Grandchildren! We want to love them, spoil them, have fun with them and, then, hand them back to their parents.
That privilege, the ability to decide when to hand off and when to be hands-on, also comes with pitfalls. Grandparents want to avoid fights with their adult children just as much as they want to avoid sleepless nights, ear infections and everything else parents of small children typically endure. Here are some guardrails to help grandparents avoid tension or outright conflicts with their adult children.
No unsolicited advice
Experts say this is the first rule—and the second and third. It’s so hard to keep quiet when you know how to do something and the parents don’t. However well meant it is, your children will hear your advice as criticism. It can undermine the confidence in parenting that is so important for them to build.
“I can feel my mother biting her tongue sometimes,” says 45-year-old Yasmin Kaderali, chief executive of Mommy’s Bliss, a maker of products. for babies and new mothers. She’s also the mom of a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old in Northern California. Her mother, Roshan Kaderali, 76, a former nurse/midwife/doula and founder of the company, says she has learned to hold back despite the many ways that her daughter parents differently than she did.
“I’m letting the kiddie sleep in my bed when he has a nightmare,” says Yasmin, citing an example. But after weeks of having him in her bed, she says, “My mother said, ‘Be firmer. You’ve got to get this to stop.’”
“I felt judged, that maybe I did something wrong,” Yasmin says. She explained to her mother that she couldn’t get up four times a night to put her son back to bed because she had to work in the morning. Roshan now understands that her daughter has different stresses than she had. “I’ve learned to accept whatever works for them,” she says. “It’s their family. I can walk away.”
The one exception to butting out—and even here you need to be very delicate—is if you notice a serious safety or developmental issue. Is the baby not responding to sound? Is the toddler showing signs of autism or severe anxiety? If the parents are oblivious to these things, says New York psychoanalyst Sue Kolod, then tell them you’ve noticed something about your grandchild. Ask whether it’s OK to discuss it and when would be a good time.
Respect the parents’ boundaries
Flouting the rules your adult children set is one of the biggest sources of conflict. If your son says his little boy must be put down for nap at 1:30, do it, even if he doesn’t look tired to you. If your daughter-in-law says one small cookie (and only after lunch), stick to the rules. You won’t be a favorite babysitter if you bring back a cranky toddler or a kid on a wild sugar rush. There may be some room for negotiating about treats, experts say, but don’t just ignore the rules.
Be sensitive with your daughter- or son-in-law’s feelings
Some grandparents feel strain with their child’s spouse. You have a better chance of avoiding problems, says Michael Davidovits, a family therapist with the Ackerman Institute for the Family, “if you remember that your child is raising this new child with their spouse and not with you. You really have to honor the primacy and the priority of that relationship.”
If your relationship with the spouse hasn’t been warm, sharing your adoration of this little one might bring you closer. It’s hard to resist someone who thinks your child is beautiful and brilliant.
See resentments as an opportunity for healing conversations
Some adult children express resentment when they see their parents—now much more mature and available—lavishing time and affection on their grandchildren. Although it can be painful to acknowledge our failings as parents, it can be healing to admit them and express regret, says Dr. Davidovits. He suggests you might say something like, “I hope that you can be a better parent to your children than I was to you in this way. Whatever I can do to help, I want to help you.”
Don’t guilt-trip your children, and don’t let them guilt-trip you
Some grandparents object to when or how often they see their grandchildren. “Using guilt to get what you want is a form of passive aggression,” says Dr. Kolod. “It’s best to be upfront and direct about what you want.” She suggests asking whether you could set up regular times to visit, maybe once a week or once a month, whatever makes sense given your circumstances.
Grandparents also need to be alert to their children using guilt on them to get them to help more often than they can or they want to: “Please, Mom, I’m desperate!” “Please, Dad, just for an hour!” Even as you need to respect their boundaries, you need to insist that they respect yours. You may not feel comfortable babysitting after dark because driving is harder then. Same with lifting a 25-pound toddler.
“Keep in mind,” says Dr. Kolod, “that whatever you offer should be offered willingly and enthusiastically.”
Enjoy watching your children grow as they learn to parent
It’s hard to restrain yourself when you see your adult children making mistakes. But “they have to learn to parent just as you did,” Dr. Davidovits says.
“If you can do it, you’re standing back and watching your children in the middle of an incredible part of life’s journey.”
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on April 17, 2023, and written by Francine Russe. Image courtesy of iStock.
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