The fine art of spoiling

This is an excerpt from I Love You, Granny: A Grandmother’s First Handbook (Vanwell Publishing Ltd 2008) by Betty Locke.

In my brainstorming sessions with children from Grades 1-6, I always asked if they felt that their grandmothers spoiled them. If you could have seen the gleeful sparkle in their eyes as they assured me that it was one of the things that grandmothers did best, you might think again about spoiling. Actually only 50 per cent of the hundreds of grandmas I surveyed for my book admitted that they did spoil and just a paltry 30 per cent believed that a grandmother should spoil.

“To spoil” as defined in the dictionary: To impair or damage or harm the character of someone by unwise treatment or excessive overindulgence. But to a grandchild spoiling is something quite different. One child sees it as granny bringing treats and presents and taking her to interesting places. Another sees it as grandma listening to him and taking his side.

Yet another perceptive child gave this response: “She’s the one who thinks you’re wonderful.” To me that last response puts spoiling in its proper perspective. Spoiling to a grandparent is the giving of unconditional love .

Surely no loving grandmother wishes to impair, damage or harm and no wise one wishes to overindulge. So how can we unconditionally love our grandchildren?

Let us count the ways.

By giving them quality time

Turn whatever time you have for your grandchildren into quality time. Listen to them as individuals. Be understanding of their problems. Someone once told me there are no problem children, just children with problems. Cultivate that “third ear” which can discern that a grandson who says he hates his older brother is probably really saying that he hates being a sibling.

Praise them. An educational consultant, Richard P. Gallagher, suggests that this is a specific thing you can do to reinforce in positive ways a child’s self-image. “Praise by words and by a hug, a smile, a hand on the shoulder, anything that suggests warmth, approval, understanding… Praise everything. This includes the child’s friendliness, kindness, generosity, enjoyment of learning, good sportsmanship, anything at all.”

I concluded that I must have succeeded in this aspect when a card came to me from my granddaughter on which she wrote enthusiastically, if not humbly, “To a wonderful Grandmother from a wonderful Granddaughter!” The grandmother who made tapes of favourite bedtime stories for her far away grandchildren knew the power of her loving voice as a cementing force in their relationship. Share television programs with them. One of the most enjoyable experiences I had recently was watching “Anne of Green Gables” with an 8-year old granddaughter. To see her acceptance of such sterling values as imagination, honesty, concern for others and respect for education was heartwarming.

My conversation with two older granddaughters after we had viewed a frank episode on “De Grassi Junior High” was a revelation. I was amazed by their emotional maturity and by their understanding of the temptations involved in certain relationships. Honesty compels me to admit, too, that I was saddened to see the innocence of childhood being challenged so soon.

Charles Dickens must have felt the same when in “Hard Times” he describes a teacher who is poised before a class of small children: “He seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts and prepared to blow them clean out of the region of childhood at one discharge.” I would be content to find the balance for my grandchildren between too much childhood, too little childhood and none at all, wouldn’t you? Dickens also said of children that we should be “ever careful that they should have a childhood of the mind no less than of the body.”

Write letters or cards letting them know you are thinking of them. Take them to places different from the usual family outings. Be the one to introduce them to a museum or art galley, a ballet or theatrical production or a fine restaurant.

Make occasions for doings things separately with each grandchild. In larger families a child rarely gets this one-on-one attention. Frank McKenna, the former premier of the province of New Brunswick, tells about the influence of his grandmother. “My grandmother, Mary McKenna, gave me my desire to learn, to read, and to strive for excellence. She gave me her undivided attention, to the point where I was more like a first child.”

By giving them things

More affluent grandmothers enjoy the freedom of indulging their grandchildren in material ways. They like to be the one to buy the expensive toy or piece of sporting equipment. Others get a thrill shopping for their grandchildren and finding just the right thing for that certain child.

Grandchildren often commented on the generosity of their grandmas. They certainly seemed to equate a grandmother’s visit with treats and presents. This is a valid expectation surely; for what self-respecting granny would come empty-handed to visit her grandkids? The chocolate chip cookies or the small toy may be classed as an indulgence, but as a character-damaging overindulgence – what errant nonsense!

By giving them outward expressions of love

Time and again I was told by young children in the early grades that grandmas were loveable, that they like to hug and kiss. Never was this admitted in a derisive war; rather it was given as one more pleasing grandmotherly quality.

Some older youngsters had a few negative comments to make “She’s mean and crabby… She’s fussy about your manners, how you dress… She’s weird but nice.” Generally, though, they saw their grandmothers as loving, kind, considerate, thoughtful and even terrific, spectacular and fantastic. However, no mention was made by these older ones of overt signs of affection. Grandmothers, on the other hand, wrote frequently of the delight of snuggles and cuddles. Do I speak for other widows when I confess that warm hugs and kisses from grandchildren fill a very deep need for some loving arms about one?

Enough has been written about the nurturing quality of touching and holding to qualify this aspect of spoiling as one that must be encouraged. Children grow and blossom in an atmosphere of love. If you can bring love and tenderness into the life of an unloved or unappreciated grandchild, you will contribute immeasurably to that child’s healthy growth.

Leo Buscaglia, certainly the huggiest man in the world, readily admitted to an audience that his way of expressing love might not be for everyone. You may have a grandchild who does not care to climb onto your lap for kisses and hugs. Do not feel it as rejection if instead he squirms out of your embrace or she refuses to be kissed. These are often the very active or curious children who must be on the move, playing with that favourite toy or discovering how something works. Join them in their play or assist them in their discovery and the warm look you receive or the sincere request for your participation will be the way that child chooses to express love. Be content with it.

Pet names and endearments are all part of spoiling too. I have young grandsons whom I call “Lamb-chop” and “Love-pot” and so far , they haven’t objected. My heart melts when my grandkids end their telephone conversation with me with the ritual chant, ‘Kiss, kiss, hug, hug. Love you!’ It is my belief that children who can express their emotions readily by word or deed will have an easier time in future relationships.

By giving them support

I value that time honoured maxim that children should be given both roots and wings. As their connection with an older generation, you do help to give them roots. But do you have the courage to give them wings? Do you encourage your granddaughter to tackle jobs and experiences that you have been brought up to believe were solely in the male domain? Do you support your grandson when he takes off in a direction different from that expected by his parents or family tradition? What if he wants to be a plumber instead of an engineer, an artist instead of a banker, a farmer instead of a doctor? Are you on his side or do you help his family, by your silence, to clip his wings?

As a new grandmother, you will not be confronted by questions of such magnitude for some time. If or when you are, remember that many children saw grandma taking their side as one of her most endearing qualities. Don’t let them down. While having my hair done recently, I asked the personable young hairdresser if he had a good relationship with his grandmother. He replied, “I certainly do. We often go partying together and whenever I need help or comfort I head for grandma’s. She’s never critical.” So you see this kind of spoiling has no time limit.

The bottom line: While the dictionary would find it a contradiction in terms, my opinion is that spoiling is a grandmother’s function – and that its outcome is very good indeed.

book coverI Love You, Granny: A Grandmother’s First Handbook is a heartwarming and practical handbook for grandmothers. This book is a fundraising project for the Nyanyas of Niagara; a grandmothers’ group that is part of the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign. The money raised from the sale of this book provides the unsung heroes of Africa, the grandmothers, with much needed support. Through hundreds of grassroots projects they receive help for things such as food, housing grants, school fees and grief counselling for themselves and their bereaved grandchildren. This support helps to ease the pain of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. To find out more information or to order a copy, call toll-free at 1-800-661-6136 or contact by email at [email protected]

Photo © Catherine Yeulet