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Parenting Your Kids' Kids

Parenthood is never really over; it just keeps expanding to include more facets. Once your kids are grown and have kids of their own ... welcome to the world of Grandparentdom. It takes a few savvy new skills, like learning to walk the fine line of parenting your kids' kids, but in making the transition you'll have a lot of fun.

"Grandparents hold the family's history. They are the glue that holds the family together," says social psychologist and parenting expert Susan Newman, author of Little Things Mean a Lot: Creating Happy Memories with Your Grandchildren. Being the glue doesn't sound so bad, right? Here's how to make the most of your new role, without stepping on any toes in the process.

Own Your New Role

You'll always be mom to your son or daughter, but you are not mom to their kids. "Grandparents are the glue, but not the rule-enforcers," says Newman. "As a parent, you had your chance in that role, but there is a power shift now. Your son or daughter is in charge, and you're the supporter. You're someone the parent can turn to for support, and a sounding board for the children if they feel they can't talk directly to mom or dad." Be a cheerleader and a shoulder to lean on. That's a lot, and it's enough.

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Seek Safety

When do you step in and play the parent role? Only if your grandchild is in harm's way, or when mom or dad can't be there. "If there is a safety issue, it's appropriate to speak up," says Newman. "Or whenever you're with grandchildren without the parent, whether it's shopping or driving in a car. Then, you become the temporary disciplinarian and caretaker."

Bite Your Tongue

Even if you feel your grandchildren are really misbehaving, it's not your place to say anything. Essentially, ever. "That would go into the category of interference," says Newman. "It's a thin line you have to walk. It's OK to say something carefully to the parent—your child—later on, but when you're in the thick of it, you have to bite your tongue." Yes, even if your granddaughter is running wild through the store, or your grandson is throwing a tantrum at the family reunion.

Team up on Rules

Whenever you're acting in mom or dad's stead, keep it consistent. "Know what your son or daughter's rules for discipline are," says Newman. "Make it a team effort. When you do that and are respectful of their role as parent, you'll gain their confidence and trust, and will be included in more things. Parents will turn to you more often if you are supportive." So, if your daughter asks if you'd like to have her kiddos for a weekend, make sure to get details like bedtimes and household rules nailed down ahead of time.

Never Undermine

If you notice your child is struggling with an aspect of parenting, it can be difficult to bring it up without sounding critical. On her end, it will be hard to hear perceived parenting corrections from someone she holds in high regard on the subject. So, pick the right time. "You can say, 'I don't want to interfere, but here's an idea.' But never give an instruction with the child present, because it will undermine the parent if you try to take charge," Newman says. You will alienate your son or daughter, and they won't turn to you for help." Newman also emphasizes making sure everything has calmed down before making any suggestions, so you and your child are in the best possible frame of mind for unheated discussion.

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Advise Sparingly

Don't let the fear of alienation keep you from ever speaking up, though. It's definitely OK to give out nuggets of wisdom here and there. As long as you approach it softly, even if your child is defensive at first, she'll often come around and see you're just trying to help—just don't try to help too frequently. "If you offer advice too often, they'll feel you're judging them," says Newman. "Reserve your comments and help for things you feel are really important."

Get Updated

With ever-evolving science and technology, a lot has probably changed in the years since your grown children were little. Keep that in mind when you bring up parenting advice to your child, especially when it comes to precautionary measures. "Remember, safety issues have changed, whether it's rules about food, how to put a child to sleep or car safety," says Newman. "Make sure you're not offering or advising with dated information." If you're unsure about something, check it out. The American Academy of Pediatrics' website has current details on kids' safety and health practices.

Take a Break

It's great to be involved in your grandkids' lives, and even better if your own child wants you to be an active grandmother. However, you need to have a life of your own, too. You've already been the parent. It's not your job to do it twice. "If you feel you're being taken advantage of as a grandparent, and your child is always asking you to step in and cover for them, you need to talk about that, and say, 'I'd love to do it, but I'm not up to it,' or 'I don't feel I can handle that right now,' or 'I have another commitment,' etc.," Newman says. In other words, if your son asks you to take his kids every weekend, it's time to speak up.

Don't Play Mediator

Be there as a soft place to fall for your grandchildren and your children, but never get in the middle of a dispute between them. "Don't try to solve a grandchild's problems by yourself, and don't interfere with problems your grandchildren are having with their parents," Newman says. It's not your place to choose sides, and will only cause one party to hurt. Just listen if either needs someone to talk to.

Realize Your Importance

You may not be mom to your grandson or granddaughter, but your impact on their lives is still huge, and multi-dimensional. "Don't underestimate your contributions as a grandparent," says Newman. "You are needed. You can encourage special talents in your grandchild. You can offer insight into the past, like telling your grandson, 'You're an athlete, just like your dad' and tell them stories." They'll love hearing about where they fit within the family mold, through the eyes of someone who's seen it all.

Have Fun

Maybe most important, grandparents can be teachers, and introduce their grandchildren to areas the parents might not have time to nurture. "For instance, a single mom with a full-time job may not have time to teach her daughter to bake or cook, how to separate laundry. She may not have time to help on school projects. That's where a grandmother can really step in," says Newman. Often, grandparents have the best role on the planet, experiencing the fun parts of parenting all over again. Embrace it.

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