When Grandparents Come to Visit: 8 Do's and Don't for a More Enjoyable (and Less Stressful) Stay

My sons are now teenagers so the stressful days when grandparents would visit (thank you, sweet Jesus in Heaven) are behind us. But I remember how hard they were, making me want to jump from a second story window (fortunately, our house was a single level). It was made even more trying because one of my sons is autistic. While not politically correct to say so, many older folks simply don't understand autism. They think it's just a case of naughty kids with overindulgent moms and dads. No matter how many times you explain what it is, they remain convinced it's just bad parenting. I hope when I become a grandma someday I'll remember these 8 Do's and Don't so my sons and their wives will welcome my visits and not see them as one long tortuous trip to the dentist (but a whole lot worse):

1. Do plan on lending a hand with the children. Even though my mom reared 4 kids and my in-laws 6, they acted as if they had absolutely no clue how to help when they came to visit. When we'd drive to the park, they'd stand on the sidewalk helplessly as I'd heave the stroller, diaper bag, and picnic basket from the trunk, remove the boys from their car seats, and leash up the dog. When I'd make dinner, they'd sit and watch the evening news (seniors can't seem to miss it -- it's a religious thing, I think) as my baby hollered for a bottle and my toddler pulled at my pants for attention. All the while, I'd be raging inside. Please, grandparents, if you don't intend on pitching in, stay at a nearby motel and come by for visits.

2. Don't expect the parents to drop everything to conform to your schedule. My in-laws saw a visit with us as their vacation time because we lived in Napa Valley. They expected me to be their tour guide, chauffeur, maid, and chef. But schlepping from one winery to another with two little boys in tow is beyond exhausting, especially when one has autism. Children on the spectrum (but many youngsters in general) become agitated when their schedules get altered. They need their routines: naps, snacks, play time. Going to adult-centered places, such as fancy wineries and restaurants, sets them off and makes for a miserable time for all.

3. Do plan some activities on your own. My mother and in-laws expected me to be with them 24/7. As an introvert, I found this confining and claustrophobic -- like a bug in a jar with no air holes. I needed some time to myself, which is definitely hard to come by with two small kids!  Guests should research the place they're visiting and choose some activities to do without their host. When we lived in Napa, people from out of town thought San Francisco was just a hop, skip, and jump away (not true). Taking guests from Napa to San Francisco is an all-day ordeal that involves a long traffic-filled commute or multiple forms of public transportation combined with lots of walking -- definitely not a kid-friendly experience!

4. Don't be judgmental about parenting. My mother and father-in-law often criticized their other grown children's parenting skills in front of me. They'd talk about their "permissiveness," how their kids behaved rudely, were allowed too much screen time, and didn't do enough chores. Hell, when I heard this, I knew, without a doubt, they were also criticizing me to them. If grandparents are staying at the home (and, once again, I highly recommend a motel), they should keep in mind that the family's routine has been disturbed by their visit and, as a result, the children are tired, cranky, and more likely to act up. In other words, this is not their normal behavior.

5. Do create memories with your grandkids. Parents can put up with a lot and forgive almost anything if grandparents do one thing: spend time with their grandchildren and make them feel loved and special. That's all parents really want. I so wish my mom and in-laws had spent quality time with my kids -- taking them uptown for an ice cream cone or to feed goats at the petting zoo. It doesn't have to be something big, expensive, and flashy like a trip to Disneyland -- just an activity that bonds the generations together. 

6. Don't compare grandkids. When my sons were little, I literally was unable to tell one single anecdote about them to my mother-in-law without her telling me a similar story about her granddaughters who lived in her town. Before I could even finish, she'd interrupt me to tell about the girls -- often times with a tale that one-upped mine. I felt like a tire, getting punctured and going flat as all the joy about my unique parenting experience leaked out of me. Eventually I just stopped sharing with her.

7. Do notice and comment on special qualities of the grandchildren. As a mom of a child with autism, I didn't hear many positive things about my kid. I saw his wonderful traits, but most people did not. They saw his odd behavior -- his arms flapping, his lack of eye contact, his limited vocabulary, and his lack of interest in peers. What a HUGE difference it would have made in my life if his grandparents had taken a moment to say something good about him -- taking note of his gentle spirit, his love of trains, his skill with computers, or his mesmerizing blue-gray eyes.

8. Don't make parents decide between you and their own kids. When my mother would come for a visit, she'd have stockpiled a lot to tell me -- tales about her friends with health problems, stories about my siblings and their children, and details of her relationship with her on-again, off-again boyfriend. As soon as she entered my home, it was like a dam had been broken and all the words came flooding out of her mouth. She'd become visibly frustrated when my kids would interrupt. I felt forced to choose between listening to her or attending to them. She'd get irritated at me and the children, thinking they should have better manners and wait their turn. I felt caught in the middle and pulled in different directions. It was awful and I hated it every minute of it. Having my mom around added more stress to my already stressful life. If you're staying at the home (did I mention a motel is an option?), do things to lighten the parents' load, not add to it.

The esteemed "60 Minutes" correspondent writes about her experiences as a grandmother and how it brings meaning to her life.

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