More than 7.8 million children live in multigenerational families that are headed by grandparents or another family member, according to the nonprofit group Generations United. That’s up from 2.4 million kids in 2000, and experts predict the trend will continue. While that extra set of hands and eyes can make life easier for everyone, it’s tricky to know where the boundary is between helping your child raise a son or daughter of his own, and actually laying down the law as you see fit. Not sure whether and when to correct your grandchild’s behavior? Here’s how grandparents can find the right balance.
Have the Talk
“At some point when you become a grandparent, you need to sit down with your adult child and figure out the best way to handle behavior-related situations,” says Denver-based Nancy S. Buck, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist, grandmother, and author of How to Be a Great Parent. “Most people don’t do this until there is an instance of tension that occurs — and there will eventually be one. I’d advocate talking it through before that moment comes to help diffuse the situation.”
Especially in families where the grandparents are close by and will see their grandchild often, it’s important to clarify what they should do if the child acts in ways they consider inappropriate. Some parents might be OK with a grandparents laying down the law. Other parents prefer to do the disciplining themselves if a child is acting out. Either way, take your cue off your own child: Ultimately, your grandchild’s behavior is his responsibility, and deferring to his parenting preferences allows him to be consistent in the message he sends his child while avoiding any chance of a clever grandkid playing one grownup off the other.
Your House, Your Rules
Things are a little different if part of your role as a grandparent involves babysitting on weekends, or having your grandchild over in the afternoon while her parents are still at work. “If the grandkids are at my house, they are going to be following my rules,” says Buck, qualifying that to add she still wouldn’t challenge any major philosophical differences between herself and the child’s parents — for instance, one grandchild is being raised in a vegetarian household, so Buck serves non-meat dishes when she is in charge. “But on the day-to-day behavioral things, in my house we do things my way,” she says.
Although the major meltdowns may stand out in your mind, when you consider your grandchild’s behavior as a whole, it’s likely you will often agree with the way she’s being raised. “It’s actually very hard to parent differently than the way you were parented,” says Buck. “So many times, the rules your child sets out are the same ones you established for him.” But when you do disagree (there’s no guarantee that how you raised your child is the same way your in-laws raised theirs, after all), resist the temptation to call out your grandkid’s behavior on the spot. Rest assured, your son is likely thinking the same thing you are: “Whatever your grandchild is doing, odds are that the parent is already aware and not thrilled either,” says Buck. “To have you come over the top to point out something they already know is going to cause unnecessary tension. Let them resolve it on their own.”
There is, of course, one time when it’s well within a grandparent’s right to correct a child: “Any time your see a child in imminent danger, don’t think, ‘Is it OK for me to do something?’ You just do it,” says Buck. “If I see my grandchild is playing with a friend’s dog and the dog looks uneasy, I’m not going to wait and find her parents to see if I should intervene before she pulls his tail and gets bitten. I am going to pick her up and remove her from that situation immediately, and we can talk about it later.”