What might happen if I bite my grandmother in the butt? This, I imagine, is what my four-year-old son was pondering the afternoon my mother took over while I enjoyed a nourishing weekend away with friends. Grandma would not be happy, it turns out, but my son and his siblings would find it riotous. I learned about the bite later. Rather than spoil my rare weekend off, my mother sheepishly confessed to the incident only after I pressed her, and even then dismissed it as trivial.
My mother seemed to have understood intuitively the kind of wisdom dispensed by parenting experts. In his book, You and Your Adult Child: How to Grow Together in Challenging Times, psychology professor Laurence Steinberg writes, “being a good grandparent mainly involves making life easier for your child and their partner.” Slate parenting columnist and podcast host Jamilah Lemieux echoed that advice when she told me that the grandparents’ principal role is to stand by their kids. “Parents need to feel supported by their own parents,” she said.
This all makes sense. But many grandparents – who weren’t born yesterday, after all, and know a thing or two about raising children – can find it hard to stifle themselves when their own grown kids won’t do something about that backtalk! A national poll of about 2,000 parents with kids under 18 found that the most common sources of disagreement with grandparents concerned discipline, diet and screen time.
A recent Pew Research Center study on parents’ attitudes towards their upbringings suggests that conflict between parents and grandparents might be unavoidable. Of the 3,700 parents surveyed, 44% said they intended to raise their own kids differently from the way their parents had cared for them. (43% said they would adopt an approach similar to their own parents.) The main area in which they hoped to deviate concerned love and relationships. One mother in the survey said her parents were unaffectionate and wrote, “I am trying to show more love in my caregiving.”
How can mothers and fathers keep the grandparents involved with the grandkids without losing their exhausted parental minds?
The first principle, Steinberg recommends, is trying to understand that grandparents make “suggestions” about childrearing because they likely approached parenting differently. It’s not criticism so much as a reflection of the different gestalt about how best to bring up children; like dieting advice, counsel on how to raise well-adjusted kids is unstable and forever changing. Strive not to take what feels like criticism personally. When replying to a grandmother’s insistence that picking up crying babies makes them spoiled, for example, parents would be wise to choose their words carefully. “That’s helpful, thank you,” is more constructive than “No, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Steinberg told me.
New parents frustrated by their own parents’ interventions also need to remember that the child/grandparent relationship can be vital to a young person’s development. Steinberg encourages parents to facilitate that cross-generational bond, independent of the parents in the middle, because kids benefit from having other loving adults in their lives. This is especially so during adolescence, when even the closest parent/child attachment can fray. A genuine grandparent/child relationship is more apt to develop if the parent encourages it and the get-togethers are not limited to the biannual holiday gathering.
But the bottom line is clear: “Parents have to feel that they are in charge, that they’re the authority,” Lemieux said.
If conflict over the grandchildren erupts, there are constructive ways to react. Joanne Gottlieb, a clinical social worker in New York, advises mothers and fathers to speak up promptly rather than wait for tensions to worsen. She suggests that parents have these difficult conversations when tempers have cooled, not in the midst of a fracas or in children’s line of sight. Also, being clear about the problem and proposed solution is better than opaque or passive-aggressive messaging. Ideally, if two parents are present, both will take part in the discussion.
Grandparents need boundaries, Lemieux said, and if they’re irresponsible, or even abusive, parents will have to step in and protect their children.
Grandparents also might need to remind themselves of their new position in the extended family hierarchy: They’re no longer in control – and should adjust accordingly. Before diving in with suggestions on potty training or sibling rivalry, grandparents should ask their children if they want advice, and offer plenty of encouragement, too.
Being an involved and positive grandparent is not all selfless martyrdom. Those who are constructively engaged with their grandkids are apt to improve their own well-being, especially as both cohorts age: An expansive 2014 study by sociologists Sara Moorman and Jeffrey Stokes found “that in high-affinity relationships, grandparents continue to play a positive role long into grandchildren’s adulthood, and adult grandchildren benefit their grandparents similarly.” When grandkids are young and unsullied, they can be an even greater joy. Author Arthur Brooks called his grandson’s recent birth “a source of unalloyed rejoicing,” distinguishing it from the seriousness and fear that accompanied fatherhood. “Having grandchildren, though, feels like no sacrifice at all,” he wrote. But once that baby becomes a sassy toddler – or a chomping four-year-old – all bets are off.