With unschooling we talk quite a bit about not having expectations of our children because that adds a filter to the relationship that gets in the way of both learning and living. It’s much more helpful to look clearly at our children as they are today. I’d extend that to any relationship and encourage dropping expectations of your extended family as well. Get to know the real person, not the role. Work with that. Don’t try to change them into your dream grandparent or aunt or uncle to your child. Remember, this is their journey too. They are discovering the kind of grandparent or aunt or uncle they want to be. You can help that journey along, not by trying to mold them into your vision of that relationship, but by helping them experience and explore their vision.
Same with your children: support them as they create their own relationships with their relatives. Let’s start with something I mentioned last week when I talked about family gatherings:
“I’d also keep a peripheral eye on what was up with my kids. If I noticed a relative starting a conversation, I’d watch to make sure my kids were comfortable. If not, I wouldn’t leave them to struggle or be quizzed, I’d join them. Maybe for moral support, maybe answering questions for them, maybe changing the topic, or maybe inviting them to join me somewhere else—it was dependent on the situation and on any plans we’d made before we went about how they’d like me to help them out.”
See how I’m looking at the situation from my child’s perspective? It’s not about how I feel about the conversation; it’s about how my child feels about it. (I’m assuming you don’t think the relative is subversively manipulating your child; and if you do, I’d probably ask why you were there in the first place.) Each time I can shift and see their lives from their perspective it leads to better actions and reactions on my part—better meaning more supportive of my children. I think of my job as supporting my kids as they develop their own relationships with their relatives. From that perspective, not only do I feel much less pressure, I’m also excited to discover what kind of relationship develops.
And I’m a really great resource to help them with that! I know my parents, my siblings, and my extended family pretty well from many years of experience; likewise, my spouse knows his or her family well. And obviously I know my kids better than they do. So I can take some time to figure out how I might best support a developing relationship between them. You’re nurturing the relationship. That doesn’t mean trying to get one of them to compromise or change for the other (that’s a clue that I’ve taken over responsibility for the relationship); it’s about searching out their common ground.
How might I do that? I do it by asking myself all sorts of questions about them. Would my Mom (insert any relative in question) enjoy hands-on play with my children? Does she feel like she’s connecting with them when they are excitedly playing with and showing her their favourite toys? Then bring them. Or does that level of energy and activity feel overwhelming to her, and she’d feel more relaxed and connected playing board or cards games or reading their favourite picture books with them. Bring those. Or might she prefer sitting more quietly and enjoying a favourite movie? Suggest your kids choose a few of their favourite movies or shows to bring and ask Grammy to pick which one she’d like to watch with them. And initiate these activities at an appropriate time during the visit.
If your parents are more hands-off and mostly want to see their grandchildren but not particularly interact with them, bring things your kids will enjoy doing to pass the time. Your parents will see their grandkids: happy parents. Your kids will have fun stuff to keep them busy: happy kids. Remember, this might be how it looks now, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be that way forever. A hands-off grandparent may, after a while, realize they don’t know their grandchild very well and start interacting more. That realization may take longer to come to if they have to work through feelings of being judged by you as well. If you can keep the relationship as clear of judgment as possible, it allows them to evaluate and learn and grow more directly.
If your child is looking for more interaction, be the example. Say your child brings their favourite toy with them to show their aunt. You can watch out for that moment and join them, being the facilitator. Explain your child’s excitement to your sister. You could smile and say “He can play with his transformers for hours, figuring out exactly how all the bits fit together as they move from one thing into another.” And then to your child, “Oh! I bet she’d like to see your blue transformer, how you can get it from car to robot in five seconds.” Maybe make a game of counting out how long it takes to transform it back and forth a couple times. You’re acknowledging your child’s excitement and showing your sister how she might interact. Plus, you’re pointing out the particular things your child enjoys about the toy/activity so that she gets to know him a little bit better.
But still, you needn’t expect that she get any better at the relationship—at this point you’re more supporting your child’s wish to share his joy with his aunt. Maybe your sister gets to know your child better and begins to enjoy when he shares his interests, taking over the conversations so you no longer need to facilitate. Or maybe as he gets older he comes to realize that his aunt simply isn’t very interested in knowing much detail about his interests. You can commiserate with him and he’ll move on to other things.
These aren’t meant as definitive actions, but more to help get your juices flowing to discover ways your relatives and children might enjoy interacting. Don’t be frustrated if your initial ideas don’t work out well; keep trying. And remember, we’re looking for common ground, supportive ways to bring the perspectives of both the child and the relative in question together. Take the time to see things through both their points of view and you will be in the best position to nurture the development of a lifelong relationship that meets both their desires as much as possible.
But if one is wishing for more of a relationship than the other is interested in, that is just the way it is for now. Just as you can’t force them to fit into your vision of that relationship, neither can one of them force the other to submit to their vision without further damaging the relationship. Once your conversations with them have revealed an impasse in that moment, conversations with the one feeling slighted can swirl around people and personalities and wishes and that this moment doesn’t define forever. People grow and change. It’s a beautiful dance. It’s life.