By Michelle DeRamus, Ph.D.
Setting boundaries with our children’s grandparents is hard. We are taught since early childhood that talking back to our elders is not OK. So even when we need to do what we believe is best for our children, setting boundaries with our parents (or our in-laws) can feel like we are being disrespectful, making it very challenging. In addition, because many of us look to our parents as the best example of how to be parents, to go against something they want to do can make us question whether we are really doing the right thing. As children, many of us viewed our parents as superheroes who could do no wrong; as adults, we begin to realize our parents do sometimes make mistakes and incorrect decisions. That can be a tough realization for us. All of these issues can work against our desire of setting boundaries with grandparents or telling grandparents what we like and don’t like about how they are doing things with our children. However, to have a healthy core and extended family, boundaries are necessary. In our society, while we continue to respect and seek advice from our elders and extended family, we generally recognize the parents as needing to have the final say about how to raise their children. So how can parents set boundaries while still being respectful toward grandparents?
First, communicate your wishes clearly. Sometimes other caregivers do things differently from parents simply because they do not know the parents’ wishes. Having everyone on the same page can often prevent, or quickly resolve, any conflicts about caregiving. State your wishes respectfully and calmly, without attacking or accusing. It’s best to have this type of conversation in private; none of us likes to be “called out” on our mistakes in front of others. Explain your reasoning for your preferences. Often, when others understand the reasons why we do things the way we do, they are much more understanding, supportive, and willing to comply with our requests. Be sure to listen if your parents or in-laws would like to explain why they did things differently or if they have questions. Good communication is key to solving any conflict.
Second, be willing to compromise sometimes, and know when to pick your battles. Just because grandparents do things differently does not necessarily mean it is wrong. Often, if we use good communication skills, we can discuss our differences and meet in the middle for a reasonable solution. We all know that grandparents like to “spoil” their grandchildren, and occasional indulgences are OK. For example, while you might not normally let your child eat French fries for lunch and dinner, having an extra serving of fries once a month while visiting grandma is not going to cause long-term harm. If we turn every difference of opinion about raising children into an argument, it will make for a very unpleasant visit with grandparents and can lead to long-term tension between you and your parents or in-laws.
Stand your ground on the things that are really important to you. While the occasional indulgence with grandparents may be fine, if grandparents are part of the regular, day-to-day caregiving for your children and they consistently let the rules slide, it can have a negative impact on children and family relationships in general. Children need consistency, and when caregivers have different sets of rules, it can lead to confusion about expectations for behavior, which can then lead to behavior problems both at home and at school. If parents feel that grandparents are “undermining” them or not respecting their authority as parents, it can lead to feelings of resentment between parents and grandparents. It’s best to address disagreements head-on (calmly and with good communication) so that long-term problems do not set in. Ultimately, as a child’s parent, you are responsible for making sure they are raised to be fully-functioning, well-adjusted adults. If you believe a grandparent is repeatedly acting in a way that is counter to that goal, you may have to set guidelines about time spent with grandparents. For example, if grandparents are consistently letting children watch scary TV shows that parents know are giving the child nightmares, you may decide that children can only visit grandparents if a parent is also present to provide supervision for TV viewing. Or if you have asked grandparents not to curse around your young children, but they continue to do so, you may decide to take the children home early the next time you hear a curse word.
While setting boundaries with grandparents can be an uncomfortable situation to navigate at times, just remember that at the end of the day, it’s nice to know that your children have so many people to love them and who want them to be happy.