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Different Discipline from Your Mom's

When Jolie Freeman, of Jacksonville, Florida, gave birth to her first child, she made her mother wait two weeks before visiting. "I knew she'd come over and start bossing me around, and I wanted a chance to be a mom by myself," Freeman says. Sure enough, when her mother did come, she had opinions about everything from dressing the baby (she's cold!) to feeding (you should nurse longer on each side) to sleeping (she's in your bed? Isn't she going to roll off?).

From time immemorial, there's been a natural tension between the generations. "The grandmother is chomping at the bit to share her wisdom, but the new mother doesn't want a supervisor hovering around correcting her," says Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, PhD, who's been counseling families for more than 25 years. "What the new mother wants is to be validated and appreciated for what she's doing."

On top of that, times have changed. What worked for Grandma 28 years ago can easily seem outdated or downright dangerous to today's moms. The result is disagreement over the best way to soothe a crying baby, put him to sleep, nourish him, bathe him, and provide stimulation and discipline. The conflicts are not debilitating, but they can often be uncomfortable. As if caring for a new baby or toddler weren't already challenging enough!

The good news is that grandmothers, on the whole, think we're doing a bang-up job at parenting. They're impressed with our "superwoman" juggling act, our commitment to carving out kid-time, and with the many ways we try to make life fun. And that's in spite of the fact that they think moms today have it harder than when their kids were young.

To help Mom and Grandma understand one another better, we polled grandparents -- more than 2,000 of them -- for their views, then had experts examine the hot-button issues over which the generations clash most, offering strategies for getting everyone on the same page.

Our survey showed discipline as the number one area of disagreement between Mom and Grandma. The majority of grandparents said their daughter's or daughter-in-law's style of discipline is inconsistent or too permissive.

"Moms today want to be friends with their kids and discuss behavior, whereas I felt it was my responsibility to be the parent," explains Elaine Fantle Shimberg, of Tampa, Florida, grandmother of 10 kids ranging from 14 months to 12 years. Her major concern is that the young moms haven't developed a look that says, "Don't push me, kid!" "It kept my kids in line," Shimberg says.

Establishing Authority

Heitler confirms that yesterday's moms may have overemphasized power -- with spanking or a stern look, for example -- while today's moms tend to overemphasize negotiating. Joann Bajana, of Bronx, New York, says her mother-in-law encourages her to spank the kids, who are 4 and 7, and badgers her to be more firm. "If you don't, they'll walk all over you," she says. Bajana agrees that it's important to be firm, even with young children, but not to the degree of physical punishment.

Teamwork Tip: If your mother criticizes your style of discipline, listen for the nugget of truth in what she's saying -- even if you choose to ignore her actual advice. For instance, maybe you've given your daughter five solid reasons not to clock her little sister on the head with the rattle, but the baby's crying proves she hasn't learned.

While your mom may suggest a course of action you don't like, such as spanking, the point is that your technique isn't working. "Validate what's useful about her criticism, and then propose your own solution," Heitler says. You might say, "Yes, you're right that she's not listening to me. Instead of trying to reason with her, I think I'll try a time-out."

Sleep is another big point of contention. For many grandmothers, the practice of putting babies on their back to sleep is a tough sell. Suzanne Waters Kim, of Venice Beach, California, says her mother, who raised four children beginning in the 1960s, thought it was dangerous to put babies to sleep on their back because they might choke on their saliva. "At first, she'd put my kids on their stomach to sleep," says Kim, "and I'd say, 'Mom, this isn't just my preference. This is what doctors say is safer.'"

Still other grandmothers are troubled by the practice of co-sleeping. "I don't think anyone did the family bed back then," says Ann F. Caron, PhD, author of Mothers to Daughters: Searching for New Connections (Owl Publishing, 1999). "Many grandmothers think it's dangerous, they're afraid kids won't learn how to sleep by themselves, and they think it interferes with private time with the husband," she says.

Communicating Your Point of View

Teamwork Tip: If you can't adequately explain why you feel strongly about a certain practice, hand Grandma a book or article that influenced you. "It's important for them to see your perspective and not just hear, 'This is how it is,'" says Caron. "There are different viewpoints for each generation, and grandparents have to be educated."

Psychiatrist Arthur Kornhaber, MD, president of the Foundation for Grandparenting, advises that you bring the grandparents into the child's world to see these new viewpoints in action. "Invite them to the doctor and the child's school," he says. "When they're immersed in the child's life, they're more likely to 'get it.'"

Our survey showed that more than a third of today's mothers feed their infant differently than they were fed -- and that leaves lots of room for disapproval from Grandma. Even grandmothers who breastfed said it shouldn't be done if it's a struggle. "I supported my daughter's decision to breastfeed her twins, but they were literally sucking the life out of her," says Roselyn Judith Blumberg, of Dresher, Pennsylvania, who breastfed her own five children. "She had no time to eat or sleep, let alone have a life."

Blumberg encouraged her daughter, Amy Schrader of New York, New York, to supplement with formula, but Schrader, 34, refused, continuing to nurse until Max and Hannah were 14 months old. She was ultimately pleased with her decision. "It was grueling in the beginning, but I'm really glad I stuck it out," she says. "In the long run, it was easier not having to deal with bottles, it's healthier, and I appreciated the chance to bond with my babies."

