Parents.com's 'Ask Your Mom' advice columnist weighs in on how to create a healthy grandparent-grandchild relationship when you fear their actions may negatively affect your kids.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
December 30, 2019
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Illustration by Emma Darvick

Dear Not OK,

It’s almost inevitable we will have differences from our parents in approaching parenting. It’s practically a rite of passage! As we figure out what parenting works for us in the present day, we may have to parse out difference of opinion from actual threat of harm to our children, and then decide what exactly to do about it.

For better or worse, we have a lot more information than our parents did. Just one example: We know spanking is bad, and all of the research debunks the myths that there are any benefits. This illustrates how there will certainly be parenting practices that warrant taking a hard stance, in service of fulfilling our duty to protect and nurture our children.

With that said, there may also be areas of difference that are more subtle and not as much of a direct threat to our child’s well-being. This is where we need to weigh the risks we may see from the differences in parenting styles and life philosophies with the benefits of the grandparent-child relationship. Start by asking yourself these three questions, and go from there.

“What I am worried about?”

Nail down your actual concerns about how the grandparents’ styles and philosophies could harm your child. Do they not believe in food allergies and may give your child a life-threatening meal? Then, yes, that’s a clear “they will never be responsible for feeding my child” decision.

Most of the time, it will be less clear. In our current climate of passionate and divided political opinions, for example, many families are managing conflicts of values. Is this a threat to your child, or could it be a point of discussion that people who love each other can have different beliefs? For the sake of argument, if grandparents make prejudiced comments while with your children, remember that you are a much stronger influence, and you can turn it into a teaching moment.

"Can I realistically limit grandparent time?"

Think about what it would actually entail to ensure the grandparents wouldn’t have too much influence. If that means them not caring for your children for an extended period of time, is it possible to navigate that and preserve relationships? Could this decision cause more stress than the original concern, or not? Each family’s situation and dynamics are different, but it’s helpful to consider potential consequences.

If you are worried about grandparents treating your children in ways that make them feel badly about themselves, that could be a threat to your child’s emotional well-being. In this case, keep an eye on how they treat your child for a while before allowing time without you around. If the grandparents want to spend extended time with the kids on their own and you have concerns, you and your partner need to set ground rules to minimize emotionally harmful comments or behaviors. If these rules are broken, then this grandparent-only time is not an option until you are confident they can honor these ground rules. Unfortunately, not everyone’s parents fit the mold of the sweet, doting grandparents whose biggest offense is to spoil a child with extra ice cream.

"Are there benefits they're going to miss?"

Finally, but maybe most importantly, think about what your children might gain from relationships with their grandparents, regardless of their differing approaches and philosophies. Sometimes in worrying about what could go wrong, we overlook potential good outcomes, and it helps to flip our own thinking.

Do I think my kids eat too much sugar and have too much screen time when grandparents are in charge? Yes. Is it worth speaking up when I have to manage the fallout of a bedtime tantrum? Yes. But I also see how excited the kids are to see their grandparents, and I have my own memories of the endless jar of Oreos at my grandmother’s (never an option in my parents’ healthy pantry). They are building their own grandparent-grandchild relationships, and I have learned to (mostly) let go.

This is another part of parenting where it helps to take a step back from the daily minutiae and zoom out to the big picture. Even when the reality is that family relationships can have harsh edges, young children often remember the glowing good parts at the center, and that special grandparent-grandchild relationship is like no other.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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