We ran into the Westcotts after they'd spent a weekend with their son, daughter-in-law and 2-year-old grandson. They were still shaking.
"They would let the kid play with the Mom's smartphone," Grandma Jane told us. "When they told him to stop and eat, he slammed it on the floor and wailed. Why would you let a child play with a $500 phone?
"Then they would ask him what he wanted to eat. Just an open-ended question, 'What do you want to eat?' Who cares what he wants to eat? He's 2! You don't ask a kid what he wants for dinner, you just make it and put it on his plate. Of course his answer was always 'ice cream.' So they had to say 'Not for dinner,' which sent the kid into screaming fits. So now the kid's unhappy, the parents are unhappy, and we're unhappy. What a wonderful meal.
"And that was just one hour of a 48-hour weekend. The rest of it was worse. The kid had no bedtime, he doesn't know what the word 'no' means, and he runs around at 500 miles an hour like his hair's on fire and screams at the drop of a hat. The screaming is unbelievable. Half the time I'd come running because I thought he had cut off a finger, and the parents wouldn't even turn around. They can tell the difference between 'I cut off my finger' and 'I want a cookie,' but I can't. It's unnerving."
All this from proud Grandma Jane, who I know to be a kind and gentle person. The fun family weekend they were looking forward to turned out to be a 3-D "Dr. Phil" episode -- one full of poor choices, bad parenting and utter frustration. And Jane was taking a much gentler line than Grandpa Dan, whose every other sentence was "If a kid of mine ever acted like that ..." He didn't know what he would do, but he would certainly tell the child to behave. "Of course, you can't say anything," said Dan, "or you're the bad guy."
Why can't you say anything? Why can't you be the bad guy? If you don't speak up, who will? Aren't you doing the same thing the 2-year old's parents are doing -- rewarding bad behavior? The grandparents are scared that if they say something, they'll never see the grandkid again. As if that would be a bad thing. Dan and Jane would love to spend some time with a well-behaved grandchild, but who needs the agita of this one?
Dan and Jane seem to have forgotten they were just as riled up the last time the kid visited, three months ago, as they will be again three months from now on the child's next holiday visit.
Not so long ago, when everyone you were related to lived on the same block, grandparents could pass along their experience and wisdom -- and yes, all their wacky old-fashioned ideas -- in small doses. When the new parents lived nearby, you could say, "I learned the hard way that it's easier to just put food on the table; the kid won't know he has a choice if you don't give him one" without it blowing up into a big scene. Another day, you might mention that rewarding bad behavior makes for a long day. Besides, everything doesn't sink in the first time. Things have to be reinforced over and over.
Now that many of our family members live six states away from each other, many of us only see our families on occasional weekends and holidays. There's no time to cram a lifetime of experience and advice into one weekend.
It's self-defeating anyway. All new parents like to think they won't make the same mistakes with their children that their parents made with them. And they don't -- instead, they make new, even worse, mistakes. Pointing that out isn't hurting new parents. It's helping them.
Contact Jim Mullen at JimMullenBooks.com.