Positive relationships between parents and grandparents can benefit the family all the way around. When conflict is not handled well, however, disagreements can end in hurt feelings or even estrangement.
Grandchildren can be a charged subject between parents and grandparents, so I spoke with Ruth Nemzoff, a grandmother and intergenerational relationship expert, about how parents and their grown children can better understand one another when grandchildren come into the picture.
Q: How important is it to children that we all get along?
A: The three-generation relationship — grandparent-parent-child — is incredibly important. It can either facilitate parenting or debilitate parenting.
Q: Why do grandparent-parent-child relationships become strained?
A: We all parent either exactly the way our parents parented us, or in opposition to our parents — unless we consciously acknowledge the parenting practices we do and don’t want to use.
The grandparent-parent relationship is an international problem. In every society, grandparents and their adult children are struggling in their relationships. Grandparents, no matter what country, have the same issues: Kids doing something different than what they want.
Q: How can we overcome this?
When we become aware of how our parents raised us, we have to remember that no parent is the perfect parent. We all make mistakes. We all have the right to our own feelings, but you have to be forgiving in families.
Q: Why does this seem like more of a problem now than in generations past?
A: All the Baby Boomers are coming into this grandparent age group. They want to keep the relationships with their kids. They have spent so much time and energy and money on their children that they don’t want to lose that relationship as their children grow into their adult years. They don’t want to let go.
Q: How should parents stay connected to their grown children?
A: I don’t like to say that grandparents are supposed to let go of their adult children. They are just changing the parental role. They’re realizing that their child has developed new skills and are adjusting in the way they relate to their child.
Attachment goes on forever. We need each other at the beginning of life and at the end of life, and in every crisis in the middle. We never outgrow our need for cheerleaders.
That — cheerleading and helping each other out in the crisis, and being able to depend on each other for mutual solace and support — that, to me, is what Attachment Parenting is in the adult years.
The grandparent-parent relationship is complicated because of the ambiguity of trying to figure out where adulthood begins and childhood ends, and because many of us think that being grown-up means being disconnected from our families rather than being engaged with them as friends, as supports, and caring beings.
The aim is not to let go, but rather to constantly re-calibrate the relationships so that both the grandparent and parent have more joy than aggravation from being connected.
Q: What are practical ways to addressing differences in parenting? Let’s start with when a mother brings home her first baby, and the grandmother wants to help.
A: When a new baby comes, it’s very important to clarify roles ahead of time. The grandparent may come in and expect to care for the newborn, but the mother wants them to be the cook and dish washer. Or, the mother may say she wants to spend all of her time bonding with her baby, but finds she needs a little time to herself here and there, and the grandparent was expecting to clean the house.
The grandparent needs to be open to suggestion from the parent.
What the mother can do is to voice her expectations, but stay flexible, perhaps saying something like, “I want to take care of my baby and would rather that you help around the house instead. But I may want you to hold the baby sometimes, when I take a shower or lay down for a nap.”
If there are multiple children, the parent may want the grandparent to care for the older child, but the older child may only want to be around the mother. So, the parent may want to say to the grandparent, “It’d be most helpful if you could spend time playing with Suzy, but know that she may feel the need to spend time with me, too, and that’s OK.”
Q: How about with grandparents providing childcare to their grandchildren?
A: The key here is to be sure the grandparent is given as much respect as an employee is given, that the grandparent isn’t expected to provide free babysitting just whenever the parent asks. This is easier when the parent is paying the grandparent for babysitting, but even with free babysitting, it shouldn’t be a problem if the grandparent wants to go on vacation.
If you called your mom, wanting her to come over to watch the kids and she couldn’t do it, it’d be inconvenient, yes, but just as you would with any other babysitter, you would have to find a way around the problem without putting your mother in the middle.
Grandparents and parents need to communicate their expectations when it comes to babysitting regularly or frequently. The parents need to give them the right to discipline in their own way, just as they would a daycare provider. And if the parent has a real problem, she or he needs to talk about it.
Say, you don’t like your mother giving your child candy when she’s potty-training. You need to first identify whether it’s the concept or a reward or the candy that you don’t like, and then talk to you mother. But do that just as you would with a daycare provider. Give the grandparents the same respect as you would an employee.
Q: How about gift-giving from grandparents to grandchildren?
A parent may object to a grandparent’s gift of toy guns or Barbie dolls, for example. The problem is not so much the toys but the philosophy behind it. The parent objects to the guns, becasue she doesn’t want her child to be exposed to violence, or to the Barbie dolls because of the image of women they perpetuate.
One way around this is for the grandparent to give to his or her grandchild the gift of time. They can still spend money on their grandchild, but do it in the context of spending time with the child, such as a visit to the zoo.
Q: And what about how to discipline the grandchildren?
A: It’s very different when grandparents come once a year than when they babysit frequently. It’s easier for parents to allow grandparents to break the parents’ rules when the grandparents come only sporadically than when they babysit regularly. In either case, all three generations need to understand what the rules are and why each generation might want them to be different.
For example, a parent who does not usually allow TV might suggest to the visiting grandparent that if they are totally exhausted, to sit and watch and educational TV program with the child. In this way, the grandparents get the rest they need and the parents get the relief they need, and the child gets a terrific snuggle!
Grandparents often have concerns with the parent’s approach to discipline. Some people prefer that their children learn through experience; others want more of a part in teaching them. Discipline is on a continuum and involves varying amounts of justice and mercy. It’s important that grandparents allow parents to choose their own way to discipline.
Most kids grow up reasonably well either way.
Q: So, the basic idea is to have good communication between generations?
A: Parents and grandparents need a process to clarify roles, but then a way to renegotiate them, too.
Reframing is a useful life skill. Reframing is looking at a situation in a new way. Instead of seeing a certain action as a breaking of the rules, one might view it as an opportunity for children to learn that different people have different expectations. We need to realize that the grandparents’ generation entered a world very different than the parents’ generation did, and that each generation required different skills.
Both sides would do well to be a lot less judgemental when it comes to discipline. Kids learn and kids can cope with many different rules. That’s one of the skills you need to learn in life. Your child will get to the point where, when she hears that Grandma is coming, she says, “Yeah, I can go to bed an hour later!” or, “Oh no, Grandma makes me go to bed an hour earlier.”
So, first, I’d say grandparents and parents both need to be less judgemental. Second, they need to understand each other’s parenting styles. And third, they need to be forgiving.
Q: What happens when angry feelings arise between parents and grandparents?
A: When you feel hurt, it’s time to talk about it. To give an example, a common problem is that people tend to be taken for granted in families. Use “I feel…” statements, rather than “You…” For example, “I feel taken for granted,” rather than, “You’re taking me for granted.” Then, problem-solve for a resolution agreeable to both of you.
You can take a lot of lessons from other relationships, such as work relationships and friendships, and apply them to the grandparent-parent relationship. One of the big things in families is learning timing — when to bring up a concern. For example, try to avoid situations where either one of you is hungry or tired.
So much of the grandparent-parent relationship is putting yourself in the other’s shoes, seeing the situation from the other’s point of view. This really helps resolve tensions.
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Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D., MA, works in the research areas of intergenerational relationships and in-law relationships at Brandeis University. She is the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children. She and her husband have 4 grown children and 10 grandchildren.