Do you cringe when your grown children coddle your grandkids too much? Does your blood boil when your parents give your child a treat after you told the child he could not have it? Welcome to the club. Disagreements between grandparents and parents about child-rearing occur in the majority of families. The result can be arguments, anxiety and strained relationships—even though everyone wants only what’s best for the children.
It is perfectly normal for different people to have different ideas about how best to raise a child. But this can be a difficult topic to discuss without ruffling feathers.
Parents tend to be touchy about any comments critical of their child-rearing. They are working hard to raise a family and don’t want to be told that they are getting it wrong.
Grandparents, as well, have trouble accepting criticism about their way of treating their grandchildren because, after all, they’ve had plenty of experience raising kids and are just trying to help.
Here’s how grandparents and parents can respond to this challenge…
Three Tips for Grandparents
Silence usually is the wisest response when grandparents disagree with their grown children on parenting matters. Your concerns as grandparents might be legitimate, but your child is not likely to respond well to hearing them. The best solution usually is to just let it go. Remind yourself that parenting is hard—harder than grandparents tend to remember—and that your child is doing his/her best.
When you feel you absolutely must say something…
1. Speak with a person you respect who is objective before voicing your concerns to the parent. Ask your spouse or a trusted friend whether he/she agrees that something needs to be said. This person might provide helpful insight into the situation. If nothing else, expressing your concerns to this person lets you get whatever is bothering you off your chest, which often can reduce your need to confront your son or daughter.
If you know and respect a parent who has children similar in age to your grandchildren, this could be a particularly good person to chat with about your concerns. He/she might be able to help you see the matter from your own son’s or daughter’s perspective.
Each generation raises children very differently from the one before, so something that seems troubling to you might simply be the way things are being done these days. Example: You are appalled that your daughter let your granddaughter dye her hair purple—something unthinkable when your own daughter was a teen—but nowadays purple hair is quite acceptable.
2. If you still feel you must say something, phrase it by commiserating about the challenges of parenting, not as criticism of your child’s choices. If you begin with criticism, the parent likely will become defensive and the conversation will degenerate into an argument. Instead, start by expressing honest empathy about the difficulties of raising children, then transition gently to a nonjudgmental conversation on the subject you hope to discuss.
Example: If you think your daughter lets your grandkids spend too much time watching TV and smartphone screens, you could say, “I remember when we were trying to decide how much TV was too much for you when you were little. These days, kids carry smartphones with them wherever they go. It must be even harder to keep screen time under control.”
3. Get into a habit of complimenting your children about their parenting. One way to improve the odds that your kids will listen to your parenting opinions in the future is to make the vast majority of your parenting opinions favorable. Praise them when they handle difficult parenting situations well. Mention what a good job they are doing overall. That way, when you do voice a concern, you will seem less like a nag and more like an ally offering potentially helpful advice.
Three Tips for Parents
For parents, these disputes can fall into two different categories—some don’t like the way the grandparents handle the grandkids…while others just wish the grandparents would stop criticizing their parenting. Strategies for both of these situations…
1. Stifle your natural impulse to fire back when your parents (or in-laws) criticize your parenting. Your feelings might be bruised, and you might be bursting to respond…but will that really improve the situation? It’s more likely to lead to an argument. In the interest of family unity, instead try to react in a neutral, nonconfrontational manner, such as, “I guess we have a different approach to that” or “I’ll think about that”…then change the subject.
If you suspect that the topic might come up again, seek out an article, study or parenting authority whose position on the matter is in line with your own. Cite this when the grandparent next raises the issue. That way, if the grandparent wishes to continue the argument, he/she will be arguing with this expert source rather than with you.
Example: Your mother-in-law says you shouldn’t let your children swim right after eating. Thank her for thinking of your children’s safety, then explain that researchers now say that swimming soon after eating is not actually a safety risk. If you have a smartphone handy, you could type the words “swimming after eating” into a search engine and pull up confirmation of this, ideally from a source this grandparent knows and respects.
2. Express your concerns from the grandchild’s viewpoint rather than your own. If you present the information as if it came directly from your child, it’s more difficult for the grandparent to argue the point with you.
Example: A grandfather seems to favor one grandchild over another. If you confront the grandfather about this, he probably will deny it. Instead, tell him that your child believes this to be true. “It’s wonderful that you have a close bond with Sally, but Bobby asked the other day, ‘Why doesn’t Grampa like me as much as my sister?’ What can we do to help him feel that he’s as special to you as Sally is?”
3. When you trust your kids to their grandparents’ care, cede at least some control to the grandparents. You get to set the rules when you hire a babysitter because that babysitter works for you. A grandparent is not an employee—he/she is a family member who is helping you by looking after your kids. It is OK to tell this grandparent how you prefer to handle certain matters, but if the grandparent chooses to do things differently, you generally should either live with it or stop leaving your child in this grandparent’s care.
If the matter is important to you, you could try to modify the grandparent’s behavior by making a heartfelt request rather than a demand.
Example: You believe strongly in feeding your child only organic foods…but your mother thinks you are going overboard with the dietary rules and gives your child junk food. It is acceptable to say, “I know we are never going to see eye to eye on this, and I don’t expect you to do exactly what I would, but could you at least try to meet me halfway?” Even if your mother thinks you are unreasonable on this issue, the way this request is phrased is entirely reasonable.
If your child asks why different rules apply when Grandma is in charge, explain that in Grandma’s house Grandma is the boss…and/or that when Grandma is visiting, it’s a special occasion.