"Help! My child's grandparent/s won't support the way we're bringing up our child."
Usually that's followed by something like this:
"They're undoing all our good work!"
"They're spoiling him!"
"They say we're spoiling her!"
And so on.
After yet another request for help along these lines, I've decided it's time to put my Aunt Annie hat back on after a long break and try to help. So- you know my strategy by now! Love and respect are the answers to everything.
This issue is no different.
It's a BIG subject, and so in this first post I'm going to deal with the over-indulgent relative.
My first point is about respect for your child's ability to cope. Children are extremely resilient. Unless there is actual abuse going on (and by that I mean sustained personal violence or neglect, not a minor or one-off deviation from your personal guidelines), children ARE able to cope with different people or environments having different rules.
I mean, think about it. If a deviation from the usual ground rules during childhood was life-changing, we would have generations of children who were terminally traumatised by going to birthday parties! Most birthday parties involve an orgy of unwise food choices, excessive giving of trashy plastic junk toys, constant entertainment provided by adults and packs of kids running around screaming whilst high on artificial colouring.
|Mmm, chocolate cake. Mmm, parties.|
Because parties are considered a normal part of growing up in our society, and because mum and dad don't give them undue emotional weight and make a huge fuss about their kids attending them, eventually our children come to realise on their own that this isn't a normal way of living every day- it's a special treat. There are 'party rules' and 'everyday rules'.
If you have over-indulgent grandparents in the picture, try to think of the environment when they're around as a sort of birthday party. Give your children credit for being able to learn that Granny's rules are not the same as Mummy and Daddy's rules, and that Grandpa's rules belong with Grandpa's presence.
Children are capable of understanding this, and in fact they must learn this. It's a social grace to know it: 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do'. Trust them to be making their own internal assessment of what's going on. They learn by experience, not by you telling them. A tummy ache teaches more about gluttony than a lecture ever did.
Here is the most important and useful thing you can do to use your anxious energy about this in positive way:
Talk about the different rules with them, in a simple and meaningful way.
Ask questions, and always wait for them to respond.
"What do you think would happen to you if you ate five chocolate biscuits every day?"
That's not a problem. That's an opportunity. Use it to talk about healthy eating with your child.
Of course it's not always about food. Recently a reader asked me what to do about a grandparent who was always insisting that their gifted child colour in, and do so between the lines, and who was always drawing pictures for the child rather than letting them draw their own pictures. (Yep, she's right; it's educationally unsound practice.)
I say, take the same approach as for the chocolate biscuits. Ask your child, "What do you think would happen if parents always drew the pictures and children always just coloured them in?"
That also is an opportunity rather than a problem. It's time for a visit to the art gallery, or a talk about the person who drew the pictures in your child's favourite book.
"How do you think this artist learned to draw?"
"Do you think she always let other people do the drawings and just coloured them in?"
There's a wonderful chain of mirrors to be explored there. Who does the drawings if nobody ever learns to draw?
It's amazing what you can find out about your child's thinking if you stop telling and worrying and instead start asking. That is part of respect.
Here's another thing to reflect upon. How different is your parenting style from your parents' parenting style?
Is it even in the same ball park?
Human beings are naturally defensive. When you embark on a radically different parenting path from your own parents' methods, it can be seen as a judgment on them. The most common response to being judged is to entrench your own position and defend it to the death.
So, let's say your parents nearly always rewarded you with food when you were good. Mine certainly did! It's common practice still in our society.
These days, those sorts of rewards have been examined and found wanting, and as a parent who's into self-educating (and you are, or you wouldn't be reading this blog!), you will want to do better and remove the emotional baggage from food. But still your mother keeps giving your child chocolate biscuits for every good thing he does! Even after you explain why you don't want her to!
The more you object, the more entrenched your mother will become behind her wall of it-never-did-you-any-harm. To think she harmed her own child- you- by giving food an emotional loading is just too awful for her to contemplate.
Put her shoes on! Think from her perspective! She can't change the past, so she will almost certainly choose to defend it. It won't matter how many informative articles you throw her way. Those will just produce guilt, and she'll become deaf and blind to what you're saying about it.
If you can use the 'different houses, different rules' strategy to stop yourself worrying about it so much, that is great. If not, you need to be creative and find a work-around.
Maybe you can ask mum to help you by insisting your child clean his/her teeth after every biscuit. Dentists are so expensive!
