Tips for Step-Grandparents: Equal Treatment and Avoiding Favoritism

The Key to Being a Good Step-Grandparent

Step-Grandparents With Extended Family
Photo © Compassionate Eye Foundation/Getty Images

The key to being a good step-grandparent is to treat the grandchildren equally, whether they are biological or non-biological. Sometimes, though, it isn't that easy. 

Biological and Non-Biological

Equal treatment sounds great in theory. Favoritism is, after all, kind of a dirty word. Parents in blended families usually expect grandparents to treat all the children the same. The grandparents expect this of themselves.

In spite of the consensus around this standard, it isn't easy to pull off.  

One difficulty is that grandparents may not feel the same about all of their grandchildren. This is true even of biological grandchildren, but also there can be a real difference in emotional attachment between biological grandchildren and step-grandchildren.

Lyn Purpura, a mindful living coach, says that she does not have the same attachment to all of her grandchildren:

"My biological grandchildren don’t necessarily have an equal place in my heart; I love them all dearly and could never choose if forced, yet their place in my heart is different, just as they are different. As far as step-grandchildren, as much as I try not to show that there is a difference, I have to be honest and say it is different."

Some say the goal should be fair treatment, not equal treatment. But however it's phrased, it's a goal that can be elusive.

Other Factors at Work

Being less involved with step-grandchildren than with biological grandchildren may be due to exterior factors. For example, if a step-grandchild is in the custody of the other spouse and doesn't spend much time with the grandparent's side of the family, there may not be enough opportunity to bond.

Relationships with the parents of the grandchildren come into play. Also, geographical distance can be hard to overcome. Still, these are factors that sometimes affect our relationships with biological grandchildren, too. Jody Price, an educator, says that she and her husband refuse to distinguish between biological and non-biological grandchildren "except as their interests and personalities differ." She goes on to predict: "I’m sure we will be closer to some than to others, but that will have more to do with proximity and personality (as well as parental influence) than anything else."

Some say that feeling differently about biological grandchildren and step-grandchildren can be explained by what is sometimes called kin altruism or kin selection. That term simply means that as biological creatures we are disposed to favor those who share our genes, in order that our genes be perpetuated in the future. This explanation strikes some as logical, while others prefer to believe that humans should be able to overcome any biological biases that exist.

At any rate, humans may not be in total control of their hearts, but they can strive to control their behavior. And gift-giving is one practice that can be problematical.

Keeping Gifts Equal 

On gift-giving occasions, there's seldom any excuse for unequal treatment, because a missing gift or a gift that is clearly inferior is an overt form of discrimination. But, again, grandparents often give more generous gifts to some grandchildren than to others, even when all the children are biological. Gifts for older children tend to be more expensive than those for younger children, just to mention one factor. Also, if one set of grandchildren is needier than another set, the grandparents may give more to the ones who need it the most. 

Parental attitudes also enter into gift-giving practices. Although Marilyn Barnicke Belleghem says that she doesn't play favorites, she admits that her dollar expenditures aren't the same per grandchild. 

"We have bought some of our grandchildren bikes, while other parents wanted to buy them themselves," she says. "Some of the parents are more controlling than others, and some have greater financial resources than others."

So how is a grandparent to ensure that a step-grandchild doesn't feel slighted? One way is to think which biological grandchild the step-grandchild is the most likely to compare gifts with and ensure that they have equal gifts. A first-grader probably will not know or care if you spend more on a college-age grandchild, but if her cousin of the same age gets more or better gifts, it will be noticed.

The Role of Age

Research shows that the younger step-grandchildren are at the time the relationship is established, the better chance they have of building a strong relationship with their step-grandparents.

Tricia Torrey, who became a step-grandparent through marriage, has found this to be true:

"I believe the 'earlier-the-more-bonding thing' is absolutely true. My three younger grandchildren will never remember life before G-ma because the oldest was only 3 when I married his grandfather."

Grandparents may struggle to establish a strong bond with grandchildren who were older when the relationship began. In fact, the relationship may never look like a typical grandparenting relationship, whatever that looks like. But grandparents can build a relationship that works for them. For example, relationships don't have to include a lot of physical affection. They can be more restrained in nature and may be based on interests that you have in common, or interests that you cultivate in order to cultivate the relationship.

Sometimes the issue isn't the grandparent hanging back but the grandchild doing so. Children who have loving relationships with other grandparents may feel disloyal if they grant their steps grandparent status. It may be better for all parties to think of this relationship in a slightly different way. And that difference may be reflected in what step-grandchildren choose to call their step-grandparents. 

Step-Grandparent Names

Some families call step-grandparents by regular grandparent names, perhaps choosing one that is different from those used by other grandparents in the family.

Some families go in the opposite direction by directing step-grandchildren to use first names for the step-grandparents. That can seem awkward, however, especially when the children are young.

Another common approach is to combine the two options so that step-grandparents are called something like Grandpa Jerry or Nana Jo.

Some families enjoy coming up with their own inventive names for step-grandparents. It may help the bonding process if the kids are invited to participate in this process if they are old enough. I suggest giving them a grandparent name book, and letting them go to it! The step-grandparent should retain veto rights, of course.

Being Equally Attentive to All

When it comes to spending time with the grandchildren, grandparents are again unlikely to treat all grandchildren the same. There are dozens of factors that influence how grandparents spend time with grandchildren. A grandparent can't be blamed, for example, for leaving a toddler step-grandchild out of a camping trip that is planned for older grandchildren. But inviting a biological grandchild and leaving out a step-grandchild of roughly the same age is generally a recipe for resentment.

The wisest grandparents know that although the grandchildren like cousin time, they also treasure time one-on-one with grandparents. It may be worthwhile to plan some outings with step-grandchildren that are tailored to their special interests. There need not be a lot of money involved. One survey of children 5-11 showed that simple childhood activities are more highly rated than elaborate outings. Feeding the ducks, flying a kite, picking berries, having a picnic and planting a garden were among the simple activities that made the list and that are easily doable by most grandparents. Belleghem says that her good relationships with both grandchildren and step-grandchildren are the result of spending time with them, "from apple-picking to helping with puzzles and homework, listening to their stories and being authentic with them." She adds, "Too often grandparents ignore children or talk at them rather than with them."

Being a Step

Some people object to the any of the "step" terms, and indeed stepparents and step-grandparents have traditionally gotten a bad rap, sometimes deservedly so. In the modern world, however, almost everyone has seen numerous examples of excellent "steps," enough that many people never think of the term in a pejorative sense. So here's a definition to ponder: A step-grandparent is someone who steps up when needed, steps back when it causes conflict and steps in to give a child one more person to love.