When grandparents cross the line

Grandparents await the arrival of a grandchild with almost the same eagerness as new parents do. It’s like being told that you no longer have to eat vegetables – just desert.

They often look forward to their new role and the opportunity to finally make use of the warehouse of advice they’ve been storing up, only to find out that parenting today has changed and their well-meaning advice is sounding more like interference to the recipients.

Even more difficult, is when grandparents repeatedly refuse to abide by the rules that parents set for the grandchildren. Of course there’s always a bit of leeway – Grandma will almost definitely let you have that ice cream and that’s okay – but how can you both negotiate the tricky divide between helpful and interfering? We’ve got some ideas:

1. Parents, assume the best. Believe that grandparents have the best intentions. They might make mistakes or be unaware of boundaries they’re crossing. Perhaps they feel unsure of what you want or don’t want from them. Let them know how they can be helpful to you. Help them feel included, important and needed.

2. Grandparents, don’t criticise. No one likes to feel judged or blamed; most of us become defensive and angry when criticised, and then we shut down. Think of it this way—who wants to be near someone who is always judging them? Instead of criticism, ask how you can be helpful.

3. When a boundary has been crossed. Parents, let grandparents know when they have stepped over a line that you’re not comfortable with, such as giving you unsolicited parenting advice. You can say, “I appreciate your expertise. I will definitely ask you if I need help.” Or “I know you may see it differently, but I’d appreciate you following the way I do it on this one.” Give them a role so they feel they have a way to contribute. If a grandparent says something to the grandkids like, “Your parents don’t know what they’re doing,” or “I would never do it this way,” or to the parents, “Come on, give them a break, you’re too strict with them,” they’re stepping over a boundary. If they’re openly saying to the parent, “I think you should do it differently,” or “This is how I would do it,” without being asked, they are also showing a lack of respect for your rules and ideas. That’s when you have to make sure, as a parent, that you are clearly stating your boundaries.

4. Grandparents, unless asked, don’t tell. Unsolicited advice is rarely welcome, and if it’s coming from one’s own parents or in-laws, it will most likely be heard as criticism. If you respect that boundary, you will probably be asked for your opinion.

6. Parents – support your mate: You might have to tell your own parents to back off a bit and that they are intruding. While it’s important to get this point across, be sure to never make them feel like a burden. Communicate boundaries, but find ways to make grandparents also feel respected, honoured and wanted.

7. Grandparents – define yourself and your role. Be clear, honest and thoughtful about what you will and won’t do as a grandparent. Not every grandparent wants to babysit or be at every event. Others long for the invitation. Know what you are willing to do and not do and make this very clear.

For more on grandparenting, search our online parenting resource and search “grandparents.”