Too Much of a Good Thing: Establishing Boundaries with Grandparents

grandparent and child playingDo your kids sometimes return from a visit to their grandparents’ house with sticky fingers and a chocolate milk mustache? Mine do. My kids proudly share with me all the goodies they got to eat when Mom wasn’t presiding—Fritos, Crystal Light lemonade, ice cream. Then I get to hear about the hour of television they watched and other random and curious escapades. If this doesn’t sound too bad to you, I admit that I may be a little extreme about what I allow my kids to eat and how much TV they get to watch, but I know I’m not alone.

Perhaps you hear tales of messes made, naps missed, or later-than-usual bedtimes. You may cringe and tense up; you are trying to keep the kids well-rested and well-behaved. Ugh!

Maybe your situation is flipped; you are the lenient one, and grandma and grandpa run a tight ship! They may impose order and expectations on your kids where you have none. That can feel like disapproval or criticism of your parenting style.

No matter where your limits lie, they represent your values and what is important for your family. When the kids are in your company, you oversee and protect those values the best you can. So it can be upsetting, frustrating, and power usurping when in the presence of grandma and grandpa your hard work goes out the window.

As with all things, the trespass will fall on a spectrum. Some violations may not be so bad, while others feel downright disrespectful.

What is to be done about this? If you bite your tongue and say nothing in the hopes it will get better or in an effort to avoid an uncomfortable confrontation, I promise you it will not. Your resentment will only grow. You may find yourself limiting the time your kids spend with their grandparents or allowing this issue to taint your regard for them. I recommend the following steps:

1. Check Your Perspective

So many times, we can work ourselves up over small things and tell ourselves stories that don’t paint an accurate picture. Pause. Breathe. Take a step back and find your perspective.

You have parents or in-laws who you trust enough to be with the kids without your supervision. You have parents who want to be engaged and involved with your kids. Count yourself lucky—this is a wonderful problem to have, albeit awkward.

Remember that when grandparents indulge your kids, it has nothing to do with you; they aren’t trying to send a message or be disrespectful. It is about witnessing and sharing in the grandkids’ pure joy and delight while they experience something rare and wonderful.

2. Values Clarification

Think about all of the specific things the grandparents do, or don’t do, that trigger this response in you. Take an inventory—junk food, screen time, lacking (or too much) discipline, certain other activities. What is it that is happening differently than you would like? Why is this so important to you? Is there something behind it or are you just being particular?

When you understand why you react the way you do and the motivation for some of your choices, you have more awareness of yourself and your values. And when you are more aware, you can make better choices that honor those values. Perhaps some of your rules are not that important after all.

3. Prioritize

Take your list from Step 2 and prioritize. One of parents’ favorite sayings about creating a happy home is to “pick your battles.” This approach can apply here, too. Choose which things to focus on and which to let go.

4. Communicate

If after taking the three previous steps you still feel strongly about some of the experiences your kids are having with their grandparents, the next step is to communicate your feelings directly to them. It is always best to be proactive instead of reactive when confronting an issue.

The time to bring up your concerns is not when you are picking your kids up and the evidence is all over their cheeks and chins. Rather, have the discussion before you drop the kids off or at some other neutral time when you are together. It doesn’t have to be serious and stern; it can be light and casual and can sound like this:

“I’ve noticed when the kids are with you they are watching a lot of TV/eating junk food/not picking up after themselves and it is important to me/us that they learn healthy habits. It would be great if you could help us teach them. … Would that be OK with you?” Or, “I’ve/we’ve decided that I/we would like the kids to start being responsible for helping out more around the house. Would you mind including them in picking up or setting the table when they are with you? That would be so helpful.”

This may sound uncomfortable, but it really is essential that we always share our truths. If you choose not to express your feelings directly, they will ooze out of you in your nonverbal communication, and that is sure to destroy the relationship over time.

We all want to make the best choices for our kids. Sometimes those are obvious and sometimes not. As parents, we would like to believe we know what is best for our kids. I know from personal experience, especially with my oldest child, I don’t always know what the best choice is for him.

Aside from the obvious times when emotional or physical safety is a concern, it might just be to our benefit to let go a little. If hindsight is indeed 20/20, the grandparents may just know something we have yet to learn. The more people who love our kids, the better off they will be in the long run, with or without the leftover Chinese food for breakfast.

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  • Amy Armstrong

    Amy Armstrong

    May 5th, 2014 at 7:12 AM

    This is definitely a place to tread lightly. In general, it seems like the grandparents are so excited about having a playmate that they are worse than the kids when it comes to doing whatever seems “bad for ya.” The grandparents have a lot more of years of practice in covering their tracks too.

  • Vanessa

    Vanessa

    May 5th, 2014 at 4:27 PM

    This is truly a no win situation. I love my parents and they help me out a lot with my daughter and I have had to learn to let go of some of my rules when she goes over there because the more I try to micromanage the visits the more bent they are to do things the opposite. So as long as I know they are sort of sticking to some of the same rules that I do, I just try to be thankful that I have a little time and that at least she is getting taken care of by people who love her just as much as I do. How could I ask for anything more than that?

