Thursday, January 01, 2009

Whole-Brained Grandparenting

Some play-doh. Now that' s a nice toy!

This article I wrote is currently appearing on Perfectionist Leibniz. It is called "Whole-Brained Grandparenting."

Expecting your first grandchild?

I remember when I received the phone call that my firstborn was expecting his first. My head and my heart were full. I remembered back when we had placed that phone call to our parents. I had expected hoots and hollers on the phone, and instead there was a long silence. Now I know what was going through their minds! We lived miles from family and existed on my paltry earnings while my husband was in med-school, and they were worried.

It has been said that procreation best belongs to the young and impulsive because after a certain age, you'd never have the nerve to have children.

"When you have children," my mother told me, "you become a hostage to fortune." She may have misquoted, in a way fitting to her caring personality. I've also heard, "When you have children, you give hostages to fortune." We who have parented long enough to have a child able to produce a child know all about this. As the sign in my local plant nursery so succinctly puts it: "There is no guarantee on the life of this plant, or of any other life on this planet."
Our hearts and minds are full because the job of parenting doesn't end when they leave home. It must become more subtle as we allow our adult children to make their own decisions, but our influence remains and there are information and wisdom to impart. Thus the call for whole-brained grandparenting.

For instance, your adult child may read the same financial advice article for new parents that I just came upon, which contained the following: "At a glance the question of whether one spouse should quit work [and stay home] is clear cut: If the spouse earns only enough to cover child care costs, staying at home probably makes sense." Looking further yielded only that "benefits" were often 35% of the salary package.

Like the mythological Cerberus, who guarded the gates to the Underworld (metaphorically, the things just below the level of cognition), I have three heads, and all 3 were wagging: (1) the heart that feels a baby benefits most when cared for by its parent; (2) the head that thinks the article-writer was irresponsible not to point out this wasn't a decision to make strictly on the basis of finances; and, (3) the whole-brained EQ coach who believes important decisions require EQ as well as IQ.

So what gifts will you give the new baby? As a grandparent, our parenting modeling continues. Our choice of gifts will say a lot.

Do you rush out and buy the $300 stuffed duckie or take care of half their Wish List at Toys R Us? Or do you symbolically get the show on the road for Responsible Parenting? The birth of the first child signals a huge transition - taking on the emotional and financial responsibility for a new life. You want to oversee, in a respectful and hands-off fashion, that all the bases get touched.

Financially, here are some topics you might bring up:

1. A parent must have a will, unless you want "the Court" deciding who raises your child (the Guardian), and who administers the finances (the Executor). They need not, and often should not, be the same person.

2. Insurance. Some "rules of thumb":
  • You insure the life of someone according to their ability to provide income. This doesn't include babies.
  • An adult in their 20s, 30s, and 40s is statistically far more likely to need disability insurance than life insurance.
  • Group insurance plans through jobs aren't portable. Individual policies are.

3. College education. 529s are great - you can use any state's plan and the beneficiary can attend school in any state - but college is "gravy." Like they say on the airplane -- apply your own oxygen mask first; then your child's. An 18 year old can, if necessary, provide her own college funding. The higher priority for the parents (and the future benefit of their children) is to provide for their own retirement.

4. Uniform Gifts to Minors. Do they (or you) want to establish a savings account in the child's name? As a grandparent, I doubt you do - it reverts to the child's sole discretion at age 18 or 21, and you know this is putting a weapon in the hands of a child, but your grown children may not. Best-case scenario, your 18 year old grandson argues with his parents about whether to spend the $200,000 on college or living for a year in Tahiti with his girl-friend. Worst-case scenario, he just does it; it's his money.

5. The $600 matching crib set. Can the baby exist without it? I imagine yours did!

Giving the gift of sitting down and going over the realities is not very glamorous, but then neither is changing diapers. Your daughter may have her head in the clouds, and her husband, his feet on the ground, or vice versa; or both may be in either position together. You, on the other hand, can see and share the big picture.

What if you gave them a giant stuffed duckie and tied around its neck some gift coupons -- a paid visit to your trusted lawyer; tuition to a parenting seminar; a year's supply of maid or lawn service; and a 3-night cruise during the first year with you babysitting back home? Scaled to your income, of course.

My grandmother was very loving, very practical, and also very wealthy. Her gift to me when my son was born consisted of some exquisite designer layette items; a year's diaper service; and a note with a little P.S. that she knew my husband was "looking after the will and that sort of thing." She could have given a lot more financially, but she exercised restraint, modeling what's really important. Most meaningful to me was the note inside. She was born in 1898, and the note began, "Welcome to the sacred sorority of motherhood." Somehow that needed to be said.

And over the years, she had given me much excellent advice, including "Don't listen to those pediatricians, listen to your heart." As an example, she told me that her pediatrician had told her to let the baby cry. "I didn't listen to him," she said. "Babies cry for a reason."

Don't proselytize about what you don't give, and don't apologize for what you can't give. My other grandmother, whose life was rich in love and Spartan in possessions, handed me a wedding gift of rags for cleaning, obtained the way rags used to be - from scraps of her worn out clothing and linens. I placed it next to the sterling silver service for 12 from the other grandmother on the gift table, and valued them both about the same.

Whatever you give materially or in-service, be there to help them sort through the fad-du-jour advice, get in touch with their own values and priorities, and touch all the bases. Directly, if asked. Subtly, if not asked.

But just do it!

And, by the way, congratulations!

©Susan Dunn, MA, The EQ Coach, Susan is the author of "Midlife Dating Survival Manual for Women," available at She offers coaching, Internet courses and ebooks around emotional intelligence for your personal and professional development. Retirement, midlife, and transitional coaching. Get certified as an EQ coach, the perfect retirement career. for information on the EQ Alive! program, certifying coaches in all fields, all over the world. To subscribe to free ezine, go here.

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