The Unspoken Wedge Between Parents and Grandparents

Being a grandparent is a precious experience, as it allows you to spend quality time with your grandkids. However, even in the most loving families, there can be some challenges. Grandparents often unintentionally overstep boundaries, whether it’s because they have a hard time accepting their adult children’s instructions, believe they know better when it comes to raising children, or struggle with the fact that they are no longer the primary decision-makers in the family.

These encounters can be emotionally charged and can either strengthen or strain the relationship between parents and grandparents. For instance, a 34-year-old editor living in Brooklyn shared that her parents try to instill Christianity into her 3-year-old son, even though neither she nor her husband is religious. While they initially felt alarmed, they’ve learned to find humor in their son singing church songs. However, having a conversation with her parents about this issue is challenging due to the emotional fallout and discomfort it may cause.

Conflicts between parents and grandparents can arise from various situations, such as disagreements about junk food, discipline, or screen time. Research from the Mott Poll revealed that 43% of parents surveyed reported disagreements with grandparents about what was best for their children. These disagreements covered topics like discipline, food, screen time, and bedtime. Surprisingly, only 10% expressed concerns about grandparents sharing too many photos of their grandchildren on social media.

Parents often hesitate to address certain issues because they feel that the grandparents provide valuable support and care, including adoration, attention, emotional support, and free babysitting. However, even unaddressed conflicts can create a divide between the generations. In some cases, parents requested to remain anonymous, highlighting the sensitivity of these issues.

Parents put a lot of thought into their own parenting style, often using it as a way to correct their parents’ mistakes. It can be particularly frustrating when grandparents disregard their rules. For instance, a 37-year-old business owner from Chicago, whose parents and in-laws are from the Middle East, had to address her parents’ force-feeding habits. She had to explain that their cultural practices regarding food did not align with her philosophy and her pediatrician’s recommendations. Although her mother persisted in hand-feeding her granddaughter, she believes that she may not have been assertive enough in communicating her boundaries.

Dr. Karen Fingerman, an expert in parent-adult child relationships, emphasizes that disagreements about raising grandchildren are common. It can be challenging for grandparents to break the habit of giving advice since it has been their role for many years. However, both grandparents and parents need to learn to respect each other’s roles. Ideally, parents recognize that their parents are flawed, and grandparents understand the importance of allowing their adult children to make parenting decisions.

Reflecting on my own role as a grandmother, I acknowledge that there may be areas where I might unintentionally overstep. It made me wonder how my daughter perceives my actions. While we generally agree on what is best for her children, there may still be aspects that bother her. However, open discussions about these issues can be tricky. The Mott Poll indicated that only 43% of parents actually address their concerns with grandparents. Of those discussions, approximately 50% of grandparents acknowledged the concerns and made efforts to change their behavior, while the remaining half either did not change or refused to do so.

But what about the parents who never bring up their concerns? Many grandparents may assume that their behavior is acceptable because no complaints have been voiced. It’s essential for parents to communicate their boundaries, especially about matters of health and safety. Ignoring these rules can lead to restricted access to the grandchildren. For example, Shannon, a mother from Colorado, made it clear that her child’s grandparents would need to abide by safety protocols during the pandemic. However, due to differing beliefs about COVID-19, the paternal grandparents did not follow the rules and were not allowed to visit. This resulted in limited bonding time with their grandchild and strained family relations.

While limiting grandparent-grandchild access is an extreme response, it does happen. The majority of parents, however, choose not to limit contact. They appreciate the bond their children have with their grandparents and believe that the benefits outweigh the tensions that may arise. The Brooklyn mother I interviewed shared how precious it has been to watch her children’s bond with their grandparents grow, even though there may be occasional head-scratching moments that prompt her to reflect on her own parenting choices.

In conclusion, parents often avoid conflicts with grandparents for various reasons, ranging from the complexities of new family dynamics to their appreciation for the grandparent-grandchild relationship. Nevertheless, open and respectful communication is vital to maintaining a healthy balance that benefits everyone involved.