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Thursday, November 28, 2013

When grandma won't do it your way- Part 2: The judgmental relative

(Note: To avoid repeating myself, I'll assume you've read Part 1 of this series and you have at the front of your mind that YOU are the major influence on your child, and that CHILDREN ARE RESILIENT.)

Being a parent is so stressful. It's particularly tough on mothers early on. It's bad enough dealing with the hormones, the sleep deprivation, the complete turning-on-its-head of your normal life and routines... but then, if you're extra unlucky, you might also cop a dose of people telling you you're doing it wrong.

Most often, that happens on Facebook while you're trying to get help from a parenting thread. That's tough enough, but if you hit the jackpot, the people putting you down might be the people you were most hoping would help and support you- like the child's grandparents.

My father always tried to make my small son eat everything on his plate. It was common with grandparents who'd lived through the Depression. Fortunately, I was able to trust my son to control that situation- a lot of food ended up on the floor or down his bib, and there was a lot of stubborn verbiage flying around!

Oh my. You're doing it wrong. What an awful, undermining thing for them to tell a person they're meant to care for, a person who's doing their best but may already be having trouble keeping all the balls in the air.

It might present in different words, of course, but the dictatorial tone is usually the same.

What that child needs is a good smack.

Rubbish, he's not gluten-intolerant. You're overreacting.

Don't let that child get up from the table without cleaning her plate.

(to the child who just fell down) Don't cry. You're fine.

Don't let that child climb that tree- it's dangerous.

If you give that baby the breast every time she asks you'll never get her sleeping through. 

Sound familiar?

Oh, did you want me to tell you you're right, if those judgmental statements above ring a bell for you? Of course, you're almost certainly right and the person saying those things is almost certainly wrong. But being right doesn't solve the problem.

So, how do we respond when this happens? Let's slow this right down and analyse it, because it takes two to make a problem.


Any 'I know better than you' statement, which dismisses your carefully chosen 'peaceful path' through the minefield of childcare as wrong, is going to send a parent off in one of three directions.

1. If your own parents brought you up to comply Or Else, or to be a pleaser who always considers others before themselves, you may feel grief-stricken and tearful.

2. If your parents brought you up so strictly that you rebelled and broke away, if they tried to dominate you and you're now enjoying your freedom to make your own decisions, you may feel furious.
My father was in the 'breakaway' category- the subject of a very strict upbringing by his own parents.

3. And if your parents brought you up to think for yourself and have a mind of your own, you're probably going to calmly consider what they say, calmly reflect on the parenting practice they're challenging, and either respectfully defend it or consider changing it.

Did you see what I did there? I changed the verb. When your own upbringing has been less than ideal, as in options 1 and 2, you tend to react rather than act.

You feel rather than consider.

What I want to do here is to show you a way to move yourself towards option 3- calmly taking control without starting a war.


Here is a basic uncomfortable truth: you can't control other people.

Sure, other people can change their views- if they want to change them. The emotive options, shouting or crying at them, will not make them want to change. If their position is entrenched, rational explanations for your thinking will not make them want to change. You may have no power whatsoever to make them want to change.

For more on this, read this post about changing people's minds about childcare.

But- and it's a huge 'but'- you can try to understand other people. Understanding where someone's coming from can de-escalate your emotions. That is what you need to do to regain control of these situations.

You can control yourself.


So first of all, have a think about this 'problem' grandparent. Try to get inside their head.

They may have been brought up themselves in an atmosphere of forced compliance, violence and lack of respect for their humanity. Anything else may look like weakness to them.

They may have a very poor self-image, and be unable to cope with people making different choices to the ones they themselves made as parents. It may feel like a judgment on them.

They may have a very hollow emotional life- maybe nobody pays them any attention any more, since their own children left home. Maybe what they're really saying is 'look at me!'

Who is this person who's trying to judge you? Do you know who they are?

Maybe you can ask them some gentle questions when they say these hurtful, annoying things. (You might need to take a deep, calming breath first. Or excuse yourself while you have a drink of water or a short walk outside.)

"Were you always spanked as a child?"

"Were you able to breastfeed your babies?"

"Were you allowed to cry when you felt sad when you were little?"

And follow up the answer with,

"How did that feel to you?"

Turn the conversation around. Make it about them- because these situations ARE quite often about them. They're often not about you or your child at all. And if you can understand where they're coming from, maybe you can find some compassion for their situation and take the spotlight off your parenting disagreement. Maybe you can have a real conversation with your child's grandparent.


Secondly, have a think about you.

If these judgmental statements make you react emotionally, perhaps it's time to do some work on yourself so you can heal. What is that anger about? Why are you crying? This is your child, and parenting him or her is your responsibility- not the grandparents'. For them to press your buttons, there have to be buttons. Identify what those buttons are. Do you still feel, even as an adult, that you should please them in all things? Are you still angry about something from your own childhood?

Deal with it. I am a huge fan of counselling to get us past our own emotional issues.

Parents who have their head together are far less affected by challenges to their parenting path. They may express momentary frustration, or laugh about what their MIL told them to do when next talking to their friends or their partner, but inside themselves they feel confident that they are making the right choices for their child. They don't feel a need to turn it into a war.

Often, the button a grandparent presses is your own uncertainty about whether you're doing the right thing. Have a close, honest look at that. Try to do some research (and I don't mean on a parenting thread that you know will support your path- I mean finding some unbiased, scientifically researched information on the subject!) and find your confidence, or consider changing your path.

