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Grandparent Sitters

There is no question in my mind that Grandmas and Grandpas are the perfect people to babysit when both parents are away traveling.

A recent question and my answer:

“My husband and I live a half hour away from our two grandsons, ages 8 and almost 2.  Our son and daughter-in-law are planning to take a 10-day vacation soon.  I will be the kids’ primary caregiver during their parents’ absence.  I am concerned about making the week go as easily as possible, particularly for the baby.  He goes to full time day care, and that will continue.  My husband and I normally pick the kids up after school and play with them for a couple of hours once or twice a week.  Occasionally we babysit for an evening and put the boys to bed, or stay with them for a day if they are sick, but the parents have never been away overnight before. I know they will miss their Mom and Dad very much.”

Grandparents know how to parent pretty well from past experience and they really love the grandkids. But they are not the parents. Parents will be greatly missed. But parents do need occasional vacations.

How can grandparent minimize difficulties that children, especially young children, will undoubtedly have when their parents are absent?

In this instance the older child will do fine. He is old enough to talk with if he seems sad. He can be enlisted as a “big boy” to help Grandma and Grandpa out: finding things, watching the baby when Grandma is cooking, explaining how Mom would do something. This sense of usefulness, plus school and afterschool routines, will help him get through the parents’ absence.

The baby will be a challenge as he does not have the ability to verbalize feelings but he DOES have feelings and will miss Mommy and Daddy very much. Fortunately the grandparents are not temp nannies sent over by an agency. The baby knows his grandparents. He has had the experience of having them put him to bed and feed him in the absence of his parents.

But a 10-day-absence is a long time for a young toddler not quite two or, for any preschooler. When parents will be away for more than a night or two I always suggest a “rehearsal.” Let the parents take a weekend night away so the baby can learn it’s OK to wake up with Grandma there because Mommy and Daddy come back! My three–year-old daughter made up a song. The tune was vaguely like the alphabet song but you can make up your own. The words were: “Mommy/Daddy all go bye-bye! Mommy/Daddy all come back!” We sang it before going to work every day and before trips.

Preschoolers have language and understand what people are saying to them. But they are not yet skilled at talking about their feelings. Young children don’t have the words but even when the child can talk up a storm about events or things, they don’t know how to describe inner feelings very well. It helps when parents “interpret” inner feelings (“You are angry!” or “You seem sad.”) but talking about emotions is difficult for all of us and it may take many years before we feel comfortable revealing our inner selves.

When I cared for my almost three-year-old twin grand kids for a week while their parents were away the boy twin got very sad after three days. He was not eating well, didn’t play with any zest, and moped around a lot. I took a big piece of paper and made a calendar of the days left before Mommy and Daddy would be home. Every night he crayoned out the day that had passed. It seemed to help him.

However when the parents came back, the next day Mommy could not leave for work because her car keys were missing. After much searching we found them under a sofa cushion. Jeremy had figured out a sure-fire way to keep his Mommy home!

In addition to the overnight rehearsal that I recommend for grandparents who do not live nearby (as well as any other new caregivers) keep routines as close to what the children are used to as possible. Find out in advance about favorite foods, restaurants, books, toys, clothes.

And even though the grandparents are serving as temporary surrogate parents, they should not forget to be a little bit indulgent. Why? All grandparents should be!