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How To Talk To Grandparents About Your Parenting Rules

It can cause serious stress when you don't see eye-to-eye on what's most important: your kids.
"Don't tell your mom!"
"Don't tell your mom!"

My mother-in-law was born in Germany in 1921. When I became a mother, she and I had very different ideas about raising kids. She was kind and never critical, but I know, as one simple example, that she didn’t understand why we were choosing to bring our kids up vegetarian.

Surely they wouldn’t develop properly, she’d say. But she went along, thankfully. Yes, she longed to serve them the her rouladen or sauerbraten; the signature German Christmas dishes. Instead, she toiled to learn how to make lentil loaf. I felt so badly, how could I say “no” when she offered them chocolate bars as treats each visit? I had to let go of something.

I think in hindsight, I had it pretty easy. For many others, the situation with the grandparents is a lot tougher.

WATCH: Grandparent etiquette. Story continues below.

Parents often complain that grandparents simply push their own ways of dealing with children on them, with no regard for how the parents feel. They may discipline too harshly, defaulting to the old-school style of parenting when we raised kids with an iron fist (or a wooden spoon).

Some grandparents are too lenient and care-free, “Don’t be such a worry wart, we never anchored our bookshelves to the walls when we raised you and you survived.” Others are plain selfish, “I didn’t put her down for a nap because I wanted to play more.”

Many of us rely on grandparents for childcare, so we really need them to help us out. But this can cause serious stress in the relationship if we don’t see eye-to-eye on things that impact the children. We feel the moral obligation of making sure our children are in the best environment and treated the way we want, but we also love our parents and don’t want to hurt their feelings or get into conflict with them.

So how can we best talk to our parents about this divide that comes between generations and cultural backgrounds in parenting so that we can get them on our page without creating a riff?

Don’t fret about perfect consistency

It’s important for parents to know that not everyone who cares for your child has to do everything exactly as you do. Children need to learn how to be in relationships with many different types of people, and in different environments. For example, how you behave in a classroom is different than at home.

Some people are less tolerant, more agitated, less forgiving, more rigid. Your child needs to experience this and learn how to adapt themselves. Train the child for life’s variability, don’t homogenize life for the child.

Remember your roles

Parenting and grandparenting are different roles, even if your grandparents provide childcare. You, as the parent, are the main influence on your child, regardless of who else they spend time with.

Grandparent relationships can be very special for kids.
Grandparent relationships can be very special for kids.

It’s important for children to make their own relationship with their grandparents, and it can be a very special one. Many people report having a very special relationship with a grandparent who would spoil them, attend to them, and allow them to live without all the rules and discipline of home.

Kids love a special place outside of regular family life where they can feel extra important. What a sweet memory! Allow for that possibility.

Now if grandparents are overly harsh and want to discipline your child, you can simply enforce proper roles by saying something like: “I got this, you already did the hard work of raising me – let me deal out the discipline so you can get on with the fun of grandparenting. You’ve earned it!”

Pick your battles

No one likes to feel micro-managed, kids and grandparents included. If there are certain things that are incredibly important to you that you feel would jeopardize your child significantly, then, of course, it’s time for a discussion.

But let the little stuff go! Your children can handle their wackadoodle grandparents.

Find common ground first

Always start a tough conversation with a positive tone. Be sure to emphasize commonalities first. Let grandparents know that you both share a great love of the kids, and that everyone wants what is best for them (the disagreement is really only about how you get there).

Bring up whatever issue you are having in a time of calm and when the kids aren’t around. Maybe invite them out for coffee so they know you are serious about wanting to discuss something important. Be sure to be open minded and listen. When people feel heard and understood, it helps pave the way for finding co-operative solutions.

Ask for help rather than give a directive

Let’s face it, people don’t like to be wrong or told what to do. If you can’t win them over to your way of thinking, kindly just agree to disagree, then simply ask for a favour. “We don’t agree on this, so could I just ask for some help with this and call in a favour?

People are much more likely to be helpful and kind if they don’t feel they were conquered and controlled.

Make it about you, not them

"Dad, I'm new at this, and maybe I'm a little paranoid, but it scares the shit out of me when you let little Sammy drive the car."
"Dad, I'm new at this, and maybe I'm a little paranoid, but it scares the shit out of me when you let little Sammy drive the car."

You’re more likely to win them over if you focus on yourself.

Try something like: “I know, I am uptight as a new mom and I am just not fully ready for this. You may be right about the kids, but I am still finding my way and right now this feels right for me at the moment, and I have to honour that.”

Decide what you will do

In the end, you can’t control other people, but you can always decide for yourself what’s truly important and what you will do. For instance, if your mother-in-law won’t cook vegetarian meals for the kids – is it worth jeopardizing the relationship? Probably not. Maybe you can pack an alternate meal and bring it along.

However, if the situation is more about being abusive, or the home is not safe, maybe you make alternate plans. Sometimes that free childcare isn’t worth it.

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