Changing the way you parent doesn't make you a failure. It makes you flexible- able to reflect and change with the circumstances- and that's an excellent quality in a parent.


Naturally there are some things you shouldn't put up with as a responsible parent. It's one thing to talk about spanking and food allergies and coercing a child to eat, for example. It's quite another to allow someone to actually do these things to your child.

My father's parents had had a change of heart by the time I came along. They never attempted to discipline me at all, let alone strictly! And I adored them.
Your child is your key here. Pay attention! Put yourself and your feelings aside for a moment and watch and listen. Is your child upset after a visit to his grandparents? Does she seem unusually angry or behave oddly? Remember, this isn't about slavishly following a parenting (or any other) ideology. It's about your child's physical and emotional welfare.

If he or she is not showing any signs of distress, butt out. Children are resilient.

If she or he is showing signs of distress, investigate and act.

I had a recent inquiry from a parent whose very young child (barely two) was being subjected to vigorous religious indoctrination by her grandparents, of the 'let's all feel sad and guilty about Jesus' bloody death on the Cross' variety. The child was now showing distress upon seeing images of crosses.

THAT IS A SIGN. Pay attention. I recommended in that case that a parent always be with the child when she was with her grandparents, and that when that subject came up (apparently it invariably did) the visit should be terminated politely. The next step, if the message wasn't received, would be to stop visiting; the welfare of your child is paramount.

You can adapt this advice to many situations. I hesitate to recommend severing all contact with a grandparent unless, despite your attempts to control the situation, it continues and the child is still showing signs of distress.

Not you. The child.

(Obviously- I hope it's obvious to you- you don't attempt to control a situation of actual physical, sexual or neglectful abuse. You get the hell out of there and don't come back.)


I can't leave this topic without including the perspective that is often forgotten in the bunfight between parents and grandparents- that of the child who's getting mixed messages. (I will assume that you've done your homework- you're sure in your own mind, from doing reading of scientific research, that you've made a good choice of path.)

Let's take the example of the child who's told 'don't cry, you're fine' when he falls down and hurts himself, or is told to eat everything on her plate despite feeling full already. These can be very damaging messages if the child internalises them.

Your child's trust in you is sacred. You are their advocate. Follow what is right.

It is okay to directly address your child in these circumstances and say quietly to them "It's okay to cry when you're sad, X- come here and I'll have a look at that knee" or "You may get down from the table if you're full, Y".

Afterwards, preferably when the child is not present, you must say calmly to the adult who made that statement "I know you are trying to help but I disagree." Add a specific supporting statement, like "I would like my son to grow up feeling that it's okay to express emotions instead of suppressing them" or "I want to protect my daughter from eating disorders, and I don't want her continuing to eat when she's full".

Be unemotional about it, but firm. Then change the subject.

If they try to turned it into an argument use the three-word strategy- "You have asked me about that and I have answered you", which can be abbreviated the second time you use it to "Asked and answered". (Not my strategy- I wish I could remember who blogged about that to credit them!)

If the behaviour persists, repeat! And you may need to add quietly but firmly, "I will overrule you every time you do that, because I want my child to be very clear in his/her own mind on this issue." Do that in private, if you have to do it at all; the aim is not to humiliate the grandparent.

Take back the power which is yours, but try to do it with tact. I know this is hard. It's still very hard for some people to 'talk back' to their own parents, especially without tears or anger. But you're an adult now, and sometimes you owe it to your child to be strong.


So to summarise:

YOU are the major influence on your child.

YOUR CHILD IS RESILIENT and can bounce back from occasional deviations from the plan.

REMOVE YOUR CHILD IMMEDIATELY from situations of genuine abuse.

Try to offer grandparents the same LOVING RESPECT you offer your child.

Respect that the grandchild-grandparent relationship is NOT THE SAME as the child-parent relationship, nor does it need to be.

Try to UNDERSTAND where grandparents are coming from.


Research your parenting and speak with CALM CONFIDENCE rather than emotionally.

PAY ATTENTION to your child's reactions- act if THEY are distressed.

Be strong and worthy of your child's TRUST; speak in defence of them when needed.

And remember- grandparents are here for a limited time. Try to let your child enjoy that unique relationship, without sweating the small stuff.

I used to be scared of dogs... but now I love them... I wonder how that happened? :)


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  9. This was a really good two-parter! I loved reading it and laughed when I recognized experiences similar to mine about daycare and frustrations with family.

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  11. This is a fantastic post. I would have loved if it had covered emotional abuse as well. All the best.

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  13. I don't have any children of mine own, but I have seen this happen plenty of times. My brothers have to deal with people telling them how to raise their kids all the time. It looks really frustrating.
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  14. Your blog is so useful and informative to us working within the early years and childcare field. Keep up the good work. Thank you. I have also liked you on my Facebook page at and intend to keep following. Thanks. I currently work within the childcare field as a childminder, my childminding website can be visited at and I am therefore inerested in anything childcare related. I am totally fascinated by how children learn.

  15. I couldn't find any inspiration for my case. I'm fully aware of what drives them to act like they do, I understand their motivation. But that doesn't change the fact that I won't accept some conducts that make my baby distressed, fussy, cranky and spoiled. No matter how I explain it our don't they always disregard our orders and try to do as they please. Not speaking has made me frustrated and angry and speaking always make my mil cry. And I don't agree that a child will always know the difference between two ways of rearing no matter how old she is, only after 20,24 months they start to have that notion in my way of viewing things.


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