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.


  1. This really helped me in many ways. I have at best a rocky relationship with my in-laws, and they are desperate for a relationship with my 26 month old. I feel so ambivalent about it, as I know how important the grandparent relationship can be. Any advice for me? For us, it's less about feeding her or drawing for her. My in-laws have very different religious beliefs than my husband or I. It's hard to explain, but they are "Southern Baptists" and are very vocal about their faith and their beliefs, ALL the time. There's no benign conversation that can't be turned into a chance for them to preach. They've already given my little girl books about how Jesus died on the cross for her. It's not that I'm anti-religion, but I'm wary of organized religion for many reasons, and I do not believe in the condemnation of people for religious reasons. I know it's a complicated subject and I have difficulty articulating my thoughts, even here, and don't know how to do this with them. I respect that they really really believe what they say, but I want my little girl to make her own choices, and I believe it's far too early to talk about things such as Jesus suffering on a cross for our sins... Any advice? I really struggle with this.

    1. Alright, this is indeed a tough one. If it were me... and my views on religion mirror your own... I would probably respond by addressing the subject with my child in my own terms and then throwing it over to her, again remembering that children are resilient and think their own thoughts, AND you remain the primary influence.

      I actually have written a story which addresses the origin of our Easter traditions in a non-preaching way. Here's the link address:

      If you can adapt and simplify this for your own child, then it's an opportunity for you to show her that there's more than one point of view.

      But honestly, 26 months is very young for that sort of talk. Does your daughter show any signs of interest in your parents-in-law's preaching, or is it all just sliding off her back? I would not be making a big thing of it at this stage, unless they're actually trying to teach her their own prejudices- in which case I would actively be teaching the opposite without making any reference to Grandma and Grandpa. So, make sure your story books include some with two mums or two dads, or people from other cultures, or whatever that particular prejudice is that you're trying to counteract.

      I would be watching your daughter's reactions closely and responding to how she feels about it. If she's getting distressed or if you're all reaching saturation point, it may be wise to react accordingly and reduce your daughter's one-on-one time with them; while you're with her, you can intervene firmly if the conversation becomes preachy and decide it's time to leave (or if they're at your house, find a reason to go out with her). It's not worth your daughter being upset. And while two-year-olds don't have much concept of what death and suffering are, I agree that it's not age-appropriate to be labouring over teaching a sense of guilt and retelling sad stories to her!

      I hope this is helpful. It IS a very difficult question.

    2. Oh, and those books they gave her? Put them away in the cupboard. If your parents-in-law ask where they are, tell them that you feel they are age-inappropriate. Stand firm!

    3. What I would do in a situation like this is just accept the situation as it is. It doesn't sound neglectful or abusive. It sounds like they want to love your daughter, so why hate on that love? You married into the family knowing how they were, so it's either you completely cut them out (which would be purely for your own selfish reasons) or you accept that they are religious ppl and by being your daughter's grandparents, your daughter will now have that religious aspect to her life to a degree if only thru contact with them. Look for the positive in this situation and stop resisting. Your resistance to "religion" could cost your daughter a positive & loving relationship with her grandparents.

    4. I respectfully disagree, Anonymous. The child is showing distress and that's not okay.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. They are good people in many ways. And while much of what they say seems to go over my little one's head, she is very sensitive and intuitive. The example I gave about the cross is because she really seems to be troubled by the picture. Thank you for reminding me what to watch for with her and that it is okay to set these boundaries.

  3. Unfortunately, there are too many grandparents of this generation who have an intense entitlement of "me" and are more about control and have not a thought or care to work with others and that they are not the ones who make the decisions. If the parents ask to not give sweets because you won't be paying their dental bill, well out of RESPCT they ought to support their own children, not create conflict. When grandma and grandpa screw with Jonny's nap, it isn't grandma or grandpa that pays the price or deals with t crappy effects.

    1. You sound very angry. Being angry doesn't solve the problem. If these small occasional things upset you so much, perhaps it would be good to look at it from your children's point of view instead of your own and also have a look at why these little indiscretions make you so upset.

  4. All in all your article sounds very good IF you are dealing with legitimately respectful people.

    What Anonymous above is saying is that there are people who are not respectful, who are selfish and entitled, who will take your article and pervert it.

    Just because a person is not selfish and abusive does not make them a good person. There are some people who aren't just seeking to spoil their grandchild, they are saying, "You don't have to listen to your mommy and daddy because Grandma/Grandpa's here!" That is never OK.

    There are people who don't think food allergies exist (I realize this would fall under your abusive category) or don't take seriously how life-threatening they can be and give a child something that could possibly cause a reaction, and then dismiss the parents' concerns. That is never OK.

    Lastly, I had a wonderful, caring grandmother who passed away when I was 8. She was the type that brought the switch out to discipline her kids (a different time then). But with me she was nothing but fun and sweet. But she never crossed the boundary of trying to parent me. My own parents and in-laws never have. I am blessed, but not everyone is, and that is what has the previous poster's dander up. An entitled person could use your article and say, "See, let me spoil my grandkids, you are just being controlling!" And that is not OK.

    1. Ah, but Anonymous the 2nd, you haven't read my article carefully. This is a two-part article. The second part deals with the judgmental grandparent, and THAT is what you're describing.

