Joanna Weiss

For grandparents, it’s a whole new baby culture

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / June 19, 2011

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THERE IS nothing like having a baby to close — and open— the generation gap.

On the one hand, when your infant is a 7-pound crying and pooping machine, no one’s going to be more helpful than a grandparent. On the other hand, the rules of parenting have changed so dramatically in the past generation or two, that those early days are ripe for conflict. Today’s babies are put to sleep on their backs, toted around in slings, swaddled so tightly that they can’t move. Parents shush into their ears and fret over the precise moment to expose them to traces of peanut dust. And that’s not even getting into the breastfeeding wars.

So it’s no surprise that many grandparents, as supportive as they want to be, are skeptical consumers of the new-parenting dogma. Sitting in a conference room in Needham this month, I watched a group of grandparents-to-be practice burping techniques on plastic baby dolls — and raise their eyebrows at a long list of au courant parenting styles. At last, one couple piped up to suggest a radical idea: It’s OK to use your instinct, some of the time.

When she was raising her now-grown sons, “We just threw the whole thing out the window,’’ said Barbara Sechrist of North Andover, recalling the establishment parental advice.

“And they both got out of jail early,’’ quipped her husband Bob.

They were attending a class called “Grandparents Today,’’ a new offering from Isis Parenting, the fast-growing education and retail chain geared at people with infants and toddlers. Marena Burnett, who taught the course and oversees Isis’s early parenting programs, said the class grew out of requests from new parents. In the throes of stress and sleeplessness, they needed someone to mediate relations in those stressful first few months.

Grandparents have long been a staple of the child-care “village,’’ but economic pressures have made them more critical than ever. A 2008 study by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies found that 60 percent of grandparents who live near their grandchildren have provided some form of child care, whether it be regular sitting or backup care on sick days.

Linda Smith, executive director of the association, says she advises grandparents to follow their children’s wishes, “because the last thing that you want is for you to end up having real serious family rifts.’’ And to some degree, new grandparents could use reeducation. Many parenting rules have shifted because of safety and research. Stomach-sleeping is strongly correlated with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Those rolling walkers that we Gen Xers loved as babies sent a lot of us to the emergency room.

But it turns out that grandparents have quite a bit to teach new parents, too — largely about perspective. Parents today are under uncommon pressure to enrich and enlighten, ensure that every moment of our children’s lives serves some productive purpose. We’re also privy to the backlash that’s voiced, most recently, on the cover of this month’s The Atlantic Monthly: That the steps we take to make our children happy are turning them into helpless, miserable permanent adolescents.

So it is with any kind of advice, on feeding or sleep or self-esteem: Whatever perspective you’re inclined to believe, you can find some authority figure who agrees. That, it turns out, is what grandparents are for. They know that prevailing dogmas will change. They know that time passes quickly, and before long, your kid will be feeding herself and you’ll be worrying about her math homework, instead. They know that you’re allowed to set your own rules — even about what to be called. (Burnett starts the class by polling for “grandparent names’’; one couple once declared that they were going to be “Twinkie’’ and “Sarge.’’)

And grandparents, less sleep-deprived, relieved of the duties of discipline and breadwinning, have the freedom to actually enjoy those infant days. In the class I witnessed, the prevailing mood among the grandparents-to-be — other than a healthy skepticism — was joy. I wished their grown children could have seen them in that room, cradling those plastic dolls with deep affection. They would have known that everything was going to be fine.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at