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Why Grandparents Can — and Should — Leave the Parenting to Their Kids

But what about when they're babysitting?

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Mother parenting child as grandmother watches
Tess Smith-Roberts
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Grandparents are often considered a family’s source of wisdom. Most have learned a lot over their years of hard work, particularly in the parenting department. Raising their own kids into adulthood was no quick and easy accomplishment, so it’s natural for grandparents to feel they have expertise to impart on the subject of child-rearing. Yet times have changed, and the parenting styles and techniques today can seem ineffective or not strict enough. Grandparents may want to share their own ideas about parenting, particularly if they see an area of concern with a child’s behavior or well-being. But there may be a cost to getting involved with how grandkids are brought up. Nobody enjoys family tensions and divisions. Is there a “right” way or time to give parenting advice and still avoid family conflict?

Before discussing parenting with their adult kids, grandparents first need to reflect on their reasons for doing so.    

“As long as the children are safe (no physical or emotional abuse), it's up to individual parents to decide what's best for their children,” explains Nicole Arzt, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Fullerton, California. “Seniors need to remind themselves that these aren’t their children. This can be hard; after all, they only want to help. Constantly bringing up how they disagree on something or how they would do things differently may create resentment between their adult children and them. It may impact the relationship they have with their grandchildren.” (Obviously physical or emotional abuse should always be dealt with by professionals trained to help and protect children.) Arzt raises an interesting question, though. Is it helpful versus overstepping boundaries? Perhaps there’s more behind a grandparent’s desire to weigh in.

Leela Magavi, a physician and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry says,  “Disparate parenting styles may induce anxiety in grandparents, and may lead to feelings of isolation and sadness. One of the most anxiety-inducing things an aging individual can experience is the loss of control. It is pivotal for grandparents to maintain their own identities and remain engaged in hobbies and their passions beyond just being a grandparent.”

Clearly an active lifestyle with interests outside of their children and grandkids has multiple benefits to seniors themselves. Arzt recommends having a journal, or a therapist, as well as friends of a similar age range, particularly if grandparents need to grouse about their kids and grandkids with others who are likely to understand without being offended. However, grandparents also need to be sensitive to the needs and desires of their adult children and grandkids – there may still be specific times when their input actually is wanted or needed.

Richard C. Horowitz, co-founder of Growing Great Relationships, a coaching/training practice, and author of the book, Family Centered Parenting - Your Guide For Growing Great Families” advocates open communication and suggests, “If an [adult] child complains about the behavior of a grandchild, it would be OK to say, ‘Would you like any suggestions from me?’”

When or if adult kids voluntarily seek advice, it’s received better as a suggestion or an “I found this worked for me as a parent” angle rather than as harsh criticism of current parental tactics. An occasional request for counsel doesn’t mean the door is permanently open for unsolicited opinions, though. Grandparents may have been invited to weigh in only on that specific topic shared and should respect that. If grandkids tell grandparents they’re upset with their parents, it’s better to suggest some approaches the grandchild can try to work out the matter with his or her parents independently if possible. Dangerous situations (like a pool gate left unlatched) also warrant grandparents speaking up, confirms Horowitz.

Paul Greene, a psychologist and director at the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in New York, has some helpful tips for grandparents. He advises:

  • Pick your battles. If you offer nonstop parenting advice, it's more likely to be ignored.
  • Practice acceptance. The reality is that your ability to impact your kids' parenting style at this point is limited. Viewing the situation as one you need to "fix" is likely to lead to unhappiness on both ends.
  • Offer genuine praise for what you appreciate about your kids' parenting. This will help your suggestions be heard, and help your overall relationship too.

What if seniors feel they’re entitled to have a say because their kids and grandkids are receiving financial benefit from them, which is becoming more common in the current economy? 

Raffi Bilek, family therapist and director at Baltimore Therapy Center says, “It’s important for grandparents to recognize what is and is not in their control. If you are providing financial support and are not happy with where the money is going (e.g., video games instead of school supplies) you have the option of not sending money. That's in your control. What your children do with their own kids is not really in your control. If you're looking to be able to influence the situation, you first have to come to terms with the fact that you can't control it.” Influence is always more easily accepted coming from a positive approach, Bilek counsels.

What about when grandkids are alone with grandparents? Who’s in charge then? Greene says, “Be the fun-loving grandparents you are, and be considerate of how your decisions will affect the parents. You'll set a powerful and healthy example for your grandkids. It's important to follow the parents' rules around bedtimes, especially if the parents are the ones who will need to deal with the kids the next day. It's okay to have your own rules for the kids in your own home, unless it clearly violates the wishes of the parents. You don't want to set an example of defying the parents' authority. Instead, set a healthy example of mature negotiation with the parents when it's necessary.”

Dianne Grande, a psychologist in Batavia, Illinois and writer with Choosing Therapy, urges grandparents, “Let your adult children make their own mistakes — just like you did!”

Perfection is not a necessity to raise well-rounded and compassionate children, says Magavi, so seniors can go easy on their adult kids trying to parent as best they can. Grandparents can simply enjoy their grandkids free of the responsibilities of raising them. The kids are no doubt already fantastic young people grandparents adore — even if they are parented differently than grandparents think they should be — and that’s what matters most.

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