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?
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.)