‘‘It’s lovely to see them coming; it’s lovely to see them going home’

From sugar pushing to keeping their mouths zipped, grandparents share their tips

Donald and Jane Maxwell at their Cabinteely home with their grandchildren (front, from left) Charlie Hilliard, Clara Maxwell, Lucy Hilliard, Alison Plunkett and Lisa Maxwell; (back row, from left) Tanya Plunkett, David Maxwell, Daniel Plunkett and Ben Hilliard. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Donald and Jane Maxwell at their Cabinteely home with their grandchildren (front, from left) Charlie Hilliard, Clara Maxwell, Lucy Hilliard, Alison Plunkett and Lisa Maxwell; (back row, from left) Tanya Plunkett, David Maxwell, Daniel Plunkett and Ben Hilliard. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Jane Maxwell was very clear that, after raising four of her own children and spending 17 years caring for other people’s, she wasn’t going to mind her grandchildren.

“I said I would be there for them in sickness, or to help out. That is the way it has worked out,” she says, sitting at the dining table of her south Dublin home, which she shares with her husband, Donald, and which is rapidly running out of wall and ledge space for the latest photos of their nine grandchildren, who range in age from three to 12.

It’s a supporting role that Jane, who is 72, and Donald, who is 76, clearly relish. They know that they’re lucky none of their adult children lives more than a 40-minute drive away – one is in the same Cabinteely estate as them, another lives in Bray, Co Wicklow, the third in Dunboyne, Co Meath and the youngest lives with his partner just a couple of kilometres away – and they’re all working.

“We’re sick bay,” says Jane. “We get a call at seven in the morning: ‘Can you take so and so, they are on an antibiotic?’ ” They also help to ferry, between school and extracurricular activities, some of the six who live locally.

“This becomes a homework club,” says Donald. “It makes us see how the education system works nowadays compared to our days; it’s totally different.”

The regular contact means they have formed a close bond with their grandchildren. “We have a very good relationship with them all and they are all very loving children,” says Jane.

Having raised their own children, what do they think is special about this relationship?

“It is lovely to see them coming; it is lovely to see them going home,” says Jane. “We enjoy our grandchildren very, very much.”

She acknowledges the need for grandparents to keep their mouths zipped on the subject of parenting. “You don’t want to be saying, ‘I wouldn’t allow this and I wouldn’t allow that . . .’ It’s their life, they have to live it the best they can.”

“The one thing we would notice is that when our children were growing up, everybody ate the same food. Now they’re all looking for something different,” says Donald, touching on a subject that can be decidedly fraught between generations today.

‘Sugar pushers’

There is a bit of tip-toeing around food, agrees Jane, who concedes she might be guilty of giving them too many treats. But they are not seeing them every day, she points out.

What about that other essential truth of grandparenting, that children behave much better when their parents aren’t around?

“Absolutely,” agrees Jane.

“They’re different children,” remarks Donald.

“As soon as [the parents] come through that door, you’ve problems,” adds Jane. “And we’d say it to them: ‘They were grand until you arrived.’ ”

Wishing for more

“I try to get to see them as often as I can; either they come down for most of their holidays or I go to Dublin,” she says of Cameron (eight), Isobel (five) and Eva (just about to turn one) McKinley.

“You can do things with grandchildren you mightn’t have done with your own in the name of bringing them up perfectly, so you feel you have a bit more leeway,” says Rosie. “I think it’s okay to spoil them a bit, although my daughter is not so sure.”

But she also believes it is good to “step back and allow the parents to do their own thing with their own children, be it discipline or whatever, unless it is radically wrong”. Although, Isobel is known to encourage her to bend the rules by pointing out that Rosie is in charge because she’s “mum’s mum”.

“I think extended family is really important; grandkids can learn values from the older generation,” says Rosie, who tries to follow the lead of her own mother who was a “marvellous” granny. “My eldest daughter says she thinks of her nearly every day and learned so much from her.”

While in other countries, and among ethnic groups here, grandparenting continues to be a vital role in children’s lives, in Western society it can be limited to a “once a week” token visit, or less if families live far away, she points out.

“Western society doesn’t generally lend itself to this family nucleus, which can be so valuable for mental stability,” she adds. “It’s something we should maybe strive to get back to.”

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