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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? :)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

When grandma won't do it your way- Part 1: The overindulgent relative

If I was asked what the most frequently posed problem with peaceful parenting, as expressed on Facebook, it would have to be some sort of variation on this theme:

"Help! My child's grandparent/s won't support the way we're bringing up our child."

Usually that's followed by something like this:

"They're undoing all our good work!"

"They're spoiling him!"

"They say we're spoiling her!"

And so on.

After yet another request for help along these lines, I've decided it's time to put my Aunt Annie hat back on after a long break and try to help. So- you know my strategy by now! Love and respect are the answers to everything. 

This issue is no different.

It's a BIG subject, and so in this first post I'm going to deal with the over-indulgent relative.


My first point is about respect for your child's ability to cope. Children are extremely resilient. Unless there is actual abuse going on (and by that I mean sustained personal violence or neglect, not a minor or one-off deviation from your personal guidelines), children ARE able to cope with different people or environments having different rules.

I mean, think about it. If a deviation from the usual ground rules during childhood was life-changing, we would have generations of children who were terminally traumatised by going to birthday parties! Most birthday parties involve an orgy of unwise food choices, excessive giving of trashy plastic junk toys, constant entertainment provided by adults and packs of kids running around screaming whilst high on artificial colouring.

Mmm, chocolate cake. Mmm, parties.
Yet most of us allow our children to attend many, many parties per year without giving it a second thought.

Because parties are considered a normal part of growing up in our society, and because mum and dad don't give them undue emotional weight and make a huge fuss about their kids attending them, eventually our children come to realise on their own that this isn't a normal way of living every day- it's a special treat. There are 'party rules' and 'everyday rules'.

If you have over-indulgent grandparents in the picture, try to think of the environment when they're around as a sort of birthday party. Give your children credit for being able to learn that Granny's rules are not the same as Mummy and Daddy's rules, and that Grandpa's rules belong with Grandpa's presence.

Children are capable of understanding this, and in fact they must learn this. It's a social grace to know it: 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do'. Trust them to be making their own internal assessment of what's going on. They learn by experience, not by you telling them. A tummy ache teaches more about gluttony than a lecture ever did.

Here is the most important and useful thing you can do to use your anxious energy about this in positive way:

Talk about the different rules with them, in a simple and meaningful way.

Ask questions, and always wait for them to respond.

"What do you think would happen to you if you ate five chocolate biscuits every day?"

That's not a problem. That's an opportunity. Use it to talk about healthy eating with your child.

Of course it's not always about food. Recently a reader asked me what to do about a grandparent who was always insisting that their gifted child colour in, and do so between the lines, and who was always drawing pictures for the child rather than letting them draw their own pictures. (Yep, she's right; it's educationally unsound practice.)

I say, take the same approach as for the chocolate biscuits. Ask your child, "What do you think would happen if parents always drew the pictures and children always just coloured them in?"

That also is an opportunity rather than a problem. It's time for a visit to the art gallery, or a talk about the person who drew the pictures in your child's favourite book.

"How do you think this artist learned to draw?"

And maybe,

"Do you think she always let other people do the drawings and just coloured them in?"

There's a wonderful chain of mirrors to be explored there. Who does the drawings if nobody ever learns to draw?

It's amazing what you can find out about your child's thinking if you stop telling and worrying and instead start asking. That is part of respect.


Here's another thing to reflect upon. How different is your parenting style from your parents' parenting style?

Is it even in the same ball park?

Human beings are naturally defensive. When you embark on a radically different parenting path from your own parents' methods, it can be seen as a judgment on them. The most common response to being judged is to entrench your own position and defend it to the death.

So, let's say your parents nearly always rewarded you with food when you were good. Mine certainly did! It's common practice still in our society.

These days, those sorts of rewards have been examined and found wanting, and as a parent who's into self-educating (and you are, or you wouldn't be reading this blog!), you will want to do better and remove the emotional baggage from food. But still your mother keeps giving your child chocolate biscuits for every good thing he does! Even after you explain why you don't want her to!

The more you object, the more entrenched your mother will become behind her wall of it-never-did-you-any-harm. To think she harmed her own child- you- by giving food an emotional loading is just too awful for her to contemplate.

Put her shoes on! Think from her perspective! She can't change the past, so she will almost certainly choose to defend it. It won't matter how many informative articles you throw her way. Those will just produce guilt, and she'll become deaf and blind to what you're saying about it.

If you can use the 'different houses, different rules' strategy to stop yourself worrying about it so much, that is great. If not, you need to be creative and find a work-around.

Maybe you can ask mum to help you by insisting your child clean his/her teeth after every biscuit. Dentists are so expensive!

