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New Grandparenting Books Offer Advice From Two Perspectives

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In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a big fan of the advice-book genre. This is not to say that I could not use advice. I could use plenty of it. I might have been a much better parent had I perused any of the 20 or 30 parenting books I had every intention of plowing through, but somehow never did. I am simply too proprietary about my limited and precious reading time to spend any of it on something that bores me, and advice, as necessary as it may be, is also sometimes excruciatingly dull. I prefer stories.

That said, remember that funny truism about the evening news? Every broadcast begins by wishing you a good evening and then proceeds to tell you why it's not. Reading Dr. Georgia Witkin's book, The Modern Grandparent's Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to the New Rules of Grandparenting, brought that pithy little statement to mind. Witkin begins her book with the following quote. "My advice...don't stress! You'll be great if you just rely on your common sense and your sense of humor. You've done the hard part already -- parenting. Now it's time for the fun part -- grandparenting." She follows this statement with 235 pages of advice, most of it common sense, and very little of it humorous.

Witkin's first chapter speaks about how we are the greatest generation of grandparents to ever walk the earth. Frankly, I am a bit peeved by the "We are the hippest, coolest, most active, most worldly, and all-around most fun generation of grandparents who ever lived," attitude, but my disagreement with that sentiment will appear in a different post.

Perhaps I am guilty of forming a bad attitude after reading the first two chapters of my new handbook. As the book progresses, Witkin does offer some valuable, though commonsensical tips. "Have fun with your grandchildren" is one of her favorites. She briefly touches on subjects such as sibling rivalry, twins, nature vs. nurture, getting along with your son or daughter-in-law, handling jealousy of the other grandparents, grandparenting children of divorce, the art of spoiling, sleepovers, and money. And to her credit, she backs up her proclamations and advice with research.

As a psychiatry professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Witkin has reviewed all the latest grandparenting research, and as senior editor at grandparenting.com, she has acquired a large audience with whom to chat. She has also polled her readers to obtain many of the statistics she quotes in her book. As a long-distance grandmother, the most disheartening was that 80 percent of those polled believe it is important to live near one's grandchildren.

For those lacking confidence in their skills or feeling a bit rusty in the childrearing department, The Ultimate Guide to the New Rules of Grandparenting may provide a needed crutch. I'm not sure the rules are all that new, however. Hasn't it always been a good idea not to undermine your children's parenting style? Hasn't it always been wise not to play favorites with your grandchildren? There are radically new thoughts about bringing up baby these days. Putting babies to sleep on their backs rather than their stomachs as I did when I had my babies comes to mind. Ideas about feeding and allergies have changed. The new gadgets are science fiction to many of us newbie grandparents. Witkin fails to mention these changes, changes that will impact any grandparent called upon to babysit. She prefers to focus on the psychological aspects of grandparenting, about which she is more than adequately qualified to preach.

Beware of this: Witkin has never met an exclamation point she doesn't like. "Smile!" "We're online!" "Your grandchild is brilliant!" "Get happy!" OK, I will!!!!

Lindy Hough's Wondrous Child: The Joys and Challenges of Grandparenting is a book of an entirely different nature. A collection of short essays by grandparents of multiple stripes, it is an engaging and very personal look at how love weaves itself through generations, gender, class, race, and age. Hough, a poet and editor, has gathered writers from hither and yon to share their experiences of grandparenting. The resulting compilation is a cornucopia of feeling and situation, some of it unexpectedly dark, but all of it intimate and touching.

The book is divided into four sections. The first, "Settling In" is devoted to the process of aligning one's expectations of grandparenthood to its reality. One grandmother becomes painfully aware of how different she is from her children and grandchild, but comes to see how those differences are precisely what the inquisitive little one finds most enchanting about his grandma. In another story, a new grandchild becomes a beacon of light in a year of family tragedy. And a ski trip gone horribly wrong teaches another grandmother some needed lessons.

Part II, "Balancing Reality and Hope" delves into the challenges of loving a child who isn't yours to parent. The essays in this section are written by a step-grandmother who came to her position with reluctance and some dread; a doula whose advice is cherished by strangers but scorned by her own children; a grandmother who follows her children and twin grandchildren to Indonesia when they move abroad; and a wary career woman who never wanted children but who finds pleasure in her role as grandma.

Part III, "Grandparents Raising Grandchildren" highlights grandparenting heroes who don't see themselves as such. The writers of these essays have, through a variety of circumstances, found themselves in the role of parents once again. The strength they display to the world often masks worry and insecurity. Their tales are poignant and inspirational.

The younger generation is given a voice in Part IV, "Grandchildren Remember. " Filipino, Japanese, African-American, Italian and Sri Lankan adults share sweet and salty memories of beloved grandparents who never used Facebook or Skype, but nevertheless remained a constant presence in the hearts of their grandchildren.

This is how I like to digest advice...couched in story. The grandparents who penned these essays are real people. They are afraid of failure and they sometimes do fail. They are selfish and selfless, new age and old world, generous to a fault and protective of their individuality. They don't pretend to be perfect and don't presume to know how to do grandparenting right. But there is much to be learned by their exploits. The personal in this book, truly becomes universal. Practical tips are important, but stories resonate.