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The Grandparent Gap: Finding Middle Ground

“She lets him start a nap right before I come to pick him up, even though I’ve told her that late naps mean he won’t go to sleep until past midnight.” “I’ve raised four children this way, and they all turned out just fine!” “He gives them as many Christmas cookies as they can stuff down, no matter how many times I tell him not to!” “I have a right to spoil my grandkids when they’re with me.”

Dealing with the grandparents when you don’t see eye-to-eye can be one of stickiest dynamics facing young families. When you leave your children with Grandma and Grandpa – whether it’s for a few hours during the holidays or on an ongoing basis as part of your childcare solution – you want to be assured that they won’t serve foods you’ve blacklisted, shame little ones for potty accidents, spank if you disagree with physical punishment or drive kids around without car seats.

It all comes down to communication. And, as the parents, it’s up to you to get the ball rolling.
“It’s an incredibly delicate area,” acknowledges Harry Cates, a licensed professional counselor in Dallas. Even getting to the point of honest communication can be difficult in some families, he says, if parents and grown children haven’t established patterns of communicating as mutually respectful adults. “Some people have never been able to talk with their parents at the same level,” he notes.

The first step is to draw your line in the sand. When is it OK to compromise, and when should you stand your ground? Safety is the bottom line, Cates advises; beyond that, parents should choose their battles. Base your decisions on the frequency and length of visits; you can probably afford to be more forgiving during the occasional visit than with a regular childcare arrangement.

Cates does not recommend the commonly suggested tactic of passing along a book or article about particular issues. “Any form of research gives an air of ‘I’m raising my child by a book,’” he cautions.

“Grandparents might reject it, (claiming) ‘I don’t need a book to raise a child!’” Cates suggests opening a conversation in terms of what’s expected to happen during the visit. “Make it a collaborative, joining process rather than telling them how to raise the kids,” he offers. “Say ‘Can you help with this? Maybe this isn’t the way you did things, but we’d like …’”

The parent directly related to the grandparent needs to be the one doing the communicating, Cates adds. No copping out and putting the spouse in the middle. Couples also need to work out details ahead of time and be unified in communicating what’s important to them as a family.