Family Matters

Grandparenting 101: Teaching Grandma and Grandpa About Modern Parenting

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“Tummy time” and “Back to Sleep” weren’t part of the playbook when Ginny Fountain gave birth a generation ago. This expectant grandma’s got a lot to learn about newborns, which is how Fountain, 64, wound up in a grandparenting class offered earlier this month at a hospital in Seattle.

In the last few years, hospitals and community centers around the U.S. have increasingly begun offering crash courses in baby raising for expectant or new grandparents. Explains Rosalys Peel, who teaches the grandparenting class at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center: “Babies haven’t changed, but what we know about them has changed.” She’s not kidding.

Babies now snooze on their backs instead of their tummies — the hallmark of the “Back to Sleep” campaign — in spartan cribs bare of bumpers and blankets. All infants ride in carseats, and you practically need a Ph.D. in engineering to figure out how to install one. Dads do diaper duty (no more diaper pins; nappies now have Velcro tabs). Moms are urged to breast-feed, and some wear their babies in what Ann Napier, a new-grandparent class participant, bemusedly calls “those sling things that they wrap around them.”

MORE: Babies With Flat Heads on the Rise: Is ‘Back to Sleep’ to Blame?

In the Nov. 21 issue of TIME Magazine, subscribers can read about the growing phenomenon of grandparenting classes. Of course, not every grandparent would deign to enroll in such a course. Peel confirms that not everyone who comes to class is happy about it; some have been ordered to attend by the parents — or else. “You can easily spot ones in that category,” says Peel. “They have their arms crossed and won’t make eye contact. But they usually come around.”

But even an expert like Dr. Jay Berkelhamer, a past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a grandfather, acknowledges such instruction can be useful. “Grandparents may need a little bit of a tune-up,” he says.

Either way, many grandparents (Mom and Dad, I’m talking to you) can’t help but to weigh in when it comes to how to raise baby. Carole Cox, a professor at Fordham University who’s developed a curriculum for grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren, has found herself offering her daughter lots of unsolicited advice. “She was raising her eyebrows at me a lot and saying, Cool it,” says Cox, who’s had to practice holding her tongue.

It’s hard to hold back, though. “Nobody likes to think they spent 20 years doing something, and all the information they learned along the way is now useless,” says Adair Lara, who wrote The Granny Diaries about a blundering new grandma.

But as it turns out, learning about all the new developments is actually the easy part; what’s trickier is figuring out how to play a supporting role and how not to bigfoot the new parents. If you think the birth of a grandchild is an opportunity to show off what you know, think again. The I-raised-you-and-you-turned-out-okay argument doesn’t cut it anymore. “Parents are very smart today,” Peel cautions her class.

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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