When Carolina Pichardo, of New York City, signed up her 20-month old son, Max, for art classes, her mom rolled her eyes: "I was excited about him playing with glue, colors, and textures, and she was, like: " 'Pshhht! Just give him a crayon, and let him draw in the living room. I gave you a pen and paper, and you came out okay,' " Pichardo recalls. And when Pichardo enrolled the toddler in day care a few days a week so that he could socialize with other kids, Mami was downright insulted. "Why would you do that when you have me to take care of him?" she asked.
These are just a couple of the disapproving remarks Pichardo has received from her Dominican-born mother about some of her parenting choices, which have earned her the nickname "La Gringa" among eyebrow-raising relatives. "It's a constant struggle," Pichardo admits. "I respect my mother, but I need her to understand that I know what benefits my kids most." Pichardo is not alone in this turf war. When it comes to los niños, grandparents see it as their duty to chime in about everything from mom and dad's ("Americanized") choice not to pierce a girl's ears to their ("sacrilegious") refusal to christen the baby. "Traditionally in our culture, everyone is involved in raising the kids," says Jacqueline Vaca, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Chicago. "That's why the younger generation feels obliged to abide by the child-rearing practices of the older generation."
Parenting by committee might work for some, but that doesn't mean you have to accept unsolicited advice if you're set on doing things differently. Believe it or not, there are ways to deflect relatives' seemingly well-meaning words, and you can do it while still managing to keep the peace.
While you might be tempted to hold your tongue when dealing with metiche family members, unchecked criticisms can confuse kids who receive mixed parenting messages, and this can lead to strained relationships in the long run, Vaca says. Kenia Rodriguez, of Orlando, found this out the hard way when her suegra moved in and essentially "took over" much of the care of her 10-month-old daughter, Penelope. "Whenever I dress the baby, she changes her into something warmer no matter what the weather is," Rodriguez says, citing one of many examples of her mother-in-law's interference. "She'll say: 'Los americanos don't clothe their kids warmly enough. No wonder they're sick all the time.' " The tension between the two women got so bad that Rodriguez preferred to hide out in her bedroom when she was home. But even in a deteriorating situation like Rodriguez's, setting boundaries can help you assert yourself as a parent. "You have to make it clear that you're the authority figure," Vaca says. "The key is to communicate effectively." To do that, you'll need to create a clear parenting road map with your partner if you haven't done so already. "Ask yourself, 'What do we want for our kids? What does family life look like for us, regardless of who else is around?' " Vaca suggests. "That will help you find your footing." Then, when a disagreement with a relative arises, you can both stand firm in your beliefs, she adds.
Don't wait for a conflict to arise before talking to loved ones about your parenting style. By casually bringing up how you want to raise your children, and asking them how they handled specific scenarios, you'll get to a point where you're comfortable discussing differences. "Being different is not a bad thing," Vaca says. "It's about learning to stay true to your families' values while also developing your own." So next time Mami critiques your discipline techniques, take a deep breath and validate her input, Vaca recommends. "Often we go straight into confrontation mode, instead of saying, 'I understand where you're coming from. I know that you did it one way when I was a baby, but now there's a new thing I can use.' It's an indirect way of saying, 'I think you did a great job, but times have changed' without being combative." If the relative keeps pushing, cut them off gently, Vaca suggests, by saying, "I appreciate your opinion. I'll talk to my husband, and we'll figure it out." Then move on to another topic. "There's only so much effort you're going to want to put into bickering."
You have to draw the line when meddling relatives start affecting your ability to parent effectively, Vaca says. "If the kids are lashing out because they prefer Grandma's rules to yours, it's time to tell her that things need to change or you might not see her that often." This conversation can get even trickier when you live with the stubborn relative, as in Rodriguez's case. But that's the time to double down. "Get stern and lay down the house rules," Vaca recommends. "Say that you want them to be part of the kids' lives, but meddling won't work in your home. Leave them the choice of whether they'll abide by the ground rules or opt to set some distance." After all, "this is about you, your spouse, and your child," Vaca says. "At the end of the day, that's the family. Latino couples have trouble conceptualizing that idea because we're not programmed that way. We feel selfish for thinking that our spouse and child come first. But it's about rediscovering our role as leader of our own family." As for Pichardo, that realization really hit home when her mom secretly gave Max medicine she had banned and then laughed off the incident when caught red-handed. "I was furious," Pichardo says. Yet, once she regained her composure, she was able to get through to her mother by comparing herself with her. "I said, 'Imagine if somebody had interfered with the way you were raising us,' " Pichardo recalls. "You held firm to your beliefs. I want to do the same." And although her mother finally understood that Pichardo is entitled to raise her son her own way, she's still not holding back her opinions. Luckily, Pichardo is learning how to speak up for herself—in the most respectful way possible, of course.