In honor of Grandparents’ Day, Babyproductsmom chatted with Howard Eisenberg who has written countless books –often with his late wife, Arlene, co-author of the original What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Writing for over 50 years, Mr. Eisenberg turned 90 this year. His latest book, Adorable Scoundrels, “is a wry read of super poems about tenacious tots.” Howard is grandfather to half-dozen grandchildren and a 3-year-old great grandchild. “I wish I had twice as many,” he says.
Read on for Howard’s experienced perspective on grandparenting toddlers and how you can help your kids connect with Grandpa and Grandma, especially if you don’t live near each other.
Q: What’s the best thing about being a grandparent/great grandparent?
A: For me, it’s the chance to live those wonderful years all over again. But a wry poem from Adorable Scoundrels answers your question differently: “The grandparent advantage/As some of you may know/Is when a tantrum starts/You can just get up and go.”
But, of course, that’s more of a humorous take on tantrums than on how a grandparent should react to them. Joining your grandchild on the floor to figure out what the problem is a better way to go. Sometimes that’s easier said than accomplished. But when grandparents take the easy way out–out the door– that choice isn’t necessarily callus.
They may just sensibly be leaving the problem for a parent to solve. And, that’s far more appropriate than solving it themselves by buying peace and quiet with the bribe of a sugar-coated treat. Certainly a successful solution starts with hugs, love, and empathy. After that, the best thing is probably distraction.
Q: What’s not so great about being a grandparent?
A: Another of my Adorable Scoundrels poems says it all: “Hurricane? Tornado? Violent spouse?/ What wrought this havoc in our house?/You want to know what is it?/Our grandchildren came to visit.”
Again, this is just whimsy describing how a toddler can turn grandma’s pristine living room from neat to topsy turvy in an hour or less. But most grandparents will agree that cleaning up for five minutes after a visit from their favorite grandchildren is a price much worth paying.
Q: If you could do anything differently about being a grandparent/great grandparent, what would it be?
A: I’d hide my grandchildren so their parents couldn’t take them away! But of course, that wouldn’t work and didn’t work. Three live in Massachusetts, ne in upstate New York and three in L.A. All I can do is wish for the good old days of One Big Happy Family in one house or two adjacent ones. But they’re not coming back.
The smartest grandparents I know sold the Florida house they’d bought to retire in and moved to the California town their grandchildren live in. No missed or wasted years. They’ve lived there long enough so their grandchildren have now awarded them great grandchildren. The best I can do is visit, and that doesn’t happen often enough.
Q: You seem to be in touch with your inner toddler. But some new grandparents, especially those who don’t live near their grandchildren, may not be. Any advice for these folks on how to spend time with a toddler?
A: All but the grumpiest grandparents figure that out for themselves. The best way is obviously volunteering to take the lad or lassie for the day, a weekend, or longer while the toddler-fraught, sometimes sleep-threatened parents take a day off and pretend they’re first-dating again.
Taking the kids to a special place – a zoo, a show, an animated film, a parade – certainly will be remembered fondly. Arlene used to do it with jigsaw puzzles – sitting on the couch with the kids, asking their help in piecing it together while subtly using the time as one long teachable moment.
None of our grandchildren have ever forgotten that — or her, or what they learned from her about kindness or bullying or life. Taking a grandchild or children for a day (or if they’re brave, a weekend) allows grandma and grandpa to pretend they’re young toddler parents again. It’s a time they weren’t sure they’d survive then, but are now delighted to relive (well, briefly).
Q: More grandparents are taking care of grandchildren because daycare is so expensive. What’s your top advice for grandparent/caregivers for surviving the toddler years?
A: My advice would be summed up in the dozen words Arlene used when she introduced me to read my toddler poems at her What to Expect parenting lectures: “If you’re going to have a toddler, you’ll need a sense of humor.” That’s something especially important for grandparents who suddenly having parenting suddenly thrust upon them again when they might prefer enjoying golf, jewelry-making, boating or whatever retirement might otherwise mean in their lives.
Q: What can grandparents who don’t live close do to still feel part of their grandchildren’s lives?
A: Connect on Skype or Facetime. Those awkward phone calls when daddy urges, “Say hello to grandpa” are about as satisfactory as broccoli ice cream. But using Skype or Face Time can work a lot better, especially if it isn’t just talk and the grandparents have good visuals on hand. Arrange, for example, a regular reading of a new children’s book together every Saturday or Sunday morning at a special time.
Q: What can adult children do to help their children and their parents bond, especially if they don’t live close?
A: I don’t think anything could beat constant contact like that regular scheduled weekend on Face Time. And it doesn’t have to be a book reading. It can almost anything – maybe talking to the toddler about when you were a little boy or girl and what your favorite toys were, or your favorite foods. Or grandma could show the cookies she baked and is about to send Fed Ex.
Or maybe try teaching your 3-year old the alphabet or how to read. The fact is that with computer phoning (and it’s fairly simple), the sky – and your imagination – are the limit. And there’s no limit to the relationship that can develop – which you’ll discover when you actually do pay a visit and find that the kids run into your arms instead of running to hide from veritable “strangers.”
Q: When you co-wrote What to Expect, did you ever expect it to be the parenting bible it turned out to be?
A: You’re giving me much too much credit. I played a very small part – just lining up doctors and writing forwards with them. Arlene wrote the early books solely with our daughter, Heidi Murkoff, who was a writer like us. (Maybe unlike us. She has a breezy style of her own.) When we lost Arlene 15 years ago (which describes a heart-breaking loss entirely too quickly), Heidi continued regularly updating and revamping the original and new books in the series and created a website with, I suspect, millions of followers.
None of us knew what to expect when the first book was published – certainly not sales in multiple millions and 30 languages — but what Arlene and Heidi called “word of mother” made it such a Top Ten perennial on the NYTimes best-seller list that after hundreds of weeks, they finally stopped running the list altogether.
Success has many parents. What to Expect’s included the inspired decision to describe every phase of pregnancy month by month (which no one had ever succeeded or even possibly attempted to do before) in a Q&A style. It didn’t hurt to have a savvy publisher willing to take a booth at medical conventions and let Arlene and Heidi give doctors sample books. When they realized how much time they could save in not dealing with the hundreds of questions the book accurately answered, they began enthusiastically recommending it and even buying books for their patients. Word of mother took it from there.
Q: Is there anything I should have asked you that I didn’t?
A: Maybe why I wrote Adorable Scoundrels. I believe the dedication to the wonderful wife I called Wonder Woman tells it all: “Remembering Arlene, who never met a toddler she didn’t love.”