The idea that grandparents are people who spoil the children of the children they spent years assiduously not spoiling may be true. My own two grandchildren are still too young to spoil, at least in the sense of indulge-their-every-wacky-whim-and-then-buy-them-candy. Six-month-old babies are too young to have whims, let alone wacky ones, so I have yet to learn on a personal level if grandchildren will turn me into a no-holds-barred, let-them-eat-cake-for-breakfast type or not.

The idea that grandparents are people who spoil the children of the children they spent years assiduously not spoiling may be true. My own two grandchildren are still too young to spoil, at least in the sense of indulge-their-every-wacky-whim-and-then-buy-them-candy. Six-month-old babies are too young to have whims, let alone wacky ones, so I have yet to learn on a personal level if grandchildren will turn me into a no-holds-barred, let-them-eat-cake-for-breakfast type or not.

But I have realized this: A lot of so-called permissive grandparents aren't total pushovers as much as they're just more relaxed than they used to be. Way more relaxed. When I look back on my days as the parent of young children, I wonder why I took everything so seriously. Oh, sure, I made the dog talk and I was great at making up songs, but, well, take the paper house.

When my younger daughter was about 3 years old, her aunt bought her a cardboard playhouse for her bedroom. The house was the size of a large appliance box, printed on its exterior with houselike features: windows, flower boxes, chimney shingles and a door that actually opened, allowing a 3-year-old and her 6-year-old sister to go inside.

Meanwhile, we adults left to do grown-up things, such as sit around the table where we'd just had lunch. Sometime later, I went upstairs to check on the children and discovered them inside the new house, coloring all over the walls.

I'm going to say I went nuts, but don't think I put my fist through a wall, plaster or cardboard. I went nuts the way embarrassed, annoyed mothers do, the way mothers who are too conscious of the opinion of others, especially other mothers, do.

Never mind that the coloring bore a resemblance to windows, curtains, framed pictures and other household accessories. To me it looked like the work of vandals. Or maybe it looked like two small children had drawn with crayon all over the inside of their brand-new playhouse, the house that had been given to my younger daughter only an hour or so earlier and now look at it. Just look!

"How could you do this?" I probably asked. This is the sort of mom question that never gets an answer, because children know the obvious answer -- "Because the crayon box was right there" -- isn't the one you want. In fact, I hadn't even asked the real question. "How could you do this to me?" was the real question.

Finally I went back downstairs to sulk, though I'd have sulkily denied I was sulking.

I thought about that cardboard house today. I thought that it probably had stayed in my daughter's bedroom for weeks or perhaps months, but it seems now that this plaything came and went in about half an hour, leaving virtually no memory trace behind.

Yet see how I remember the fit I had when my daughters decorated the house's pristine cardboard walls. "How could you do that?" I asked myself today. You'd think your little girls had taken a permanent marker to the Lincoln Memorial! You'd think they'd desecrated a hero's grave! They were coloring a cardboard house! What did I expect them to do, hang tapestries?

I've already apologized for rarely if ever letting my children ride mechanical horses.

"You can ride the horse if you like," I tell them, now that they have babies of their own. In fact, I've been offering horse rides since they were old enough to vote, but they never take me up on it.

What caused my earlier mechanical horse attitude? That I can answer in two words: My mother. My mother never let me ride mechanical horses, and I grew up assuming that mothers didn't. Only recently did I realize that her bias probably had to do with our financial circumstances. Not that we'd have starved for the sake of a three-minute horse ride, but she was too aware of our circumstances to spend money on such a fleeting pleasure.

But I wasn't. I could have afforded a ride on a horse now and then. As it was, my older daughter was forced to climb on the immobile horse and assume a wistful expression that nearly always caused strangers to drop a quarter into the slot for the poor child whose mother wouldn't let her ride. Yes, I know. I was a mean, mean mother.

If I adopted my mother's habit in that instance, in many others I didn't. My mother, presented with a puppy or any furry creature, would shrink back in horror. I lean in like Sheryl Sandberg. My mother refused to re-read even a good book. To me, books are friends you invite in again and again. My mother -- well, my mother never realized her yearning to hold grandchildren in her arms. I have, and with the experience came a revelation: Parents focus on raising children to be reasonable, empathetic, thinking adults who pay their bills and practice justice and fairness and who don't smash a windshield with a brick in a fit of road rage. Grandparents focus on delighting in their grandchildren right this moment.

That's what I plan to do. And if anyone ever gives one of them a cardboard house, I'll be the first one inside with the crayons.

Write to ThisWeek News columnist and copy editor Margo Bartlett at mbartlett@thisweeknews.com.