Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Whose Rules Rule?

I repeatedly encounter conflict between grandparents and their adult children regarding whose rules should govern a grandparent's interactions with their grandchild. In one corner we find the elders, full of knowledge and advice, wanting to be validated and honored for their years of experience, confident that they know what's best for the child. In the other corner, we find the young or new parents, full of book knowledge, research findings, training classes, experience gleaned from close friends, their own personal values, and their unique experience with their child, who need to assert their own way of doing things. If you look around, you will find articles, advisers and advocates who will agree with whichever side you come down on.

The areas ripe for disagreement are legion!
  •     How much sugar or other unhealthy treats are okay?

  •     How much television, DVDs, or video game time should be allowed?

  •     How is discipline handled?

  •     What kind of books, movies, and activities are acceptable?

  •     How should bedtime be handled?

  •     Do you reward good behavior or promote self-validation?

  •     How much risk is tolerated?

  •     How are differences in religious beliefs addressed?
The list goes on and on.

But I'm here as a grandparent to tell you that I strongly believe that parents should be the ones who are make the rules for how their children are raised. They are, after all, the ones who bear the final responsibility!

Grandparents need to think back on their own beginnings as a parent, and remember what it was like for them. Each generation follows the popular trends of the day. Before Dr. Benjamin Spock came along, "in post-war American, parents were in awe of doctors and other childcare professionals; Spock assured them that parents were the true experts on their own children. They had been told that picking up infants when they cried would only spoil them; Spock countered that cuddling babies and bestowing affection on children would only make them happier and more secure. Instead of adhering to strict, one-size-fits-all dictates on everything from discipline to toilet training, Spock urged parents to be flexible and see their children as individuals.”

The trends of today which parents are following may be completely different than what the older generation learned. But there are many variations on what is the "right" way to parent. To repeat Dr. Spock, "parents are the true experts on their own children." When grandparents step in and override the rules of the parents, what message are we giving? We are saying that we know best and usurping the parents' authority, as well as undermining their own confidence in their parenting knowledge!

Unfortunately, the result of this conflict can be estrangement between the parties. This conflict often leads to reduced access to the grandchildren, more tension and arguing between the adults, and the children are the ones who suffer. Grandparents need to be in constant discussion with the parents, finding out how issues are handled and what the current house rules are. But with friendship and openness between all parties, everyone needs to be open to negotiating on things that aren’t working.

Here are some tips for navigating specific areas of this unique parent-grandparent relationship.


I make it a policy not to give advice unless asked or it is a life or death situation. I believe this allows the parents to come to me for advice, at times, and then it is carefully given, with disclaimers! Sometimes the parents aren't that sure of their own stand on an issue, but dig their heels in if they feel the grandparents are somehow taking charge. Parents need the freedom to test their theories, make their own mistakes, learn what works and what doesn't work. They need to be allowed to become the experts and feel confident in their own roles as parents. Hopefully, the relationship that develops will allow for grandparents to impart some of that knowledge they gained through their own experiences.

Consistency, but not a foolish one

Often the rules grandparents choose to break cause unnecessary hardship on the parents. Too much sugar, too late a bedtime, or too many hours sitting in front of a television often cause unruly behavior when the child returns home. If grandparents allow a child to talk back, that behavior then carries over into other relationships. Or breaking the rules can pit the child against his/her parents, saying “But Grandma (or grandpa) lets me..."

On the other hand, I also have a plaque in my kitchen that says "What happens at Grandma’s house stays at Grandma’s house!' I bought this plaque partly in jest, even though I do follow the parental rules. But there is a special relationship that a grandparent and child have, and that relationship is different than the one between parent and child. It is important to allow that "specialness" to have its own expressions. Grandparents should be allowed special dispensation at times, to bend the family rules, but here again, I believe this should be after open discussion with the parents, and consistent with the parents' wishes. I still follow the rule of healthy food before cookies, but I might be just a little less strict on how that rule is carried out. Or I might stretch the size of the cookie given! If, however, I completely break the rule, it won't be long before cookies-before-healthy food becomes the firm expectation at my house.

It is also okay to acknowledge that some of the rules are different. Your child needs to learn this about the world in general; for example, the rules at a friend's house need to be observed, even if those rules are different. My own grandchildren know that it is not okay to jump on my furniture. I have a much lower tolerance of chaos than some of their parents. My grandchildren have been told by their parents that different houses have different rules and that the rules of the house prevail. Thus said, I do not use this as an excuse to flaunt the family rules that have been set up.

Discipline and honesty

When discipline problems occur, I talk to the parents about what methods they are currently using to handle the problem, and try to use those methods as well.

It is never acceptable, in my book, to lie to the parents or ask the child to cover up something that the grandparents have done or rules that have been broken. This sets up a very unhealthy coalition between the child and the grandparent, bypassing the parents in the process, and teaching the child that lying is acceptable behavior. Co-opting a child to keep secrets is never a good idea.

Assuming good intentions

All said, it is very important for both sides in this issue to assume good intentions. There are often underlying issues from past relationships that are coloring those in the present - a topic we will explore at greater depth in future posts. But I know how much my adult children love their children, and I know that they know I share that love. We all want what is best for the child and we all want to maintain our own good relationships! We all need to step back, take a deep breath, and begin to work on own relationships so that the children can grow up in a healthy environment, free of strife between parents and grandparents!

Do any of these conflicts surface with your own or your spouse's parents? What strategies for handling them have worked for you? How could you handle them better?

(This is a post I have published elsewhere, on sites that are no longer publishing.)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Stuff - revisited

It must be early Spring in the air, or it's just the rain that is keeping us inside. Several of my friends have posted on Facebook about purging.  That reminded me of some posts that I really liked from the past about "stuff" and since I need to get my writing kick started, I will bring them on again.  I finally managed to convince Ken to get rid of our 35-year-old stereo equipment.  I convinced him that we haven't used it in the last 3 or 4 years.  Now if I can just keep him from hiding them in the space under our house.... 

“A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve. The valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on day and night, smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly. I have no sharp taste for acquiring things, but it’s not necessary to desire them. Goods and chattel seek a man out. They find him even though his guard is up.” E. B. White, "Essays."
E. B. White is much better known for Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. But his essays are a delight and he starts our discussion of stuff so perfectly. I came across this quote in the middle of my last move and identified completely. The essay is hilarious, beginning like this:
"For some weeks now I have been engaged in dispersing the contents of this apartment, trying to persuade hundreds of inanimate objects to scatter and leave me alone. It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world."
I brag about the fact that there is a box waiting to be filled and transported to Goodwill in my house at all times. I do seriously make a trip to Goodwill almost weekly, usually with a small box of belongings, but still we have too much stuff. I believe this is one of the big challenges of aging: How do we part with our stuff? And when do we part with our stuff? And who will have to do the work of parting with our stuff if we don't keep working at it?

I made a pact with myself several years ago to seriously begin to get rid of stuff. I had just stopped in at an estate sale, hoping to nab some good stuff, and was aghast to find an elderly woman's entire life laid out for the public to peruse. Our stuff loses it's value and has the possibility of this type of an end. When I came across a table displaying this woman's bras, I made a pact to begin getting rid of the things my children won't be needing or wanting. I can't promise that I've done a great job of fulfilling that pact, but I am working on it. Since my husband and I keep moving to smaller places, we have had to let things go, but we have not yet stopped accumulating, so the task remains.
Stay tuned for many parts to this thread on "stuff."