When Parents and Grandparents Disagree

When Parents and Grandparents Disagree
Photo courtesy of Jillian Dent

Parenting Approaches May Differ

Research confirms that children benefit when both parents and grandparents actively participate in their lives. However, in the real world, not everyone agrees with their parents on child-rearing approaches, especially bedtimes, food choices, screen time, and limits on behavior.  If your adult children don’t agree with you, don’t take it personally, and try not to let it become an issue.

Friction between a strict parent and a lenient grandparent can lead to children asking Pops and Nana for later bedtimes, forbidden food, one more movie or video game. You can’t win by giving in; if your grandchild is over four you’ll probably be reported (gleefully, by the child) and then you may lose the trust of the parents.  We know that overly punitive parenting is damaging to children, but grandparents may not be able to convince parents to change their approach.

Grandparents who think their children are too lenient, on the other hand, and who criticize, leave persuasive articles on the coffee table, or enforce stricter rules in their own home, may alienate both parents and grandchildren. (This can start as soon as infancy if parents practice Attachment Parenting and grandparents unfamiliar with the concept envision their grandchildren sleeping in the family bed and being carried kangaroo fashion until Kindergarten.)

Neither scenario is helpful.

Agree to Disagree

I am very lucky.  Whenever my daughter suspects we might not agree on something, or when Bean enters a new stage of development, my daughter  explains her perspective and requests that I follow the guidelines she has developed.  It’s been fairly easy so far, because most of the time I agree with her. What happens when I don’t?  Usually I don’t say anything, and see how her plan works out.  Sometimes it works out fine; other times she will adjust it herself, and sometimes I’ll suggest an alternate approach.  If there is any room for compromise, we’re pretty good at finding it.  If there isn’t, I do as I’m asked.  Because, bottom line, the final responsibility for parenting is hers and her partner’s.  I respect their right to make the parenting decisions.  I’m just the Grandma.  I see my role as making her life easier, and spending as much time as possible enjoying time with my granddaughter.

Don’t Criticize; Stay Positive

I remember from my own early parenting experiences what it feels like to be criticized.  For a while we lived in my husband’s family home, and feeding our eight month old in her grandmother’s kitchen became a daily ordeal.   My food choices were wrong; I should have been feeding her with a spoon instead of allowing her to eat with her fingers; and I should take the food away as soon she began to drop her utensils (her favorite game) or draw with the mashed squash. My own mother had hot buttons too:  I dressed my little girl in overalls; didn’t put her to bed at a regular hour; I nursed her too often and for too long.

Sheesh!  First-time parents are already terrified that they’ll do something wrong.  What possible value is there in making them feel worse?  Even if you’re right, the natural response to criticism is to become defensive and angry, not a good state of mind for a new parent, and not a good way to foster communication.

Remembering my own experiences, I learned to bite my tongue when I saw my daughter do something I would have done differently.  This was her child, I reminded myself, and she gets to make the decisions.  It didn’t take long for me to develop the habit of making positive comments, especially when I observed that my daughter was rapidly growing into a glowing and confident mother, and my granddaughter was thriving in the environment her parents had created.

Speak Up If You See Danger

But what happens if you are actually concerned for the health and welfare of your grandchildren? You don’t feel your son or daughter, or daughter-in-law, are holding them enough, feeding them the right food, protecting them from harmful influences such as second-hand smoke, loud music, nonstop television?

I would be remiss as an early childhood professional if I didn’t agree that you should speak up.  But in practical terms, it’s only going to work if you’re on good terms with your own child.  Stay positive, provide evidence for your point of view, be persuasive and helpful, not critical or negative, and offer possible solutions.

And then back off, unless you think it’s a situation that needs intervention by social services.  For, although I certainly hope it never comes to that, your children and mine could cut off our access to our grandchildren if they decide to.  Legally, grandparent rights are tied very closely with parent rights, and the best way to keep them is to get along well with the parents.  More about that in a future post.

Look to the Future

When Parents Disagree

Four Generations of Bumgarners. Photo courtesy of Doña Bumgarner

My daughter and I have only been on this journey for four years, and we still have plenty of opportunities for disagreement ahead of us.  Hopefully, we’ve set a good course, and will negotiate the bumps in the road as we come to them. It’s naive to think you and your children won’t disagree in the future either, but it’s important to keep your eye on the prize; you are part of your grandchildren’s lives, and that matters a great deal.  For all our disagreements, my parents and I managed to find solutions, or learned to keep quiet.  My four children knew they were loved by their grandparents and learned many things from them. They also taught the older generation a few things on the way, about technology, the global economy, and the cost of living. That is the reward: we get to teach our grandchildren about the past, and they in turn help us to glimpse the future.

I’m very interested in how your family handles disagreements between the generations.  If you are a parent of a child rather than a grandparent, how do you handle these situations?  I hope you’ll use the comment section below to start a conversation. If you want to read future posts on this subject, please use the box at the top of the page to subscribe to my weekly blog.


