Grandparents are at the heart of children’s lives

In My View -Sunday Post
By Jimmy Deuchars
Head of Grandparents Apart UK

DEPUTY PRIME Minister Nick Clegg revealed plans last week for grandparents to get stronger rights to step in and help children when parents break-up.

He said it was “crazy” that the wider family did not feel they could intervene in such situations, and the UK Government is setting up a Childhood and Families Ministerial Task Force.

It’s difficult to express the importance of grandparents to a child’s life. They are the biggest carers of children in this country — but for too long, they haven’t had a role to play as far as the law is concerned. When social services turn at their doorstep at 2 am, asking if they can take in their grandkids due to some problem or other, very few will refuse. When there are troubles in a household, for example a parent is unable to look after their kids due to a drug problem, grandparents are often first in line to step in and help out.

We can prevent children from going into care, and provide a warm home and stable environment. Children can either grow up to be thugs or good citizens and much of that comes down to what happens to them in childhood.

When parents spilt up, and children are involved, it’s not the role of grandparents to take sides. The role is to mediate and act in the best interests of the children.

Today’s grandparents tend to be younger and fitter than in previous generations. Of course, people are living longer so there are more years to spend with one another. I only knew one of my grandparents, and even then it was only for a short period. I feel like I missed out.

It may surprise some people to learn that I don’t believe in automatic legal rights for grandparents. However, courts and social services do need to give grandparents more consideration than at present when making assessments about children’s lives. They cannot underestimate the loving and supporting role grandparents can play.
I’ve seen some ridiculous situations, like one judge preventing someone who he admitted was a “loving, caring grandmother” from seeing her grandchildren because of animosity between her and her daughter.

I have six grandchildren myself, ranging in age from 18 to three. They are my treat and my wife Margaret and I see them as often as we can. Having grandchildren is pure love, pure innocence. It gives us a second trip around. We get all the enjoyment of children, but without so much responsibility!

When a grandparent loses touch with their grandchildren, it is absolutely heartbreaking. They are left feeling confused and vulnerable. It’s like a bereavement, but without any closure. I know myself how easy it can happen. My daughter died of breast cancer, leaving two young children behind.

After a few years, their dad met a new woman and moved down south with the kids. His new partner didn’t want anything to do with us and we were gradually cut out of our grandkids’ lives to the point where we had to hire a lawyer. Thankfully, everything was sorted in the end but we’ll never forget the pain and hurt.

I know of so many similar devastating tales. There was one woman who lost her daughter to a brain tumour. In the aftermath of her death, emotions were running high and she fell out with the paternal family, resulting in her losing contact with her grandkids. She contacted our charity and we helped arrange a mediation session, which resulted in a terrific reconciliation.

But not everyone gets such a happy ending. I know of one woman who fell out with her daughter, was banned from seeing her five grandchildren, and later found out they were being ill-treated in a dreadful abuse case.

Many others spend the final years of their lives heartbroken at being unable to see their flesh and blood grow up, and share in their experiences.

But I don’t believe courts are the best place to resolve family problems. Mediation is more preferable. And while I will always champion the cause of grandparents, it’s important they accept that children belong to parents.

Many conflicts arise because grandparents don’t know when to back away. They may think they know better due to their experience, but things change. Modern parents are more educated and pick up things from antenatal classes. Modern methods of bringing up children may clash with those of previous generations. But parents must be able to raise their own children, without interference.