Stroll around any park in a city, and you’ll see an ubiquitous sight — impromptu clusters of senior citizens in pursuit of healthy living. Walking rapidly, strolling around or taking a break, they nevertheless manage to keep up with the chatter. Catch some of the phrases being thrown around — in addition to the commonly heard spiritual-medical-relationship discussions, you’ll hear one more. The proud, and sometimes patronising, tones of the competitive grandparent.

And no — we’re not talking about the age-old “maternal vs. paternal” grandparents competition here. This one is an active discussion about grandchildren and their achievements: “Siddharth has already started piano lessons.” The reply: “That’s so good! So he’s seven now? My grandson started at five, and he’s such an accomplished player at 12!”

Again. “Keerti getting quite good at her Carnatic music lessons back in the U.S. She’s found a really good teacher.” Reply: “Really? Well, we’ve arranged for a Chennai teacher to coach my granddaughter through Skype, in addition to her local classes in the U.S., of course — the teachers there are not as professional as the ones here, are they?”

The pattern is pretty common. A grandparent praises her grandchild; and her friend concurs, while subtly introducing a word about her own grandchild — inserting a seemingly innocuous, yet sharp barb on how “mine is better than yours.”

Such exchanges are not new; they are regular features in the competitive world of one-up parenting. But it goes deeper with grandparents, since there are two generations to brag about. And it seems to have reached new heights with a good many urban, ex-career granddads and grandmothers.

Grand-parenting comes with bragging rights. While one might not look favourably on a mother incessantly listing out her child’s accomplishments, it’s been forgiven in grandmothers for eons. My grandmother, for instance, would boast insufferably, and parade the many talents of her grandchildren to reluctant spectators (usually a captive audience in marriages or prayers, where it’s simply not possible to slip away). And we, the grandchildren, felt supremely uncomfortable too — being set apart as perfect is not always pleasant!

But then, my grandmother had one big counterpoint: her grandchildren were always on hand. The sessions of public bragging were balanced by occasions of rightly deserved, though private, scolding. And while I did resent being made to perform under duress, I also have fond memories of my grandmother’s stories; her cooking and her love. She had all the time to boast about us as well as bring us up — an advantage not readily available to the current crop of grandparents. The flight of future generations becomes the dominant factor in grandparent-grandchild relationships, as in all aspects of life.

With grandchildren living miles away, grandparents often take to obsessive pride as a measure of love. To and fro visits are too short and precious to be spent in conditioning, and are spent in observing and relishing accomplishments. The hours that might have earlier been put in child-minding are now spent in re-living memories of annual or bi-annual visits. Constant thought leads to constant talk, and at times, from proud recount to insufferable bragging.

Then, too, my grandmother had this horror of the ‘evil eye’. She’d boast, make us perform; then come home and do an elaborate ritual to ward off the ill-effects scheming folks might send our way. Irrational belief, it is true, but it served to keep her pride in check, so to speak. But today’s cohorts of urban grandparents are well-versed in segregating superstition from culture. Far from worrying about evil eyes, they wield e-mails and Facebook to post and re-post pictures and videos of grandchildren singing, dancing, painting...

So where does all this obsession over ‘my grandchild is the best’ lead the grandparent to? Troubled relationships, for one — nobody wants to hear odes to somebody else’s grandchild, especially if the grandparent happens to be belittling others’ offspring.

Likewise, it might stretch relationships with the grandchildren, and their parents. Constant questioning on activities might be construed as “poking around”, in teen parlay; and even well-meaning hints on child-rearing can be considered offensive by the parents. And of course, a holiday spent in staging talent shows for granny’s friends might be quite off-putting.

It’s a fine line between pride and brag — balancing the two is a tough act for grandparents. For starters, they could follow basic etiquette. Stating your grandchild’s achievements shows pride; sentences like “nobody is as clever as my granddaughter” falls squarely into bragging territory. Sharing pictures of the grandchild’s milestones and achievements — yes. Obsessively posting/emailing his artworks — no!

And more important — grandparents must make sure the time spent with grandchildren is not cluttered with demonstrations staged to show off how successful the children (and by association, the grandparents) are — especially to an audience that might be a tad grudging in its response.

Grandchildren, even the younger ones, are discerning enough to distinguish reluctant praise from honest applause. What they’d like to look back on are memories of a grandparent’s affection — not hours spent as a show horse.

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