Maybe you can encourage a lot more outdoor play at home, so your child works those biscuits off by running around.

Try not to turn it into a war. Wars just result in casualties. Life isn't perfect, and sometimes we do have to compromise.

And I'll say it again:

You are the major influence.

Children are capable and resilient.


Even if you're living with the grandparent, it's possible to be clear and firm about different rules. Of course, you may have to cope with some flack from your child and take on the role of Big Bad Wolf sometimes. Accept it! That's your job!

I never had time to make orange peel teeth to make
my son laugh. But my mother did. She was only
with us till my son was two and a half.
Grandparents are often only with us for a relatively small part of the child's life. YOU are a much more powerful influence, and if you always treat your child with love, compassion and respect, without making an emotional mountain out of every little bump in the road, then these momentary challenges to your authority will eventually abate.

Acknowledge the feelings your child is having whilst adjusting to different rules. When they shout "I want to stay with Nana all the time!" or "I love Poppy better than you!", take a deep breath and translate it back to them.

"I can hear that you're angry with me. That's okay. It's hard for you to understand why we have different rules. But the main thing is we both love you a lot, and people don't always say 'I love you' the same way. Nana says 'I love you' by drawing you pictures. I say 'I love you' by making sure you learn how to draw pictures for yourself. It's all good."

And that brings me to love. It is almost certain that whatever it is that the grandparent is doing that has upset you, it's being done with love.

Perhaps the indulgent grandparent regrets spending so little time playing with his or her own children, and wishes they'd spoiled them a little more. That's going to press your buttons, isn't it? If you see your parent acting in a way they never seemed to act when you were a child, that will probably make you mad as hell! And that is the time to call on love, and put yourself in your parent or parent-in-law's shoes. Deal with your own feelings about your own experiences at another time- they don't belong in the ring with bringing up this child of yours.

And remember, grandparenthood is not the same as parenthood. Grandparents are often starting to face their own mortality. They probably are aware that they have limited time to form a relationship with your child. They probably desperately wish for your child to remember them fondly when they're gone. The door is open for going over the top!

Try to let go a little and step back. Children who do remember their grandparents fondly have a precious treasure for life. It's not about parenting ideology. It's about love, and connection, and relationship.

A grandparent isn't stealing or corrupting your relationship with your child, unless of course they're actually physically or emotionally abusive (in which case, get the hell out of there NOW, because you're destroying your child's trust in you to keep them safe). A grandparent is forming their own relationship with the child, and you can't and mustn't expect that to be the same as your own relationship with him or her. That power doesn't belong to you- it belongs to the two of them.

In practical terms, of course, there are still difficulties. Let's go back to the five chocolate biscuits a day. If Granny insists on allowing this, it doesn't matter much at all if your child sees her once a month. If, on the other hand, you're all living together for the long term- well, it matters a lot!

If you have this sort of problem, then the only way to handle it is to sit down with your mum or dad after your children are in bed and put their shoes on before you open your mouth. Make sure you come to the table prepared with some questions and your own reflections upon why this is happening. And please, don't even start before you've asked yourself this question:

Am I overreacting because of something I'm feeling?


Try your best to talk with love, not anger, because anger feels fine and dandy while you're shouting, but it doesn't solve problems.

"Why do you let X eat so many biscuits?" 

in a genuinely interested and puzzled tone of voice will get you a lot further than

"You've got to stop giving X all those biscuits every day. You'll rot his teeth. Haven't you read anything about child obesity?"

shouted from the doorway- even though the second option may feel better to you.

"I feel really worried about this"

(spoken honestly with eye contact with your parent) will similarly get you a lot further than throwing anger and blame around.

Don't try to solve all your problems in one talk. Spend your first talk-time hearing the grandparent's point of view. You will ONLY extract the truth with gentleness and love. Without that softly-softly approach you will get nowhere near the truth!

Maybe it will turn into a reminiscence session about when you were a child. Who knows? There may even be some personal healing to be had, if you can put aside your anger and fear and approach your own parents with love.

Remember how hard parenting is. Don't imagine that your own mother and father didn't have their own moments of anger and fear. Maybe you can ask them how they felt about your grandparents- whether they had different rules and made your parents worry about how it would affect you.

Ask them about their own childhood.

Get closer to them.

I know how hard you're trying to do the best possible job parenting your child. Once upon a time, your parents did exactly the same thing with you. They weren't perfect, and neither are you. Acknowledge that fact, and you're halfway there.

Can you offer your child's grandparents the respect and love that you offer to your child? Try it. It's still the answer.

You can read Part 2 of this series, about judgemental grandparents, here.