  • edna

    edna

    May 6th, 2014 at 3:28 AM

    everyone is always on our case, telling me that the grandparents are spoiling the kids and then sending them back home to actually be disciplined

    well so what? have we as grandparents not earned the right to dote on our grandchildren? should we not have that right if we want it?

    i love my grandchildren and I want them to enjoy the time that they get to spend with me, and if that sometimes means ice cream for sinner and a little later bedtime, then what, a few weekends out of the year, is wrong with that?

  • Shan

    Shan

    October 31st, 2019 at 4:51 AM

    It sounds like you want to do whatever you want to without considering what’s good for the kids (good is different from what they like) or what’s good for the relationship with everyone involved. We should not have “right” to do anything to/with kids, we should have responsibility. Kids belong to their parents first, just like how you felt your kids were “yours”. They are not anyone’s possession, even parents’. No one earns the right to do anything to anyone, we only earn the relationship, responsibility and love.

  • Hilary Silver

    Hilary Silver

    May 6th, 2014 at 8:52 AM

    Thank you all for your comments. Vanessa, it seems to me that you have actually made it a win situation- you get the help you need and have found a way to make peace with how the grandparents care for your kids! That is exactly what I was hoping to accomplish in the tips I provided. And Edna, if your children (the parents) do not have a problem with the late nights and ice cream for dinner- then you too, do not have a problem. It does not matter what anyone else is saying to you. In your particular arrangement, as long as both you and the parents are ok with “breaking the rules” during your few precious visits each year, then from where I sit, it sounds like you have an agreement. If however, the parents are unhappy with those liberties you take- I suggest you reconsider your “rights”- as continuing to think you are entitled to do what you want with the grandkids will interfere with a healthy relationship for all of you in the longterm.

  • Satu H. Woodland

    Satu H. Woodland

    May 6th, 2014 at 12:25 PM

    As having been a recipient of grandparent help and also now being a grandparent myself, I have lots of experience with these issues. I think if we want the grandparents help, we need to focus on being grateful for anything they can offer. I can remember my own unrealistic lists of what I required my kids grandparents to do in my absence. One grandparent, in particular, really didn’t have the energy or desire to fulfill my wishes. I learned to not expect much more than her love. I think modern day parenthood has evolved to an excessively neurotic standard. Too many rules. I think we all need to lighten up a tad and enjoy our differences.

  • cal h

    cal h

    May 7th, 2014 at 3:30 AM

    The relationship that my parents have with our kids and the one that I would like for them to have is very different. I need their help and thankfully they are always there to help me with the kids when I ask.
    But at the same time is there not any part of them that remembers being in the very same situation when we were growing up and how disruptive this kind of always permissive behavior can be?
    You try to always do the right things as parents and establish clear boundaries, but you get some sort of free pass to bypass all of that just because you know have grand kids? Are my rules and expectations not sacred and shouldn’t they do the things that I ask them to do with the kids? Or do I have to sit back and accept that thi is nto going to happen? Either that or look for a new babysitter I guess but then would open up a whole new can of worms.
    There has to be room for some compromise here

  • kAtE

    kAtE

    May 8th, 2014 at 3:46 AM

    It is almost like you can’t complain because they are helping you out but then on the flip side they can do some things that can really drive you a little bit crazy

  • Hilary Silver

    Hilary Silver

    May 9th, 2014 at 4:42 AM

    You all got it! That is exactly the dilemma here- and preserving the relationship is important. It is so very nice for families to have grandparent help, especially when it is it needed- not just wanted. I do advise against taking this help if it comes with strings attached and you feel like you are sacrificing your values. It is always better to pay for help if this is the case because then you feel like you can better advocate for your children’s experience in your absence; and that will preserve the relationship with the grandparents because then the time they spend with the grandkids is not bound by the daily grind – the indulging and spoiling is less likely to be bothersome.

  • Tyrese

    Tyrese

    May 12th, 2014 at 3:58 AM

    Good luck changing my mom and dad cause I know they would tell me that they raised us and we all turned out ok so to lay off on this

  • suttre

    suttre

    August 19th, 2015 at 3:26 AM

    The post is a good summary of dealing with grandparent issues. I have been reactive in the past, and appreciate the appeal to be proactive. That said, the situation I have is rather challenging. Due to grandparent and my divorce, my child now has four sets of grandparents. She is the only grandchild to these pairs. Between most of the grandparents being well endowed financially and the only grandchild aspect, this has been extremely challenging. In addition, my daughters mother was injured severely in an accident. This has made many of the grandparents take up the ‘shield’ of making up for my child’s loss (that she is unaware of) by either giving things excessively in the hope that they will somehow fill the hole they feel from the loss of a daughter or daughter-in-law.
    To make things worse, there is a huge gap between the values I hope to raise my daughter with and what she is exposed to with the grandparents. There is a great deal of latent, sometimes active, resentment. Communication has only made the situation worse, and made me feel like there is no resolution or compromise.
    Despite taking both reactive and proactive steps to modify grandparent behavior, there is a gulf between GP values and child household values. This has lead to a greater and lesser rift through time, but has had me considering cutting ties with or severely limiting my daughter’s exposure to affected GP’s (3 of 4). While this is rather extreme, given a history that there isn’t space or time for, the hurts, trauma, and abuse of the past do weigh the scales towards separation.
    Thanks for the article! I hope to use it as a model and self-check on future GP communications and relations.

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