8 Responses to When Parents and Grandparents Disagree

  1. Jillian June 2, 2015 at 1:04 pm #

    I very much agree with you Marlene. I am lucky that my daughter and son in law are great parents. I’m sure that we won’t always agree on everything, but I have had my ‘shot’ at parenting this is their turn, their children. I try (try being the key)to always do things their way on their rules. If the children ask for something I’m not sure about I always ask ‘what does Mommy or Daddy say – they’re the bosses not me?’ And unless one feels it needs to involve CPS ( Please God Not) then Nana or Grammy or whoever should learn to keep their mouth firmly closed. Offering advice is one thing- pushing it is something completely different.
    Love reading your blog

  2. Marlene Bumgarner June 2, 2015 at 1:58 pm #

    I think this is a new idea, Jillian. I certainly don’t remember my grandparents ever hesitating to criticize my mother and father on their parenting practices, and I suspect my mother and mother-in-law felt it was their right and privelage also. But today’s parents are better educated than parents have ever been, so it makes sense to me to follow their lead. Thanks so much for contributing your views.

  3. Liza Loop July 6, 2015 at 2:10 pm #

    Great job, Marlene. Each of my two sons has children (two and one for elder and younger, respectively) and I have **lots** of disagreements with them. I wholeheartedly agree that tongue biting is the best policy. I cherish each expression of affection from all of them when it comes along and “being right” isn’t worth the loss that would be likely were I to become “pushy”. It’s enough that the little ones know that Grandma is there and has divergent views, quietly held, when teenage angst hits. I only hope that my forbearance now will build enough trust in my sons for them to allow their children to discuss alternative points of view with me if and when the kids begin their rebel yells.

  4. Marlene Bumgarner July 6, 2015 at 4:43 pm #

    Yes, Liza, the teen years will be the test!

  5. diane November 11, 2015 at 4:25 pm #

    Hi, I liked reading your blog. I am a first time grandmother of a gorgeous boy. He is now just over 3 and my daughter is doing the “attachment parenting”… I have used the tongue biting approach many times as I totally respect her right to parent how she chooses and I think she a beautiful mother. BUT.. I have been struggling witht he ‘choices” issue when it affects me. EG. Last week i went to visit, to entertain my grandson, as my daughter is 32 weeks pregnant and needed a rest. She asked me to come. My grandson was sitting on the couch between us for 30 mins and started to get annoyed about our ‘adult conversation”..I offered to take him out, go read a book, go play.. but he insisted on sitting with mummy. So after that time he threw a tanttrum and said “I dont want nanna to sit here anymore. My daughter did the empathy tack and asked him why.. said “I know you were there all day and nanna is now there”.. his behaviour was shocking. My daughter then said “If you ask nanna nicely, she will go and sit on the other couch”…. I looked and said “are you serious?”… He asked me nicely (with a smirk) to go and sit on the other couch. I said I am feeling very sad.. to which I was told not to make him feel bad just do it… so, LIke a chastised child I moved to the other couch. I wish I had just left but I am so worried about upsetting my very strong daughter.. The other thing that I have ignored but upsets me is whenever I leave or they leave my house.. He is asked if he wants to give nanna a hug goodbye but without drawing breath “you don’t have to if you dont want to” and I am left no knowing what to do. I feel totally disrespected by my daughter and how can I ever bond with my grandson??? I have 4 other children who experience the same issues as me wit their nephew they adore. HELP

  6. Marlene Bumgarner November 11, 2015 at 4:35 pm #

    I have experienced the boredom and frustration little ones feel when adults are talking to one another, so I think I understand both how your grandson felt and how frustrated you must have been. If you are asked again to come and “entertain” him, you might ask your daughter to prepare him, and to suggest an activity away from the couch, perhaps down on the floor, or in the next room. Sometimes I arrive with a new book or a high-interest game that normally lives at my house, and I use it to entice my granddaughter to leave my daughter “just for a few minutes so Mommy can rest.” It would be a good idea to talk this over (gently) with your daughter when your grandson is not present. Explain that you would love to help, but that you need her to set up the situation so that her child sees it as a positive, rather than a negative intervention. Even strong daughters need some rest, and it is to her benefit to have you willing to help.

  7. E. Machuca July 26, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

    Dr. B.,

    First and foremost, I am glad to have both parents in my family. They are heavily involved and do visit frequently, which is great for interaction. However, there are times when both in-laws and my parents take turns caring for my daughter, (wife and I have a date night). There are times when I disagree with my mother because she lets my daughter do what she wants (jump on couches) and at times purchases fast food for her. So the discipline doesn’t exist at my parents. Usually my wife or me will redirect her and tell my daughter that is not right, but my mother will say, “let her, she is having fun.” In addition, my daughter is not a big fast food child, and I want her to practice eating primarily healthy snacks. There are times that I tell my mother, “Don’t buy her McDonald.” So, when its time to pick up my daughter from my parents, there are fast food bags on the counter. This bothers me a bit because my mother will state that my daughter was hungry and she needs to eat, so that is why she bought something. My mother knows we attempt to only eat fast food sparingly. My in-laws are very protective of my daughter, so there have been times when I will hear my mother in law tell my wife things. There is a list of disagreements: bedtime, nutrition, candy, or letting her do what she wants. There are times when my daughter will have a tantrum at the in-laws, and the in-laws immediately intervene and reward the bad behavior. As for the good, I enjoy that both sides, they both are speaking Spanish and this is major for my language development. I want her to be involved with her culture and also learn English. My parents prefer English. My daughter will be exposed to both languages. In addition, my in laws are very involved with the local church, so this gives our family the opportunity to attend mass and instill good values for my daughter. We have found a better balance in the last year.

  8. Marlene Bumgarner July 28, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

    Making this work can be a challenge, but it sounds as if you have figured it out, Ernesto.

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