Strategies for the Holidays When You Have Multiple Sets of Grandparents

When it comes to grandparents, more is mostly better – except at the holidays.

Katy is one lucky 4-year-old. She and her 1–year-old twin brothers have four sets of doting grandparents. They also have two step-great-grandparents. Sound familiar?

The Stepfamily Foundation estimates that half of all Americans are currently involved in some form of step relationship. Even though Katy and her brothers live in an intact family with their biological mom and dad, they are affected by these demographic trends. Their baby-boomer grandparents belong to the generation that made divorce commonplace and experimented widely with family structure. Dealing with multiple sets of grandparents can be both challenging and rewarding. And, with little how-to advice available for sorting out this modern tangle, families are creating their own solutions.

Fair, If Not Always Equal

Making decisions rivaling King Solomon’s, Katy’s parents learned how to allocate her time – and later, her brothers’ – to each of the four sets of grandparents. All of them live in the same geographical area, so they arrange to see one set of grandparents each week. It works, but Alison notes one major trade-off: "We don’t have any social life that’s not with one of our children’s grandparents." Katy and her brothers are fortunate that relations among their multiple sets of grandparents are amicable. On special occasions, they’re all able to be together.

But in today’s mobile society, the multiple sets of grandparents are not always in the same geographical area and they often don’t get along so well. Many parents have to search for creative ways to make sure that their children get fair, if not always equal, amounts of time with their grandparents.

Holidays Present Special Problems

Holidays and special occasions can be particularly touchy. Some parents opt to alternate spending a holiday like Thanksgiving with a different set of grandparents each year, rather than trying to squeeze in multiple visits in one year.

To keep family gatherings amicable, Arthur Kornhaber, president of The Foundation for Grandparenting recommends that parents discuss plans with the biological grandparents first and then the step-grandparents to make sure that all the adults are on the same page. "At functions like a child’s graduation, put the child’s happiness first," advises Kornhaber. "Above all, be gracious." As he points out, the child doesn’t have the same emotional baggage that the parents do, and it’s up to the parents to make sure that they put their negative feelings aside for their children’s sake.

The Question of Gifts

Even if they don’t spend the holidays together, there’s still the issue of gifts to contend with. Having four sets of grandparents means that Katy gets, in her mother’s words, "a huge amount of stuff." Most of the parents we interviewed did not feel any overt competitiveness among the grandparents in either the quantity or quality of the gifts for their grandchildren. However, some grandparents can become "very sensitive," in the words of one mother, especially if they don’t think they can keep up with the other grandparents. Some families choose to limit the number of objects or the cost of individual gifts, or spread holiday gift-giving out over several days.

More Ups Than Downs

Virtually every parent we interviewed agreed that there were more pros than cons when dealing with multiple sets of grandparents. One of the advantages is that, if they live nearby and are willing, one or more sets of grandparents may serve as the child’s daycare providers or at least as occasional babysitters. In the case of Katy and her twin brothers, it’s their mother’s stepmother who provides the most childcare. In most cases, "blood doesn’t matter," agrees another parent. "It’s the grandparents’ involvement in their grandchildren’s lives that makes a difference."

While there are indeed some tricky issues to be tackled, they pale in contrast to the joys of having so many individuals to love and care for their children. In an era when close-by extended families are no longer the norm, these parents relish their intergenerational connections.

As Katy's mom. Alison says, "It’s really been great. We get love and support from all of them."

Peter (dad of Katy) echoes her sentiments: "I don’t know what we would do without them."

[At the request of the family interviewed, last names have not been used and some first names have been changed.]

See also:

The Grandparent-Grandchild Bond

The Gift List for Grandparents

From United Parenting Publications.