There was no one else in my dad’s world compared to his granddaughters. “My little angels” he would call them. Which I thought was great, except he tended to be extremely lenient with them. Like when they wanted ice cream. Which was all the time. Or when they wanted a toy. Nothing was too good for his little angels (or too much, or too often.) 

What resulted was some tension and a lot of disagreement. I wanted to teach my children the value of moderation, patience, and the lesson in life that you don’t always get what you want. But it seemed when they were with my dad, those lessons were off the table. 

So what do you do when grandparents seem to want to undermine all the good things you’re trying to do with your parenting? 

The first thing to know is that you’re not alone. In a national poll asking parents of children ages 0-18 about parenting disagreements with grandparents, conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, a vast majority of the families (89%) reported their kids saw a grandparent often or occasionally. And, out of those families, 43% said they had either minor or major disagreements with the grandparents about parenting choices: either the grandparents were too lenient, too tough, or both. That’s a significant number

The most common disagreements included: issues of discipline (at #1), meals and snacks, TV and screen time, manners, and matters of health and safety—all very important parenting issues. 

You may very well relate with the above families, especially in our current climate. At the moment, COVID-19 has upset many work and school schedules, prompting many grandparents to watch the kiddos while parents return to their physical workplace. 

No matter what your situation, there are some tactics you can use to handle parenting disagreements with the grandparents. 

Perhaps the most important step, before doing any kind of confrontation with the grandparents, is to ask yourself some important questions.

Maybe you’ve already done this but bear with me. Regarding my dad, I’ve had to ask myself, what is my biggest fear with this situation? What’s the worst that will happen? Is my dad’s grandparenting style something that could have a lasting negative impact on my children? Are the grandparents really trying to undermine our parenting efforts?

That last question is important. With my dad, I couldn’t say honestly that I thought there would be any lasting negative effect on my kids. However, that’s not always the case. A helpful way to think about this is using the “Casual, Important, Vital” exercise. 

Make three lists and begin with “Vital.” What are the non-negotiable parts of parenting that you feel would have a lasting impact? In your parenting world, this may include using a car seat or viewing things on-screen that would be inappropriate for your child.

Then, what is “Important?” These are the areas which may not have as much of a lasting impact, but you feel are still important for your kids, (perhaps) such as saying “no sir” and “no ma’am” or remembering to brush their teeth at night. 

And finally, what can you chalk up as “Casual?” Are there areas that really have no lasting impact that I may have been overly concerned about? For me, my dad feeding them ice cream on every visit didn’t do any kind of damage in the long run, and I had to learn to let it go. 

There is no instruction manual for what is Vital, Important, or Casual in parenting; these are designations you have to define for your own family (although I would strongly recommend considering the majority of safety and health issues in the vital category). 

Keep lines of communication open with grandparents.

Talk to them not only about the next time they are slated to watch the grandkids; share with them how parenting is going, the challenges you have, the values you are wanting to instill and allow them to speak into the conversation. Keep the conversation relaxed, open, and with no agenda. Simply share the experiences of parenting with the grandparents, and listen to their own experiences and input. 

This helps both parents and grandparents come to a better understanding of each other’s styles with the kids and find ways you are on the same page. In case disagreements do come up in the conversation, keep the climate of the conversation relaxed and matter-of-fact (or opinion). It’s helpful for each spouse to talk to their own parents in these conversations; this helps to avoid the burden of tension and misunderstandings between in-law relationships. 

Acknowledge grandparents’ efforts, both big and small.

An interesting part of the survey mentioned earlier is that when grandparents were asked to change how they treated their grandchildren, nearly half actually changed; however, the other half either said they would change and didn’t, or they just flat out refused. It makes me wonder how many of the latter grandparents were ever affirmed and appreciated for their relationship with their grandkids. At the end of the day, grandparents simply want to have a good relationship with their grandchildren. It gives them meaning and mission. It’s possible the only thanks they get for that is from their grandchildren.

✦ Acknowledge them for being active grandparents in your kids’ lives. Thank them for all they do. Even if the relationship with them is amicable at best, find those little things—and there are always little things—that you can show appreciation to them for. You never know when that might make the difference in seeing eye-to-eye with your parenting wishes. 

Speak favorably about grandparents in front of children.

I didn’t always do this well. When we were about to visit my parents, I would subtly give snark in front of the kids as to how much ice cream would be served or how expensive the toys they came home with would be. This was not helpful to anyone and sent confusing messages to my kids as to how they were supposed to respond to their grandparents

What I did change was how I prepared my kids for a visit. I would say something to the effect of, “Your grandfather loves to give you things and let you eat lots of good treats. That’s because he loves you very much. Just be sure to be very respectful not to ask for something that hasn’t been offered to you [this was my parental response to my kids’ tendency to ask for every toy in the aisle], and be sure to say thank you when you do get something. And of course, you already know that time with your grandparents is a special time. We don’t always get ice cream after every dinner. But I want you to appreciate how much your grandparents love you and the time they want to be with you.”

Consider the energy level, health, and endurance of grandparents.

One mistake I’ve made is assuming my parents were able to parent in the same way I do. Depending on many things, they may not have the energy to keep on the kids the way younger parents do, especially with younger kids who are more active and rambunctious. Sometimes it’s just easier to give the kids an ice cream cone just to keep them in one place! Putting this in perspective has helped me come to terms with some of the differences we have in handling my kids. 

Disagreements as to how to treat the grandkids is often multifaceted and complex. It’s easy to think grandparents are trying to undermine your parenting on purpose or out of spite; I have learned from my own parents that they simply want to cherish the time they have with their grandchildren. They want to be an important part of their lives. That’s something I can’t disagree with and actually want for them. Determine what’s vital and what’s casual, keep the communication lines open, and show as much appreciation as you can. These steps will help both sides understand that you are all on the same team of raising great kids to be great adults.

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