When Bad Fathers Become Fantastic Grandfathers

Many bad dads are good grandfathers. The question is how do you deal with this new version of the man who was so different with you?

When you become a father, you quickly gain a better appreciation for your own dad. You understand the stress that he had to deal with, and cut him some slack in retrospect. Now that man is a grandfather and sometimes his seamless transition into that role isn’t surprising. And sometimes it is. Because you’re seeing this man who was, say, stern, selfish, and unfriendly with you now be a patient, kind, man who’s playing, reading, picking up your kids from school. He acts like there’s no place he’d rather be. And you know it’s no act. And all you can think is, Who is this person? More than that, you think: How come I didn’t get this person?

The simple answer is, as Dr. Scott Bea, clinical psychologist at Cleveland Clinic says, “parenting is pressurized; grandparenting has no pressure.”

But with that, one of two scenarios is likely for this transformation. Your dad no longer has the pressures of a career. He can assess his life, something that’s hard to do when you’re in the middle of it, Bea says, and he knows that time is finite. He doesn’t want to miss anything again. Your kids are his mulligan.

The less ideal explanation is that your dad never wanted the full responsibility. For his generation, he defined himself as a worker and provider. There’s a layer of protection with grandchildren that limits any consequence for decisions, says Dr. Jonice Webb, licensed psychologist and author of Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. He hasn’t necessarily changed that much. It’s just that the expectations fit him better. Adds Dr. Guy Winch, licensed psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: “This is the level that works for him.”

It could be a distinction without much difference, because the end result is that your kids are getting this better version. You feel resentful, and you know that letting it fester is not the healthiest approach. The question is what do you do with it.

The most direct move is to have a conversation, just not too direct. It can’t involve “why” questions about his transgressions, which will only make your dad play lockdown defense, Bea says. The better approach is asking anything with a “how” or “what”, a solid example being, “What was it like to be a father and what’s it like to be a grandfather?”

The mood is more open. Your agenda is subtle. You’re letting him talk. Another good question is, “What was that story about your dad and his tools?” Referring to any family lore is safer. You’re not trying to unearth something, merely referring back to what’s been mentioned, says Webb, adding that older people often feel validated when talking about their childhood.

He might own up to his failures. But you’re mainly hoping for details about where he came from and how his dad was. There’s no test for the job. You make up a lot as you go, but unless there’s a concerted effort, “The way we’re treated by our fathers is how we treat our children,” Webb says. This new information doesn’t remake your childhood, but it brings in empathy, maybe some forgiveness, and shifts the premise you’ve been working under. Your dad may have been lacking, but it wasn’t entirely personal. “All parents come up short in many ways,” Webb says.

You can see things differently, and your bitterness can be muted by gratefulness. You didn’t get what your kids are getting, but they are getting him. He could have detached from them as well, Winch says. It shows a kind of growth. It’s not when you would have wanted it, but insight doesn’t always move at an ideal pace, Bea says.

But this is also an opening for you. Rather than only hitting rewind on your life, you can fast-forward, assess yourself as a dad, think about how you want your kids to remember you, and then shore up the most likely deficiencies that they’ll eventually rail against. “It’s your chance to change the legacy,” Winch says.

It’s also a chance to reshape the relationship with your dad. Even though you’re an adult, it’s easy to revert and wait, for him to make plans, to take control, and, really, to change, Webb says. When that doesn’t happen, it’s also the easy move to blame. “It requires less effort,” Bea says. The thing that’s rarely considered is that you have a say. “In any relationship, you’re half the team,” he says.

You can ask him out for a drink or to watch a game, the less build-up and planning the better to control expectations, Winch says. You might end up talking about more than box scores, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll see the opportunity or be willing or able to take it. It doesn’t matter, because, regardless of what he does, you’re seeing him differently, and that changes the dynamic. “If one half of the team plays better,” Bea says, “usually the whole team gets better.”