As the adage goes, it takes a village to raise a child. If your village includes grandparents, children can have loving elders who enrich their lives — and you can get some support for and respite from childcare at the hands of family members you trust.
But what happens when you discover Grandpa Joe’s or Abuelita Maria’s parenting rules, expectations, and styles are different from yours?
Personal and generational differences on discipline, safety, the psychological health of kids, and other factors may open a gulf between you and your parents or in-laws. How do you make sure your kids reap the rewards of a close relationship with their grandparents while standing by your own parenting values?
The topic inspired questions in a major study by University of Michigan Health. The C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health sends out survey questions on aspects of child health about three times a year. In 2020 the survey asked 2,016 parents, whose children ranged in age from newborn to 18, about parental–grandparental tensions — and their responses show that if you’re struggling with these issues, you’re not alone.
For the 43 percent of parents who reported having disagreements with grandparents, the most common source of friction was discipline: 57 percent of this group noted that grandparents are too lenient, too tough, or both. Other bones of contention included meals and snacks, screen time, manners, and health and safety.
It’s important to work out these differences, says Sarah Clark, MPH, a research scientist at the University of Michigan and codirector of the Mott poll. When there’s unresolved parent–grandparent tension, she says, “nobody wins.” These common-sense principles can ease the strain.
You and the grandparents have different parenting norms. Your parents or in-laws may not agree with — or even know about — some of the parenting norms that you embrace. Maybe they’re stricter than you would prefer, or less aware of current food issues, safety concerns, or changing ideas about how kids dress and behave.
“But it isn’t that the grandparents are always more conservative or traditional,” Clark points out. “Sometimes they have more of a casual, ‘this too shall pass’ attitude toward childcare than you might be comfortable with.” In any case, you may feel that the grandparents’ approach is undermining your hard-won parenting efforts.
You’re hesitant to address any issues because the grandparents are helping with childcare. “For a lot of parents, it’s fabulous that they can have a family member rather than someone they don’t know in that caregiving position,” Clark notes. “They don’t want to lose that, and so they tread carefully.”
For this and other reasons, it may seem better to avoid bringing up a problem.
You’re afraid the grandparents will take criticism of their habits with your kids as veiled criticism of how they raised you. This might be especially true if the grandparents are sensitive to criticism. But even if they’re not, they could take umbrage if it becomes apparent that you see your own approach as “fixing” their mistakes.
Strategies for Success
Keep the kids out of it. “Just as you don’t involve your kids in your disagreements with your partner,” says Clark, “don’t enlist them into disputes with grandparents.”
Get on the same team. The point of these approaches isn’t to persuade the grandparents of your point of view, she emphasizes, but to enlist them in a loving and cooperative enterprise: supporting the child. That means speaking — and thinking — in a way that assumes they want the best for the kids, too.
Understand the distinction between a well-being issue and a style difference. This is one of the main ways that parents can determine whether an issue is really important or whether they can let it go, Clark explains. “If the grandparent gives the child a snack food that you just don’t happen to like, or if you simply prefer to limit screen time more strictly than the grandparents do, that’s a style difference. There are a lot of areas where disagreements can and do occur, and you can’t play hardball on every single one of them.”
Stand your ground on well-being and safety. If, on the other hand, your child is really sensitive or allergic to a food the grandparent offers or has shown signs of an unhealthy dependence on electronic media, that’s a well-being difference.
Don’t compromise on well-being, Clark advises, whether it’s food, an appropriate car seat, or gun safety. It might feel awkward to talk about, but unsecured firearms in the home are dangerous for children, and a child’s protection must be the top priority. “Grandpa John locks up his guns when the kids come to visit,” she says. “Make it clear you’re not being anti-gun or anti-Grandpa; it’s a safety issue.”
Realize that kids can be flexible. If there are style differences between your parenting techniques and those of the grandparents, you may find your children are more adaptable than you expected. “I don’t think we give kids enough credit for being able to understand that they can do something at home but not with the grandparents, or vice versa, without being confused or hurt,” Clark explains. “Any kid who goes to daycare or preschool figures out the difference between home rules and other rules.”
Provide reasons and context. “The most important thing to avoid is digging into entrenched, angry positions so that disagreements become a long-term thing,” Clark notes.
And that goes for nonnegotiable issues like safety and well-being as well as less crucial ones. When you are making your case, she suggests, come to the table with good reasons and resources, such as articles and web pages, rather than peevish insistence.
“Instead of issuing an order — ‘Make sure that he’s down for a nap at 2’ — you can say, ‘We’ve been noticing that he’s having a lot of trouble sleeping through the night. We’ve been trying to do nap time a little earlier so he’ll be more tired at bedtime. We’re shooting for somewhere between 2 and 3, OK?’”
If you get insistent pushback on a well-being issue, she adds, you can, as a last resort, bring the grandparents with you to a meeting with a pediatrician.
Show respect for the grandparents’ needs and values. “You can have a phone call with the grandparents a few days before you visit — ‘We’re going to be talking with the kids about the visit, and we wanted to go over a couple things with them,’” Clark suggests.
Ask whether the kids should take their shoes off before walking into the house, or where they can put their toys so that they won’t be underfoot. “You’re doing two things here: getting information about what’s acceptable, and sending a strong message to Grandma that ‘Hey, I want to work with you,’” she says. “And this opens up a nice two-way street.”
Remember that time with the grandparents might be different — but should be special. “A thoughtful parent wants their kids to have some special experiences with grandparents, and those experiences aren’t the same ones he or she will have at home,” she says. “If the children are safe, you generally don’t have to make a big deal about the differences.”
This article originally appeared as “Grand Disagreements” in the April 2023 issue of Experience Life.
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