      And there will always be people who are so set upon their own agenda that they can take one sentence out of an article and use it for their own purposes. For them I have no respect whatsoever. Their illogical rantings are not reason to stop writing articles that address the needs of more rational people. Those sorts of people are usually extremely needy themselves and simply can't bear to have anyone challenge them for fear the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. They need therapy, not an internet article.

  5. You know what...grandparents raised their kids. If they didn't do it their way and caved to pressure from their parents...that's on them. I love my parents...wonderful people, and we had it out once--and once only because they got themselves in check. My mother kept insisting that my 3 month old was "hungry" and needed rice cereal. Even in the late 90's it was pretty much standard for peds to recommend waiting until 6 months to introduce solids and my husband and many members of his family have a history of wicked food allergies. I explained this over and over. She wouldn't drop it. Finally I found a box of rice cereal in her cupboard. That was it. I threw it away in front of her and told her that if she ever uttered one word about rice cereal or any solid again that she wouldn't be left alone with Hank until he was old enough to talk and actually answer questions about what went on at her house. No problems since then, and he's a teenager now.

  6. So what happens when grandma decided that Mommy and Daddy must be mistaken and Jr can't possibly have that food allergy and they feed it to the kid anyway? Mild allergic reaction, or potentially life threatening one.

    What happens when grandma gives the child milk and cheese because mommy and daddy can't possibly be right about the child being lactose intolerant?

    Sorry, but my rules about my child not being able to eat certain foods, or going to bed at a certain time are to keep him safe, and to ensure that he is comfortable and doesn't end up overtired and cranky. Thankfully, his grandparents have been respectful of those rules, but an aunt wasn't, and she is not allowed alone time with my child.

    1. You haven't read my article carefully enough. You're actually reading the wrong part of the series- this part deals with indulgent grandparents, not judgmental ones who keep telling you as the parent that you're wrong. Please read the second part (there's a link at the bottom of this article) before deciding this advice is all wrong.

  7. I am living w my inlaws. My mom in law tells my 18month old she is fat and asks him to repeat that. he does and she laughs abt it n he continues..and now everytime he sees her he will say grandma is fat n laughs n she does to.. encouraging this negative behaviour in my opinion..
    That was 2weeks ago, now he starts calling his dad fat..
    I can only tell him that it's not right to call someone fat n laugh as it may upset or hurt someones feelings. but at this point I can only do this. MY mom in law thinks I am paranoid n a health freak n Is so amazed my son actually eats vegetables..while her kids never nor she herself.. yes, we are that different.. e past 2.5yrs have been damaging to me as a person cuz I'm e sort who keeps it in n not tell them how to do cuz they are my elder. typical Asian mentality.. so I have been very torn because I feel I have every right n be responsible for my childs life..

    Am very tired n emotionally very tired angry upset to even speak w respect..this all started just before we got I guess I just dun have it in me to like her..but have no choice but to live w them.. anyway, things got worse when e kid came.. I believe she looks down on me.. we just had a blow out 2weeks back n she told me she brought up 3kids well and compared me to them n my parents upbringing of me are not quite on par w hers.. very hurtful.. but I walked away cuz my son was in e middle of e squabble.. and she kept telling me I was e one in need of change.. not understanding e fact that I had to make a huge adjustment living w them, their rules their house, me being newly married n a first time do I deal w such? A Very opinionated person who speaks her mind n I, introvert who has been taught to be a pleaser n tries to keep harmony..

    1. The first thing I'd say is that you ALWAYS have a choice. You may not like some aspects of a choice not to live with your MIL- it may mean difficult circumstances for you- but it is still a choice. And honestly, I would be making that choice and moving out, because nothing is as important as bringing up your child without prejudice.

      If you can't bring yourself to do that, then your options are either to find more inner strength for your child's sake, or to enlist your husband to speak to her, or to accept that she is in control because it's her house. I wouldn't class this as a case where you can find a soft spot for your MIL and meet her halfway- it sounds as though you are already downtrodden and you need to earn her respect by showing some backbone. She is playing with you. The worm needs to turn, but respectfully.

      This is what I would be doing: next time she makes that 'joke' with your child, I would say firmly without shouting "I have asked you not to do that. STOP." And remove yourself and your child from the room- go for a walk with him, or a drive, somewhere that she can't follow you. Cool down.

      When you return, don't wait for her to speak- speak first, firmly and calmly. Say to her "My son is starting to call other people fat and then laughing at them. That is not funny, it's rude and disrespectful behaviour. I won't let you keep doing it." Because that is the simple truth, isn't it? And then make yourself a cup of tea. If she tries to argue, you block her by repeating as many times as you need to, "I have told you what is happening here and why. The conversation is over. Can I make you a cup of tea?"

      If you can be civil while stating clearly what your ground rules are, she may be so surprised that she just stops and YOU will be honouring your upbringing by speaking respectfully. Respect does NOT mean allowing yourself to be bullied in what is now your home too. Stand up for your son!

      As for the vegetables- take responsibility for the food presented in your child's meals and if your MIL won't stop commenting, take him to the park for a picnic or feed him in his room. You need to break the pattern that's emerging here and take on the role of primary caregiver. It will need strength and determination and a cool head.

      I would recommend very strongly that you get some help from a good counsellor to aid you in adopting a stronger stance. I repeat- you are being bullied. You may need help to fight back. All the best to you.

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