Parents have kids. Parents are kids. Grandparents have kids and grandkids. In the tangled web of these changing relationships, navigating the new rules and politics between these generations is often difficult. After all, even grandparents don’t see it, they are figures of authority, and parents often expect grandparents to act as an extension of their rule. But a lot of things have changed since grandparents were raising their own kids. They may not “get” the new rules. And it doesn’t help that grandparents are, well, grandparents. Naturally, they often want to dote on their grandkids, even if said doting eventually leads to rule-breaking. And naturally, this problem is not a new one.
“As someone whose been a family therapist for 30 years, this comes up all the time. Parents today do things differently. For generations, parents have done things differently. The boomer generation wanted to do things differently than their parents,” says Dr. Sharon Saline, a family therapist who often helps parents communicate with their parents about their expectations.
Here, Dr. Saline explains what parents need to keep in mind when approaching their grandparents about rules, parenting strategies, and what to do when the violations become too big to ignore.
The more parents talk to the grandparents about how they will be raising their kid from the outset, the better.
“I think that the more that parents communicate with grandparents, as early on as possible, about their parenting choices, in terms of what they are encouraging, not responding to, the better,” says Dr. Saline. Even before a child starts to walk and talk on their own, having frank discussions with grandparents about what parents will and won’t accept and what values parents would like to espouse will help lessen conflict down the line.
This is important for both big and small issues. Big conversations need to happen about your approach to the “big” ideas of gender, sexuality, and hobbies. “Small” conversations need to happen about television, sugar, and bedtime, too.
“The more specific that a parent can be with a grandparent, pretty much about everything, but particularly the big issues, the better the chance that the grandparent will be able to ask questions in a way that the parent feels is appropriate,” says Dr. Saline.
When grandparents undermine set rules, make sure to respond appropriately.
Try to work with your parents to be on your team. They are not your adversary. However, Dr. Saline admits, you will still probably have to put your foot down as the team leader. “Kids are pretty accurate reporters,” Dr. Saline says. “Even if the grandparent says, ‘Don’t tell mommy,’ they’ll come home and at some point it will slip.”
When stuff like that happens, you have to calmly explain why you’re upset, and why it’s important that you’re on the same team. Just say, for example, the grandparent let your kids have soda, and you don’t allow that. You can’t come at it from: “What the hell is wrong with you?” says Dr. Saline. Instead, you say: “I would really appreciate it if you don’t do that anymore, or if you could explain to me what your thinking was about why you did that.” Then hear what they have to say.
After all, the grandparents role is to support the parents. Not the other way around.
Do not respond with visible anger.
“When grandparents are overstepping the boundaries you have set, responding with anger is usually not effective, because then you’re just arguing about stuff that is probably leftover from when you were 15 years old,” says Dr. Saline. “You’re doing your teenage dance.” Instead of responding with anger to when a grandparent oversteps their boundaries, (i.e. by telling you how they think you should be parenting or disregarding rules you have set for your kids), take a deep breath.
“Respond as calmly as possible and say: ‘Thanks for your opinion. I’ve got this. What I really need from you is X. You raised me well, and now I know what the right thing to do is.’”
Discuss concerns and issues with grandparents from a collaborative position, not a top-down one.
Don’t start the conversation with: “These are my kids! And I know what’s right about them,” says Dr. Saline. “Come forward with a more collaborative approach: ‘I’m so grateful that you’re with the kids. What I would really like to ask, even if you don’t agree, is to respect the rules that we’re trying to maintain every day. If you want to change that rule, talk to me first.’ That way, if the grandparent came to you and said, ‘Hey, listen. It’s a long day. I’m not as active as I’d like to be. Could they have an extra hour of television, and we can watch something together?’”
You won’t feel blindsided, your kids will know that the rules are the same everywhere, and if they change it’s because you allowed it, and the grandparent will feel like they have more control. Even if they don’t.
Choose your battles.
“The first issue is how serious the violation is, so to speak. If the kids spending the weekend at grandma’s house, and she lets them have extra cookies, that’s kind of what you expect from grandparents,” says Dr. Saline.
“But when grandparents undermine your authority, guidelines, things that really matter to you, then a negotiation is worthwhile.” In any case, remember that your grandparents won’t ever follow your rules 100 percent, and that some rules are less important than others.
Parents can always, always, pull the trump card.
Sometimes issues with grandparents are too big to negotiate, or ignore.
“I had a client a few years ago who was transitioning from female to male,” says Dr. Saline. “They were a part of a Catholic family. For quite a while, the parents hid the information from this grandmother. When he started t-shots, that was no longer possible. His voice was changing. He was growing hair. So they sat down and told the grandmother which was very difficult.
She needed space from him for a while until she could adjust. After about two months, the grandmother was ready to make contact again. They figured out how to move forward. The grandmother eventually sat down and said: “I don’t understand this, but I want you to be happy. And I love you no matter what.”
In other words, if grandma and grandpa can’t get down on the big issues, and can’t even respect parenting decisions, regardless of whether or not they “understand” them, taking some space for all parties might be the best move. And when it comes to the wellbeing of children, if the grandparents have to be cut out completely because they can’t respect your parenting choices, that might just be what needs to happen.