves, and their grandchildren.
God seeks honest, hard work from all of us. “Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies have no sense” (Proverbs 12:11). “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” (Proverbs 13:4).
Establishing healthy boundaries is vital for the health of our families. As grandparents, we need to honor and respect these boundaries by avoiding the temptation to co-parent, enable, or entertain our grandchildren in excess. The only time we have permission to cross these boundaries is when our grandchildren’s physical, spiritual, emotional, and moral safety is threatened.
A few years ago, I spoke on the phone with a faith-filled grandmother. She was a Messianic Jew whose family didn’t believe in Jesus. Consequently, her son and daughter-in-law asked that she quit talking with their children about the Lord.
When she asked for my opinion, I recommended that she respected their boundaries. I concluded our discussion with the following statement. “While they can tell you not to talk with your grandchildren about Jesus, no one can tell you not to talk with Jesus about your grandchildren.”
After all, the gift of prayer has no boundaries.
Suggested reading: Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
“Grandma, don’t leave me,” my two-year-old granddaughter wailed.