Your granny should know

Grandparents have to tread a fine line between offering support and interfering. Now a new national network plans to help them get it right. Nicola Swanborough reports

The Aga in Anna Clarke's Sussex village kitchen is pumping out the promising smell of home baked bread. The quarry-tiled floor, recently "mucked out", is patterned with lumbering Labrador pawprints. Around the kitchen table, a clutch of women in late middle age are gathered for lunch. They exchange news and views with the excitement and enthusiasm of girls on their first day back at boarding school. It could be a scene from a Mary Wesley novel, but in fact is the inaugural meeting for a new grandparenting course.

And as in all good Wesley tales there's an undercurrent waiting to surface. The top half of the table may be mentally counting Mars bars - Caroline O'Brien, affectionately known to her friends as Piggy, needs to know how many she should take for her children and grandchildren on an imminent skiing trip.

But lower down the table Joyce (not her real name) is confiding her fears about her only daughter. "I am worried that she is going to lose her children," she says. "She is driving them away. She is totally paranoid. The rest of the world is wrong and she is right. She won't accept help from anyone. My grandchildren are going through hell. It is very painful. We are a totally dysfunctional family. If my daughter ends up on her own, she could become suicidal. I don't know what to do."

The background buzz fades away and the group closes in around Joyce to share her experience and support her. Although there are no obvious answers, confidentiality affords Joyce the verbal freedom to off-load her fears.

The group is a spin-off of Parent-Link, an educational and support programme for parents wanting to discover new, practical ways of coping with family life. These grandmothers are talking drug addiction, divorce, the problems of combining work and family life, their changing role in society. Anna Clarke, who has been a Parent-Link coordinator for nine years, set up the first grandparenting course two years ago when she realised how relevant the skills taught by Parent-Link were to grandparents.

"Being a grandparent is not easy," says Anna, who has five grandchildren. "You walk a tightrope between offering supportive advice when it is needed and interfering when it is not. "People get to my age - I'm 58 - and become quite self-opinionated. What is worse, they find it very difficult to appreciate that they are not always right and become very judgemental. This puts a lot of pressure on their children who are themselves learning to be parents and need support not criticism. Parent-Link places great emphasis on communication skills, learning to listen and be positive without interfering and judging, learning to challenge behaviour without putting the children down. It helps grandparents to appreciate that the needs of children and parents in today's society are quite different to those a generation ago.

"When my own daughter had her daughter she never put her down. She was permanently holding her. A lot of parents can become quite angry when they see their own child respond like this to their baby. They get upset at the mother tiring herself out when she could be leaving the baby to cry. It's one of those areas where modern psychology can cause a barrier between the generations."

Caroline 0'Brien, who has three daughters and four grandchildren, cites mealtimes as a high tension area in family life. "I had steam coming out of the top of my head at the last course when we got on to the subject of food. I am horrified at the present trend for children to grab a convenience type snack and eat it in front of the TV instead of having a cooked meal around the table as our children would have done. Where are the manners, where's the conversation, the family gathering?

"It was so good to share my feelings with other group members, particularly my feelings of guilt that I had not brought my children up properly and that was why they seemingly had no idea about proper meal times to pass on. It was such a relief to hear that other people had the same experience - it wasn't just me.

"Learning to accept and understand why things are the way they are was very useful. I got an enormous amount out of the group. Love the child but loathe the tantrum - it's something that can be quite hard to do."

Anwyl Allisstone attended the first course although she is not yet a granny. "My children are all grown up and I wanted to prepare myself for being a grandmother. I feel with so many scattered families and all the opportunities that are open to us today, grandmothers are almost becoming an endangered species: their role is denigrated.

"Mothers are forgetting just what a help their own mothers can be in bringing up a family, even if just by offering a listening ear. So often you see young mothers trying to cope by themselves, isolated from their families. Grandmothers are needed. They have such a fount of wisdom and a knowledge of their own childhood and their children's childhoods to pass on. Family life must suffer if grandparents are not valued.

"Parents don't stop being parents when their own children start a family. Their role changes but it is still vital. The world has really opened up for women of my age and it would be easy to get swallowed up by a career or a life that leaves no time to enjoy grandchildren. The course really restored my self-esteem and my belief that setting aside time for your family makes a valuable contribution to society."

The Sussex group is not unique. In Bromley, Kent, grandparenting courses are now part of the ante-natal package offered at Farnborough Hospital, although they are not connected to Parent-Link. Marian Rees, the midwife who who organises the courses, explains that they were set up in response to the number of grandparents who were taking on the day to day care of their grandchildren while parents worked. The emphasis is consequently on the practicalities.

"We wanted to be able to bring those grandparents the latest views and research on breastfeeding, weaning and cot death: all areas where advice given to young mums has changed dramatically since they were young themselves. Breastfeeding wasn't encouraged a generation or so ago. Bottle feeding was seen as a sign of affluence and if you chose to breastfeed in hospital the curtains were drawn round you and the staff would apologise on your behalf. This is an area where we really like to re-educate today's grandmothers and emphasise the importance of encouraging young mums to breastfeed. Weaning and sleeping are two other important areas where new research has to be passed on: we like to stress late weaning and the importance of avoiding wheat products up until six months, and of course the importance of sleeping babies on their backs in trying to reduce the risk of cot death."

Anna Clarke hopes that a network of grandparenting courses will establish itself nationwide. "Being a grandparent means different things to different people but the benefits of having a support group where you can share your joys and woes in complete confidence could be appreciated by everyone alike. Talking and listening can help keep things in perspective even if solutions are not always immediately forthcoming".

Parent-Link is developed by Parent Network. Telephone 0171 485 8535 for further information. For information on the grandparenting courses at Farnborough Hospital, contact Marian Rees on 01689 814000.

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