Editor’s Note: As a rule, parenting magazines (ours included) don’t write nearly enough about family issues that involve grandparents. But we didn’t fully appreciate how much we were missing out until we discovered the work of Karen Rancourt, an advice columnist and grandmother who focuses on intergenerational issues for Mommybites, which offers education, resources, and community to moms across the country. Her columns—recently collected in her new book, Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Helping Young Parents And Grandparents Deal With Thorny Issues—amount to a roadmap to the soul of family life, a map created by a very wise and experienced guide. Rancourt has a Ph.D. in child development, and in various stages of her life has worked as a teacher and as a consultant specializing in organizational behavior issues for Fortune 500 companies. But to get a feel for what she’s like—and what she’s up to with her column—we knew exactly who should interview her: Rancourt’s daughter, Heather Ouida, who not only writes a lot about parenting herself but, as the co-founder of Mommybites also happens to be Rancourt’s boss. Sort of.–Eric Messinger
So Mom, (can I call you Mom?), why did writing an advice column appeal to you?
Even as a kid I remember how much I enjoyed reading “Dear Abby.” I liked that I could think about what I would advise before reading Abby’s response. Through the years I realized I retained a lot of her advice and have used it in a variety of situations. Her columns were fun and helpful, and I wanted to model my columns similarly. I was further encouraged when I searched around and didn’t find any advice columns focused on the unique relationships between young parents and grandparents.
I know that my friends have always gone to you for advice, but what made you think you’d be any good at advice writing?
From my many years of experience as an educator and corporate consultant I learned that people are more apt to make positive changes and stay with them if they are clear on what the real problems are and if they feel they have some say in the solution. I use these same principles in writing each column. That is, I work with the person to nail down the real problem. For example, a young mom blows up at a grandparent for giving the grandchild an extra dessert, but the conflict is not really about a chocolate chip cookie. It’s about the young mom feeling her dad is disrespectful of her and her parenting rules. I always try to offer some alternatives while pointing out the potential upsides and downsides of each. As we all know, it’s easy to damage familial relationships. Maintaining or enhancing them is where the challenges are, especially when we remember that the children and grandchildren are always observing.
You make it sound so easy.
Yup, and it would be easy if it weren’t for the hurts, disappointments, feelings of rejection and disrespect, and of being misunderstood. But all too often what’s best for the grandchildren gets short shrift. My readers tell me that my advice helps them get unstuck from their negative emotional history that often has them focusing on the affront they feel and how to avenge themselves.
I get it that you don’t want to tell anyone what they should do, but have there ever been times when you did tell them what you think they should do?
Yes, but only once. I told a reader unconditionally what she should do: “You must never, never, ever leave your children alone with your parents when you know firsthand they are child abusers.” Fortunately, the young mom took this advice. I had readers e-mail me that I should have told the young mom she should sever all ties with her abusive parents, but the young mom had already stated she wasn’t willing to do that. This is a good example of how I believe I must make suggestions within the parameters of the situation as it is presented to me.
Have you ever been criticized for your advice?
Once in a while a reader will say they don’t agree with something I’ve said, but because I typically offer a range of possible solutions, I don’t encounter a lot of people disagreeing with everything I suggest in a column. However, there was a young mom, who wrote in seeking advice, who generated a lot of angry responses. She wanted to ask her in-laws for money so her two kids could attend an expensive summer camp. Her husband was uneasy asking for this money. But she explained that she and her husband admittedly lived beyond their means, and since they would be inheriting her in-laws’ money eventually anyway, what was wrong with asking for it now?
I remember that column! People went bananas.
Yup, many of the follow-up comments were hostile toward the young mom, and I had to edit out the profanity.
Can you predict if and how your readers are going to react to your columns?
No, in fact I am constantly surprised. Recently, a reader wanted advice on how to deal with grandmothers who competed over their granddaughter by trying to outdo each other. For example, one grandmother gets the granddaughter a new book; the other grandmother orders a basket of books. One grandmother takes the granddaughter on a day-trip, and the other grandmother arranges a weekend trip. I received a few responses—readers mostly saying how they were going to be more mindful of the potential for this kind of competition—but certainly a lot fewer (and tamer!) comments than I had expected.
What are the common issues young parents and grandparents want your advice on?
I thought long and hard about this when I decided to organize my columns into a book. The conflicts between young parents and grandparents typically fall into five key areas: First: setting appropriate boundaries; second: not communicating or mis-communicating; third: having unrealistic or unrealized expectations; fourth: vying for power and control; and fifth: having different values, beliefs, and principles.
Our own mother-daughter relationship is often brought up. People want to know if we make each other crazy.
Of course I make you crazy. I make myself crazy, but I think our relationship works for the simple reason that you are naturally good-natured and you are so easy to be around. I can get all worked up about something, and you always calmly say: “Sure, Mom, if you say so.” You never let my flapping get you riled up. When it comes to the grandchildren, I think we all get along so well because your dad and I try to follow your parenting rules and regulations. Why do you think we get along so well? Assuming you think we do get along well! I want to know if we make each other crazy.
Well, I’m not so good-natured before my morning coffee! Yeah, we argue, but mostly about silly stuff. But when it comes to what’s important, I agree that the key to our relationship is that you support my parenting style and decisions, so I never feel judged, only supported.
I am happy to hear you say you feel supported and not judged because I really do try to follow the advice I give other parents and grandparents.
For more of Dr. Gramma Karen and her new book, check out askdrgrammakaren.com. For her regular column, visit mommybites.com.