Miranda is at a loss. Her 8-year-old granddaughter Melody has come for a three-week visit so that her mother Terry can save on camp expenses. Four days in and Miranda is wondering if it was a big mistake.
“Melody is so stubborn,” she tells me. “We’ve always had a good time in the past. This visit, she’s a nightmare. She doesn’t do what I ask her to do. She isn’t following rules. She answers back.”
“Have you talked to her mother about it?” I asked.
“Oh yes. Terry says I’m too strict. Too strict? All I want Melody to do is be polite and do a few things like make her bed and help clear the table. I’m not exactly putting her into servitude here! I don’t want conflict with my daughter over this but really! Melody’s attitude and behaviors need to change.”
During further discussion I learn that Miranda is feeling unappreciated and quite uncertain about what she does and doesn’t have a right to ask of an 8-year-old. She only sees Melody once or twice a year since her family lives over 600 miles away. Summer visits have always been a time to reconnect with her and to make special memories. She and Terry thought Mel was ready for a solo visit but she wonders if they were simply wrong. She certainly hadn’t bargained for managing a sullen kid who sees being asked to hang up a wet bathing suit as an unreasonable demand – and who calls her mother constantly to tell her that Grandma is mean.
For many families, summer is a time to visit relatives or a time to send children off to visit grandparents or family friends. For some families, it’s a way for older, retired relatives to help out working adults. Every week at Grandma’s saves on the cost of camps or daycare and is certainly safer than kids being home alone. For other families, like Miranda’s, summer vacations provide a chance for longer visits where relatives really can get to know grandchildren and nieces and nephews who live at a distance.
In nostalgia-ridden movies, such visits are a time for baking cookies, going fishing, and visiting the swimming hole with the local gang. Kids listen adoringly to their wise and loving elders who thoroughly enjoy their mischievous but otherwise perfect grandkids.
Would that art really did mimic life. Though I’m pretty sure there are real-life instances of such scenes — at least for some moments at some time of a visit — most of the time life is far more complicated. Trying to “parent” a child who isn’t our own is one of the most complicated things I can think of.
It’s not too late for Miranda to salvage this visit, provided she can get some cooperation from her own daughter. A large part of the problem is that Melody gets backing from her mom when she calls home to complain. Probably without meaning to, the adults have put Mel in the middle of an old argument. Grandma apparently always has had rules that her daughter Terry thought were unnecessary. She’s carrying on her old argument with her mother through her daughter. Miranda is obliging by digging in and insisting that Melody shape up – an argument she’s lost with her daughter. Time out, everybody! This is a summer visit, not a rerun.
Instead of talking through an 8-year-old, Miranda and her daughter need to come to an understanding that it’s okay for there to be different expectations at different homes. Kids can and do learn that different settings require different behavior. They completely understand that what goes on the playground isn’t appropriate in church; that what is acceptable to the art teacher isn’t when they’re in the reading group. The need to be different in different places is not new information to any kid over the age of 3.
Mel’s mom and grandmother need to respect that they live differently. Miranda may despair that she raised a slob who lets her child walk all over her. Terry may wish her mother weren’t such an uptight perfectionist. But it’s long past time to stop pejorative name-calling and to simply accept that they are who they are and they are unlikely to change. Most important, it’s time to refocus on the fact that they both love Mel and want her to have a loving relationship with each of them.
When Mel calls Terry, it’s Terry’s job to remind her that Grandma’s house rules are different. She can certainly sympathize that it’s sometimes hard to remember different rules, but that needs to be followed by a statement of confidence that Melody can handle it. Then Terry needs to steer the conversation to ways that Mel and Grandma can have fun. She could say something like, “I know you’re used to being able to keep your room like you want, but you’re in Grandma’s house now and she likes it neater. It’s not that big a deal. Once you’ve picked up, I bet you two can find something to do. Why don’t you ask Grandma if she’ll read the next couple of chapters of your book with you?”
Grandma’s share is to acknowledge the effort: “Wow, Mel. You pitched in and straightened up the bathroom. Now we have time to do something you want to do!”
It’s just as important to recognize that Melody may not be all that happy to be at Grandma’s. She may have friends at home whom she imagines are having all kinds of fun without her. The reality may be that they are bored, but she’s feeling left out of even the boredom. She misses her friends, her folks, and her stuff and all of them are 600 miles away. It’s not possible for her grandparents to fill in the void with extra-special attention 24/7 so it’s inevitable that she will feel a little homesick. She may act up to communicate feelings she doesn’t really know how to talk about. Being only 8, Melody may be confusing her dislike or discomfort with the situation with dislike of her grandmother. A little sympathy for her point of view could do wonders. It may not be possible to change the plans but it is certainly possible to hear her out.
Supervised conversations on Skype and Facebook with friends and her family might up the reading on her happiness meter. Introductions to local kids and maybe visits to the local playground might also help the situation considerably. Most important, Melody’s parents and her grandparents need to give her lots of love and lots of recognition for being old enough and smart enough to enjoy the visit. If they can work together to help her settle in, future visits will be much, much easier.