When your parents are offering advice on how to care for your little one, it's easy to hear, "You don't know what you're doing!" or "You're doing that wrong!" instead of realizing that they're just trying to be helpful, says Jill Spiegel, author of How to Talk to Anyone About Anything.
"It's normal for new parents to go on the defensive when they're offered advice, but what your parents are really saying is, 'I want to feel helpful,' " explains Spiegel. She also points out that it is a parent's nature to come to their child's aid, so if your mom sees you struggling with getting your baby to nap or making your toddler eat his veggies, it's an instinct to offer some assistance.
Cheryl Wu, M.D., a Manhattan-based pediatrician, agrees. "Grandparents tend to have two things on their side: one, they're our parents and two, we're still alive -- meaning, they probably knew a thing or two about raising kids. So that makes it hard to argue with them. The best thing we can remember is that the grandparents really do mean well and want to make sure that their grandchildren are cared for in the most proper way (in their minds)."
It's important that you and your spouse are in agreement about how you're going to raise your kids, and that you stand as a united front when anyone -- grandparents, friends, teachers -- question you on it. This is especially important when dealing with in-laws. "It can be uncomfortable getting advice from your spouse's parents, and you probably have to tread more carefully with them than you would your own mom and dad," says Spiegel.
But while your instinct might be to complain about your in-laws to your husband and ask him to deal with them, Spiegel says it's crucial that that you speak to them as a team. "They need to know that you are in agreement about how you're going to care for and raise this child -- you don't want it to look like you're forcing your husband to defend your stance to his parents," she explains. "You both need to let them know that you might have a different way of doing things, but you still expect their support."
Grandparents will often put in their two cents on trivial matters, such as whether or not the baby needs to wear a hat at all times, when bedtime should be and even what color to paint the nursery. "Don't get angry; that's just a waste of energy," says relationship expert Laurie Puhn, author of Fight Less, Love More. "Instead, use a standard answer so they get the point -- like, 'Thank you for your opinion. I'll think about it.' " After all, just because someone is offering advice doesn't mean you have to take it -- even if the person giving it happens to be your mom.
"Having a baby is an exciting time for everyone, so you don't want to have any unnecessary conflict that is going to take away from that joy," says Spiegel. "When a parent gives you advice, just listen to it with a smile -- and then do what you and your husband feel is best."
There will be times when grandparents will take it upon themselves to do something for baby that you're not comfortable with, like giving her a bottle when you're trying to exclusively breastfeed or taking him from his crib when you're trying to sleep-train. This can also be a problem as your child gets older and starts to ask for things: You said no cookies before dinner, but Grandpa doesn't see anything wrong with a little treat; or you reprimand your 3-year-old for throwing his toys around the room, and your mom reprimands you for disciplining her little angel. "If the advice or their actions are making interfering with your ability to parent, or making you feel guilty about your parenting decisions, it's time to have a serious conversation," says Spiegel.
Although you definitely want to be clear about your boundaries, you don't want to harm the relationship. "Sit down calmly when your child isn't around and explain to your parent or in-law that while you know they're coming from a place of love, it's important to you and your spouse that they support your decisions," says Spiegel. "Make sure you're coming from a place of love and respect -- not confrontation." If talking in person doesn't seem like it's going to work, you might want to try writing a letter or e-mail explaining your frustrations and how you hope you all come to a understanding about the situation.
"Modern grandparents tend to want to help, but they don't know how," explains Puhn. "Sometimes they feel out of place and uncomfortable because they think you don't want them around." So it's up to you, the parent, to figure out how to include them. Each grandparent has different strengths, so play to them. "Come up with some constructive things that each parent can do to help both of you," says Puhn. "One grandparent might be a little uncomfortable with babies, but by the time your child is eight months, that grandparent may be happy to be get on the floor and play with your child, so ask him or her to do that. Another might love little babies, and want to hold the child for hours in between feedings."
And as Puhn points out, grandparents are not obligated to help, so be grateful for whatever they offer.
Grandparents look forward to the day when they can spoil their grandkids rotten and don't have to be the "bad guy" disciplinarians. All they have to do is bask in the adoration and love of those little ones -- so let them enjoy it! "Look for things that are truly harmful to your children and hold your ground: Insisting that a newborn drink water? Yes, hold your ground. Putting babies to sleep on their stomachs? Yes, hold your ground. Letting them watch TV? Not desirable, but not harmful in the physical sense of the word," explains Dr. Wu. "As long as it's not excessive or unreasonable, there are a few things that our children get to do with their grandparents that we'll just have to throw our hands up in the air and say, 'Oh, well.' "
Dr. Wu points out that even in her own family, her rules for her son go out the window once Grandma and Grandpa are on the scene. "He gets treated like a prince when he's with his grandparents; in my house, this 3-year-old has to put on his own clothes, put his shoes away when he gets home and feed the cat. At his grandparents, I'm not sure he even lifts a finger."
Sure, it might be years since your parents have handled a baby or toddler, but keep in mind that there is something to be said for experience. Some of their suggestions might actually be helpful, so you don't want to tune them out completely. "You want to stay open-minded so that you don't miss out on some great advice," says Spiegel. "Sometimes, mother -- and even mother-in-law -- may know best."
Spiegel also points out that you can take a grandparent's way of doing things and tweak it so that it still fits in with your parenting style. For example, your dad might believe in rewarding good behavior with a toy, which is fine with you as long as your child then donates an old toy to charity. And if your mother-in-law loves to share sweets with the kids every time they visit, you can also pack some fruit for them to snack on during the car ride there.
If the grandparents are insistent on doing things their way, you can always consult your child's pediatrician. "If it's really affecting your children -- if they have a cranky disposition because of lack of sleep, or they become poor eaters at home because they're allowed to snack on junk at grandma's -- then it might be worth it to call in the authorities," says Dr. Wu. "Invite your in-law or parent to come to the doctor's office with you, and let the physician give a talking-to with everyone: mom, grandma, etc., and then come up with a plan for everyone. That way the grandparent doesn't feel singled out, and it also takes the power struggle away from between the parent and the grandparent."
Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.