‘Discipline As Normal’ And Other Tips For When The Grandparents Visit

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grandparentsA good friend of mine recently returned from a month back home in Australia completely deflated. It was, she said, a time of dashed expectations, misunderstandings and tension even her 3-year-old picked up on. Not only was she no longer speaking to her parents, but her marriage was strained, the kids had suffered – nobody was left unaffected by the fallout from two households colliding.

A lot of our friends listened to her tale of woe with disbelief, but I found it rather familiar. A family’s baser characteristics only tend to magnify themselves when one of the members moves away, as I did, 10 years ago. Naively, I’d expected our little differences to disappear into all the empty miles between us. But when quality time together is short, the pressure to make the most of it can cause some major explosions. My family has seen some doozies. Bringing a third generation into the equation has only served to complicate – rather than alleviate – matters.

But I’m not quite an old dog yet. I’ve learned some new tricks to manage the chaos that surrounds a family visit. On the eve of another parental reunion, I’ve put together a list of rules I’ve learned to live by. They’re not fool proof, but they’ve kept us all on speaking terms and given us the kind of happy memories that keep us warm in the months apart.

First the practical:

• Always be prepared. Stock the kitchen with things you know they like to eat and drink (I’ve learned the hard way, scouring the aisles for instant decaf and acid-free coffee at midnight). Keep all appliances – kettle, toaster, coffee maker, blender, plus important tableware – in clear sight.

• Clear a comfortable lounge place supplied with magazines and books – even a laptop, if you can spare one. Fill a basket with useful toiletries and towels. I usually offer up the master bedroom to parents and inlaws, but if that’s not possible, make the guest room as comfortable as humanly possible. And tell the kids it’s off limits when the door is closed.

• My parents cross five time zones when they visit, so we’ve experimented with putting our own clocks back an hour or two (at least in spirit) for the first day or two they’re here. It gets everybody moving at a similar pace and helps them feel a bit more normal.

• Most grandparents are happy to babysit – even without being asked. My parents don’t fall in that category. So if my husband and I have other plans when they’re visiting, we reserve a sitter, then ask nicely, once they’ve settled in. If they’re happy to comply, we cancel the sitter. We also make sure they know they have the freedom to come and go as they wish – especially in the evenings.

• If you need your parents to help out with the children now and then, make sure they have time for a siesta in the late-afternoon. We all need a break during the witching hour.

• Making the long trip to see us is a big deal for our families, so we make sure there’s time for a touristy outing: a weekend in the country, a museum visit or a night at the theater.

• Each relative gets a transport pass, a set of car keys (though my parents would never drive in a foreign city), maps and guidebooks. And we keep a dish with change by the door in case anyone needs it.

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