Maybe you can encourage a lot more outdoor play at home, so your child works those biscuits off by running around.
Try not to turn it into a war. Wars just result in casualties. Life isn't perfect, and sometimes we do have to compromise.
And I'll say it again:
You are the major influence.
Children are capable and resilient.
Even if you're living with the grandparent, it's possible to be clear and firm about different rules. Of course, you may have to cope with some flack from your child and take on the role of Big Bad Wolf sometimes. Accept it! That's your job!
|I never had time to make orange peel teeth to make|
my son laugh. But my mother did. She was only
with us till my son was two and a half.
Acknowledge the feelings your child is having whilst adjusting to different rules. When they shout "I want to stay with Nana all the time!" or "I love Poppy better than you!", take a deep breath and translate it back to them.
"I can hear that you're angry with me. That's okay. It's hard for you to understand why we have different rules. But the main thing is we both love you a lot, and people don't always say 'I love you' the same way. Nana says 'I love you' by drawing you pictures. I say 'I love you' by making sure you learn how to draw pictures for yourself. It's all good."
And that brings me to love. It is almost certain that whatever it is that the grandparent is doing that has upset you, it's being done with love.
Perhaps the indulgent grandparent regrets spending so little time playing with his or her own children, and wishes they'd spoiled them a little more. That's going to press your buttons, isn't it? If you see your parent acting in a way they never seemed to act when you were a child, that will probably make you mad as hell! And that is the time to call on love, and put yourself in your parent or parent-in-law's shoes. Deal with your own feelings about your own experiences at another time- they don't belong in the ring with bringing up this child of yours.
And remember, grandparenthood is not the same as parenthood. Grandparents are often starting to face their own mortality. They probably are aware that they have limited time to form a relationship with your child. They probably desperately wish for your child to remember them fondly when they're gone. The door is open for going over the top!
Try to let go a little and step back. Children who do remember their grandparents fondly have a precious treasure for life. It's not about parenting ideology. It's about love, and connection, and relationship.
A grandparent isn't stealing or corrupting your relationship with your child, unless of course they're actually physically or emotionally abusive (in which case, get the hell out of there NOW, because you're destroying your child's trust in you to keep them safe). A grandparent is forming their own relationship with the child, and you can't and mustn't expect that to be the same as your own relationship with him or her. That power doesn't belong to you- it belongs to the two of them.
In practical terms, of course, there are still difficulties. Let's go back to the five chocolate biscuits a day. If Granny insists on allowing this, it doesn't matter much at all if your child sees her once a month. If, on the other hand, you're all living together for the long term- well, it matters a lot!
If you have this sort of problem, then the only way to handle it is to sit down with your mum or dad after your children are in bed and put their shoes on before you open your mouth. Make sure you come to the table prepared with some questions and your own reflections upon why this is happening. And please, don't even start before you've asked yourself this question:
Am I overreacting because of something I'm feeling?
Try your best to talk with love, not anger, because anger feels fine and dandy while you're shouting, but it doesn't solve problems.
"Why do you let X eat so many biscuits?"
in a genuinely interested and puzzled tone of voice will get you a lot further than
"You've got to stop giving X all those biscuits every day. You'll rot his teeth. Haven't you read anything about child obesity?"
shouted from the doorway- even though the second option may feel better to you.
"I feel really worried about this"
(spoken honestly with eye contact with your parent) will similarly get you a lot further than throwing anger and blame around.
Don't try to solve all your problems in one talk. Spend your first talk-time hearing the grandparent's point of view. You will ONLY extract the truth with gentleness and love. Without that softly-softly approach you will get nowhere near the truth!
Maybe it will turn into a reminiscence session about when you were a child. Who knows? There may even be some personal healing to be had, if you can put aside your anger and fear and approach your own parents with love.
Remember how hard parenting is. Don't imagine that your own mother and father didn't have their own moments of anger and fear. Maybe you can ask them how they felt about your grandparents- whether they had different rules and made your parents worry about how it would affect you.
Ask them about their own childhood.
Get closer to them.
I know how hard you're trying to do the best possible job parenting your child. Once upon a time, your parents did exactly the same thing with you. They weren't perfect, and neither are you. Acknowledge that fact, and you're halfway there.
Can you offer your child's grandparents the respect and love that you offer to your child? Try it. It's still the answer.
You can read Part 2 of this series, about judgemental grandparents, here.