This information is meant for step grandparents themselves. If you’re a parent reading this, print it out for your own parents to read or refer them to this page.
Becoming a step grandparent
When your son or daughter remarries, it is often to someone else who has kids. This puts grandparents in the sometimes awkward position of becoming step-grandparents. While some folks take naturally to this role, others simply do not know how to relate to their step grandchildren. What do they owe them? Do they have enough money to go around? Will natural grandchildren feel jealous? What about family inheritance? Is it possible for me to love someone else’s children as much as I love my own grandkids? There are no written rules governing these dilemmas, and for many grandparents, this is uncharted territory.
Why step grandparents are important to the family
“Most grandparents do not realize the impact of their actions and words. They also do not realize how much power they truly truly have in helping the new blended family to succeed. …When grandparents withdraw from relationships with their step grandchildren or do not fully acknowledge them, problems are created for the entire blended family. Both the parents and stepparents resent it, and the stepchildren are hurt most of all.”
– Dr. Mary Ann Artlip, James Artlip & Dr. Earl Saltzman (1993, pp. 179, 176)
Though you may not realize it, you’re an important part of this new equation. You have the power to be either a divisive or unifying force, and your treatment can help make or break the stepfamily. By welcoming all the children as “our kids” and promoting positive relationships, you can help solidify the new family on a solid foundation. Especially in light of the other hassles your kids might experience, your support goes a long way. “Little things often mean a great deal to adults who are coping with the already difficult process of blending,” say Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman. (ibid, p. 180) We hope you’ll do your best to become a unifying force. After all, I’m sure the last thing you want to see is for your son or daughter to have to endure another divorce, or to have them cut you out of their lives.
What your family expects of you
Those in stepfamilies want a few basic things from grandparents:
- They want you to welcome your new son or daughter in law into the fold and treat her and her kids like family.
- To show interest in the new grandkids.
- To treat grandkids & stepgrandkids equally.
- To be flexible and understanding when it comes to holidays or other special occasions. Recognize that the kids sometimes have 3 or 4 sets of grandparents all vying for the same limited time. Don’t take it as a personal affront if they can’t always work things into their schedule.
Step grandparenting may feel a little different than grandparenting your own grandchildren, but it doesn’t need to. Here is some information that might help things along:
Learning to love a step grandchild like your own
Many grandparents wonder how their step grandchildren are going to relate to them, and whether they can ever love a step grandchild the same. Let’s start by exploring the child’s perspective. As Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman state, “Children seldom find it strange to gain another set of grandparents but, rather, are usually open and responsive to – and definitely in need of – any extra love and attention they can get. They find it hard to understand when their step grandparents do not respond to them.” (ibid, pp. 176-77)
Most children aren’t even going to think in terms of heredity. To them, a step grandparent is no different than any other grandparent – just another person in their extended family. Children are full of love and eager to accept anyone who truly loves and accepts them in return.
As for you, don’t let the fact that there’s less of a blood tie affect how you think about them. Families are made, not born, and parenting (or grandparenting) is about raising children, not donating sperm towards them. So don’t think of these children as any different from your own. Imagine if your son or daughter were unable to have a child of their own due to fertility problems, and therefore adopted a baby from China to raise as their own. Would you refuse to see this child as family simply because there were no biological ties? Think of stepgrandchildren in the same light. Your son or daughter has ‘adopted’ these kids to raise as their own. They are as much a part of the family as any other.
Even the concept of “blood ties” is largely deceiving. When you and your partner got together to have your kids, they were 50% you. When your child got together to have a baby with a partner, that biological grandchild carried a mere 25% of your lineage. So tell me: Do you only love the 25% of your grandchildren that descends from you? Or do you love the complete and wonderful person that they are? Your “natural” grandkids are 75% someone else’s – don’t let those last few percentage points hold you back from loving a step grandchild.
Go back 100,000 years or so, and you come to a bottleneck in the human tree that we all squeezed through. In other words, we’re all family if you go back a little ways. The DNA of each and every person on the planet traces to this common ancestor. Your stepchildren are much closer related than you might think they are.
Interacting with step grandchildren
Try to interact with step grandchildren the same way you would biological children. “Don’t worry if you, as a step-grandparent, don’t ‘have fun’ the first time you’re together with the step-grandchild,” says Elaine Fantle Shimberg. “Go slowly and don’t overwhelm the child with your attentions or yourself with your expectations. Be yourself, not some fantasy of how you think you should act.” (Shimberg, 1999, p. 195) It may take a little time before things get comfortable, and teens may be a little more reticent about things than younger kids. But if you SEE YOURSELF as grandparent to all the children, things will soon fall in place.
Additional tips for grandparents
- Drop the word “step” from your vocabulary. Refer to all of your grandkids as grandchildren; don’t distinguish between ‘real’ ones and stepkids by adding this distinction.
- Be sure to introduce kids as part of the family. Simply say “These are my brand new grandchildren!” and then elaborate further if anyone asks.
- Be an advocate for all your grandchildren. Be sure to include them in family gatherings, and if other members of your family try to suggest that they don’t belong, set them straight.
- When stepchildren are around, comment about how they have eyes or noses similar to you or your wife, or how their mannerisms remind you of your own kids. It may sound silly, but it will make them feel more like a part of the family.
Treating your grandchildren fairly
Do all you can to give gifts of both time and attention equally. One of the most common complaints in stepfamilies is that grandparents play favorites when it comes to their generosity. As one parent says in complaining about graduation gifts, “The natural grandchild got $500 and my son got $20. Actions are notably different.” (Artlip et al., 1993, p. 179) This kind of discrepancy tells children what you really think of them, and it can become a divisive force within the stepfamily itself.
Fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal. If stepgrandkids come onto the scene suddenly, and you’ve been saving bonds for the natural grandkids since the day they were born, it may be hard to match this perfectly. It’s okay to tailor things according to the interaction grandkids have had with you, but you should try to be as equitable as possible. From the moment they come into your lives, you should be as generous with stepgrandchildren as you are with biological ones. It’s not the size of the gift or even the gift itself that is at issue, it’s that when you give unequally, you send a powerful message about who you consider a ‘real’ member of the family.