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90's Family | REAL LIFE

What Sounds Like Advice Can Really Be Butting In

June 30, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Susan, a Los Angeles mother of two, knew her mother would be trouble even before her first child was born.

For years, she had been listening to her mother criticize the way her brother was raising his children. Children need to be spanked, she said. Children should not be allowed to upstage adults.

Then one day, Susan heard her refer to Jews in front of her brother's children using a derogatory word and knew it was time to speak up. "I said, 'When I have kids, I never want you to use those words around my children. Ever.' "

Her mother was defensive, Susan said. "But she said OK." Now, Susan said her mother is careful. "She's afraid if she crosses the line, she might not see them as much."

Values have changed dramatically within families since the 1950s, and conflicts between the generations can arise over everything from toilet-training to gift-giving and--most typically--discipline.

"Parents are attempting to be much more considerate of children and the grandparents look at it as tremendous permissiveness," said Lillian Carson, a Santa Barbara therapist and author of "The Essential Grandparent" (Health Communications Inc., 1996). "It drives them up a wall."

Many grandparents express themselves in their old parenting role, using whatever style they used when they were raising their own children--bossy, intrusive, demanding or honest, said Linda Braun, executive director of the Boston-based Families First parenting program. When they do, the adult children tend to react as children, she said. "They get angry, attack back, cry, feel hurt, become jealous of siblings. It all plays out."

In one case, a grandmother, appalled after seeing how her son was raising his children during a visit to his home in Los Angeles, sent him a long letter after she left explaining what he was doing wrong. The son didn't speak to her for two years.

"What seems to be required," Braun said, "is a re-balancing of the relationship, from a parent-child interaction to a more peer-like interaction."

When grandparents express views that oppose parents' values, the experts advise either talking it over in a calm moment or explaining to the children later that they have different ideas. Some grandparents have so much unconditional love to offer grandchildren--which is especially needed in stressed-out families--that parents should think before they "throw the grandparent out with the prejudice," Carson said.

But grandparents also need to learn to bite their tongues and try to be as accepting of their adult children as they are of their grandchildren.

Carson said she recently wanted to comfort her granddaughter after she heard her daughter discipline the child too harshly. But because she was a house guest, she said, "I stuffed it." Later, when she and her daughter were alone, Carson said she sympathized with her daughter's stresses and frustrations. "She was happy to talk a little more and found that helpful," Carson said.

In legitimate instances of abuse, she said grandparents should speak up for the child, regardless of the consequences. They should choose a calm moment, avoid accusations, voice concerns and willingness to help.

But in most situations, the most successful grandparents are those who close their eyes and zip their lips.

Indeed, Susan said her mother-in-law is the ideal grandparent. "She says, 'You're a wonderful mother. The children are turning out so well. You deserve a lot of credit.'

"I love it," Susan said. "It makes me want to be around her a lot."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Please include a telephone number.

In most situations, the most successful grandparents are those who close their eyes and zip their lips.

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