The Trouble with Old People | Parent Advisory: Competitive Grandparenting

by Steve Van Auken


Young parents face many difficult choices: finding a place to live, shaping career choices around the needs of the new arrival, and deciding  whether to allow the grandparents to get within ten miles of the kid at any time prior to his or her twenty-first birthday.

If you do choose to open the gates to us, be advised. We will do for our grandparenting what we have always done for our careers, our hobbies, our pets. We will turn it into a competition.

Be prepared for us to find deep meaning in every behavior of your new bundle of joy, no matter how slight. Or messy. Your child will not just have bowel movements. She will have movements of a texture and form that will clearly show she is destined for Princeton, where her bodily habits will receive the appreciation they deserve.

If your son is the sort of baby who makes it easy on you by sleeping through the night, it is because he is busy weaving dream thoughts about the essential nature of the universe.  Just as Einstein did. If he is the sort of baby who is fussy and wakes you up every hour, it is because he is so intellectually curious that he can’t stand to miss a single minute of wakefulness.

Do you remember when you were a child and, fascinated, you watched a bug crawl across your windowsill, moving its antennae here and there, until you ventured to pick him up and felt his tiny feet on your hand, giving you that delicious jolt of fear and delight?

And do you remember what Mom or Dad was doing at that time? Yes, they were nagging you to practice the French horn. Or your pirouette, so you could get the lead in the recital. Instead of the daughter of that annoying woman down the street who could be put in her place if only you would practice about six hours a day.

Be prepared for our delusional misinterpretation of your child’s every move. You must be prepared to act promptly and sternly when we try to read “Scientific American” magazine to your child three months before you had planned to introduce Goodnight, Moon. Eternal vigilance is the price you will have to pay for having us around.

There is another set of delusional beliefs that we hold, or will soon cobble together out of thin air. This is the retrospective embellishment of your child’s development. It will bear no resemblance to what actually occurred.

“Our little Caleb was speaking in full sentences by the time he was two,” you may hear your aged parent casually remark to some friends. This may conflict with what you remember, which was that at that age young Caleb was expressing himself with six or eight sounds that you could identify as words, and a bunch of sounds that might have been words or might have been signs of gastric distress. There were also the non-verbal behaviors that communicated his wishes well, such as that he had eaten enough and that the household would be improved if the dog were given the rest of his mac and cheese. You might remember that full sentences were in short supply, unless you counted “Caleb poop.” But resist the urge to point this out to your mom or dad. They know what they know. And what they know is that by God their grandkid is more special than those brat grandkids of their best friends.

You will soon realize that your parent has made a strategic blunder in going first in the grandchild specialness derby. She has shown her competitors the mark they must beat. And they are up to the task. “Oh isn’t that nice,” Natalie, her friend since childhood, will coo. “Full sentences. In English you mean? Well, of course that is important. Imagine our surprise when our little Sonia started speaking Urdu after we took her with us shopping at the Middle Eastern market that afternoon.”

If you are holding onto the idea that we will have any shame about bragging for our own aggrandizement about the activities of your kids, abandon all hope. We cannot be shamed and we cannot be stopped. Think of the  demands of my generation as a force of nature, like a tornado or water in your basement. There is nothing you can do about it. You have elected to allow the grandparents in, and now you are stuck with us.

Your only hope is that time will eventually slow our competitive juices. Or that you will be lucky enough to have in your family a grandparent such as myself, who is not immune to the temptations of competitive grand- parenting but is strong enough to resist them. I freely admit that it is really not true that our two year old grandson, Bennett, has memorized the Periodic Table of the Elements. I apologize to everyone I know to whom I might have made this flagrant misrepresentation.

The fact is, he still hasn’t quite mastered the atomic weight of Boron. Probably by this afternoon, though. I’ll send you a video.