Old School: Should Grandparents Take Parenting 101 Before the Grandkids Arrive?

The first time my husband and I left our son, William, then two, with my mother so we could get away for a night, I handed her several pages of instructions, including gems like: “Bed time — read three books, turn off light, put in crib, turn on music, rub back for ten minutes, leave door cracked, turn on hall light.”

When we came back the next day, the list was nowhere to be found, and William was napping beneath a large sweater on the floor in the living room, a fire roaring behind the glass doors of the fireplace beside him, a motley assemblage of toys and parts of toys scattered all over the rug. My mother was dozing on a nearby couch. The two of them were safe, warm, and happy — utterly at peace.

Maybe it was me who needed some instructions.

Now Isis Parenting, which sells upscale baby goods and holds parenting classes throughout the Boston area, has codified our generation’s micromanaging instincts by encouraging new parents to sign their parents up for a three-hour-long class for soon-to-be first-time grandparents. The website’s description of the class, called Grandparents Today, says it all: “From bedside co-sleepers, Miracle Blankets and travel systems, to concerns over vaccinations, reflux and food allergies, today’s parents have dozens of new products and ‘rules’ that barely existed 30 years ago.”

Granted, a lot has changed since our parents raised us. Today’s baby gear alone requires an advanced degree to set up and operate. And there are cultural trends — a new focus on breastfeeding, greater worries about child safety, and a serious upswing in parental interaction — that may surprise some first-time grandparents. My favorite line from a friend’s mother after spending a weekend with her and her kids was: “Do you always talk to them so much?”

Why, yes. Yes, we do. We also Google symptoms of dread diseases until all hours of the night, cook to order, try to mitigate any feelings of discomfort, chauffeur them about town in virtual cafe cars, complete with a selection of snacks and beverages. We orchestrate after-school activities and social-engineer play dates like CEOs managing Fortune 500 companies. On Halloween, we follow them as they trick-or-treat, calling out, “Say thank you!” from the sidewalk as they stuff their plastic pumpkins with candy.

And yet, in my experience, whenever my mother comes to visit, I hand her my children with the kind of relief you get when you board an airplane and spot your pilot’s salt-and-pepper hair and late-middle-age paunch. You can picture him flying fighter jets in some long-ago war, and you know you’re going to be just fine. Might our kids be just as well off, if not more so, in the hands of a slower-moving, seen-it-all grandma than those of a laser-focused supermom? Isn’t a class for grandparents a tad insulting?

I heard about the Isis class through a friend of a friend, a soon-to-be grandmother we’ll call Nancy. She asked that I not use her real name for fear of offending her son and daughter-in-law. With her grandson due in mid-June, she’s taking no chances.

Nancy raised two boys as a single mother. One is now a Harvard-trained law professor, the other a successful businessperson. By all accounts, Nancy aced the parenting thing, and she did it on her own. So, just imagine her annoyance when her daughter-in-law suggested she take a class that would teach her proper baby care, including how to change a diaper.

Still, she stuck it out, caring less about the specifics of the class than the level of ease it might give her son and daughter-in-law. “If it makes them feel more comfortable leaving the baby with me, it will all be worth it,” she says. And in the end, the point of the class may just be this: to find a way for the generations to communicate in those early days with baby — before sheer exhaustion takes over and the parents let go of control, drop their precious angel with Grandma, and run.