Q: How long have you had custody of your grandchildren and how old were you and they when they came to live with you?
A: I have two grandchildren, a girl 10 years old and a boy, 11. I have custody of them because my son is incarcerated and their mother is unable to care for them. I was in my mid-40’s at the time. They have been with me for 5 years, and wow, have they changed since they first arrived. One of the first things I had to do was get them on a schedule since they had come from an environment where it was OK to stay up late at night and wake up whenever they felt like it. It took me about a week to get the children accustomed to getting up in the morning and eating breakfast before leaving the house. Establishing and maintaining a schedule were really important and helped them get enough sleep so they could function well in the classroom and stay alert during the school day.
Q: Do they have contact with either or both parents?
A: I had to lay down some strict rules for their mother’s visits. Their mother would show up unannounced around their birthdays and holidays, making excuses about why she does not see them regularly and how she just happened to forget their gifts. One time she told the children that I prevented her from seeing them because we had other plans when she unexpectedly showed up. This forced me to lay down visitation rules. Now, I do not allow drop by or surprise visits. I also discuss with her ahead of time what the children’s schedules are and what they may have to do the day of her visits. I feel I have to do this to protect the children’s physical and emotional well-being.
Q: What about their father?
A: It was a difficult decision for me to make, but I decided to bring the kids to visit their father only a couple of times a year. I do not want the children to think prison is a “fun” place to be. The visiting room is set up to be “family friendly” with TV’s tuned to cartoons and various snack machines filled with lots of junk food. I do not allow the kids to watch television or buy snacks while we are there. I try to tell them prison is a terrible place to be and we go only to visit someone we love who is being punished for the poor choices he made in life.
Q: How do you handle discipline in the house?
A: As I mentioned earlier, creating and sticking to a regular schedule made a huge difference. Schedule and discipline go hand in hand. My grandchildren actually craved structure after being in a completely disorganized household. They responded well to limitations and boundaries.
As part of introducing more structure, I gave them household chores. I believe children are more independent when they are able to contribute to the home and have set responsibilities. I believe simple tasks like taking out the trash and loading the dishwasher make them feel included in the overall care and maintenance of the home. As they got older, I increased their responsibilities to include doing laundry (sorting, washing and folding), making their bed and mowing the lawn. I think this teaches responsibility and accountability for their living environment.
Q: What do your grandchildren call you?
A: I was fortunate to spend time with my grandchildren on the weekends prior to receiving full custody so they were familiar with me and my home. They have always called me “Mom” in part because they heard my son refer to me this way. I would suggest letting the child call you whatever they are most comfortable with. Although my grandchildren refer to me as “Mom,” their school mates are aware that I am their grandmother and if they by chance refer to me differently, my grandchildren are quick to correct them.
Q: How has raising your grandchildren changed your life?
A: Overnight I went from being a single “empty nester” living a fairly quiet life to having two kids in kindergarten. It was total chaos for at least 6 months! Things have changed so much since my kids were growing up, or maybe I am just more aware of the need to be involved with their school. But I think the expectation that parents will be involved in the school is greater now than when my kids were in school. I am at the school all the time for things like organizing fundraisers, helping teachers, helping out in the office and library, and going to PTA meetings. Funding for non-academic and some academic activities has dried up in the public schools so parents have to do a lot more of these things to help out. The other big change for me is that retirement does not seem to be a possibility anymore. I see myself working a lot longer than I expected. But I have come to grips with that; the kids need me and I am glad I can be here for them.
Q: Do you have any advice for other grandparents?
A: One thing I believe strongly is that you should never speak badly about the absent parents. Children are extremely resilient and forgiving. No matter their experiences, they generally have a deep love and affection for their parents. For this reason, I make a concerted effort never to let them hear me speak negatively about their parents.