Standing Up for Yourself

Teamwork Tip: Whether Grandma is badgering you to breastfeed, bottlefeed, slip baby some rice cereal before 4 months, or feed baby in any way that makes you uncomfortable, simply say, "I know that worked well for you, but it's not something I want for me," suggests family psychologist Alan Entin, PhD, of Richmond, Virginia. "By saying that, you acknowledge that what she did was valid. You're not arguing that she's wrong; you're merely saying it was one choice, but you're making a different choice." The answer is also honest and direct and should indicate to her -- without being rude or hurtful -- that the case is now closed for discussion.

While most grandmothers admire their daughter for maintaining high-wire juggling act, they're dismayed by how little time is left for her marriage and herself. "I remember my own mother saying to me, 'Your husband comes first,'" says Caron. "If you said that to young moms now, they would say, 'What? The child comes first!'" Indeed, our survey showed that more than a third of grandmothers feel their daughter's life revolves around her child's needs and wants.

"If she's not doing something business-related, she's with the kids or the whole family," says Columbus, Ohio, grandmother, Nancy Larson, 57, of her daughter Christiana. "I rarely hear her say that she did something alone." Larson wishes her daughter, mom of two kids, 1 and 4, had time to nurture her female friendships, read, or develop hobbies. "Her husband seems able to make time to play computer games, paint ball, and guitar," she says. "Even though Christiana is an independent thinker and competent professional, I think she sometimes gets the short end of the stick."

Finding Time for Yourself

Teamwork Tip: Listen up on this one, because while it's true that the struggle to balance work and family leaves many moms without personal time, it's critical to carve some out. "If you do some things for yourself, you'll have more patience and energy for your family," Caron says. "You'll be a better mother and wife, not to mention a happier person." Your mother is also wise in suggesting you nurture your marriage.

"It erodes the relationship when you take the child to every restaurant and on every vacation," Caron says. "Parents need adult time together." Go ahead and tell your mother she's right, that you really ought to go out for a manicure or on a romantic getaway with your husband, and perhaps she'd be kind enough to babysit to help make it happen.

When we were young, we might have taken one dance class per week and had a cabinet full of toys. By contrast, it's not unusual for today's infants and toddlers to take several classes and have several rooms overrun with dolls, cars, and all manner of gizmos and gadgets. Two-thirds of grandmothers polled said their grandkids were spoiled or somewhat spoiled, and the top reason cited was too many toys. The issue boils down to the grandparents' belief that kids who are surrounded by toys and shepherded from class to class won't learn how to find their own things to do and enjoy themselves.

"I believe it's too much structure," says Barry Beyer, of West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, who sees his granddaughters, 4 and 2, going to ballet, gym, swimming, Mommy & Me class, and more -- all in one week. "Kids are missing out on private time, time they could use to do their own thing and become an individual. If the TV's off and Mommy's making dinner, they don't know what to do with themselves." It's also exhausting for parents to chauffeur kids around to all these events, not to mention expensive.

Striking a Balance

Teamwork Tip: Experts side with the grandparents on this one. "I don't think infants and toddlers need any scheduled activities for their own enrichment," says Bill Doherty, PhD, author of Putting Families First (Owl Books, 2002). His research shows that between 1981 and 1987, free-play time for kids as young as 3 dropped 25 percent (or about 12 hours a week), and outdoor playtime dropped 50 percent, while time spent on structured activities, especially organized sports, doubled. The research, conducted at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family, is based on the time diaries of 3,600 children and their families. What kids do need, Doherty argues, is time to just be kids -- to explore the house and neighborhood and interact with other children and adults.

That said, it's still okay to sign your child up for enrichment classes, but Doherty recommends limiting them to two per week or kids may get tired, cranky, and overstimulated. If you're bent on doing more structured events every day of the week, take care to make sure your child gets plenty of downtime in between. You can still set up activities, such as finger painting, wooden blocks, or sandbox play, but do just enough to get your kids going and then step back and let them do their own thing.

In the meantime, go ahead and tell Grandma you're thrilled for your child to have free play with a loving caregiver -- when should you bring her over?

Grandma's Top 5 Complaints

  • "I like to babysit, but don't expect it."
  • "I'm not an idiot -- I know how to change a diaper."
  • "Turn the TV off when I come over."
  • "Don't make it my job to discipline."
  • "I hate it when you say I'm spoiling."

She Said...You Heard

When your mother says... You don't put Vaseline on her bottom? You think she means... You're doing it wrong. What she really means I did things differently.

When your mother says... We fed you solids at 6 weeks. You think... My mother is clueless. What she really means Times have changed.

When your mother says... You were an easy baby. You think she means... Your baby would be easy, too, if you handled him better. What she really means I'm just reminiscing.

Childrearing Then and Now

Then:

  • Tummy sleep
  • Guru: Dr. Spock
  • Sterilize glass bottles
  • Scheduled feedings
  • Cereal at 6 weeks
  • Potty training at 1 year
  • Spanking
  • Seatbelts optional
  • Sunburn
  • Mr. Rogers

Now:

  • Back to sleep
  • Guru: The Internet
  • Throw plastic in the dishwasher
  • Feeding on cue
  • Cereal at 6 months
  • Potty training at 3 years
  • Time-out
  • Five-point harness car seat
  • Sunblock
  • Mr. Noodle (from Elmo's World, for the uninitiated)

Aviva Patz, a mother of two daughters, is a writer in Montclair, New Jersey.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2005.