Who’s in charge here?

The author of a new book on getting along with your children shares tips for ending generational clashes over discipline

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You may have dropped by your adult child’s home and found your grandchildren to be “out of control.” But behavior that you consider “out of control,” their parents might see as “spontaneous play.” That difference in perception is at the heart of parent-grandparent clashes over discipline.

Young children can tell when the two older generations disagree about discipline. When parents are rigid and grandparents are softies, you can expect kids to take advantage. They might try to persuade a grandparent to buy them a toy that their parents have already denied them. Or they might make a fuss at dinner until the grandparent agrees to turn on the TV, even though their parents have forbidden them to watch.

What can you do when your leniency, or your toughness, conflicts with the way your children handle discipline? First, parents are responsible for their children, so, in most cases, you should defer to them, even if their approach differs from yours. There is a continuum of valid discipline styles, from authoritarian to laissez-faire. Sometimes, mercy and kindness work. Sometimes, strictness is required. Remembering the love and anxiety that went into setting rules for your young children when you were a new parent will help you be more understanding of your adult children’s approach, whatever it is. Reading current books on parenting to make sure that your expectations for your grandchildren’s behavior are age-appropriate can also help.

Home-Field Advantage

Location can and should affect this hierarchy of authority. I firmly believe that each generation has the right to make rules in its own home: for example, where children can eat food, where their diapers can be changed, and how other standards of cleanliness will be upheld. When you visit grandchildren in your children’s homes, the parents’ rules should apply. When kids are visiting you in your home, your rules can take precedence.

If you travel to visit grandchildren who live a long distance away, know what you’re getting into before you touch down. If the rules in your adult child’s home bother you, and negotiations and discussions about them go nowhere, stay in a neutral location. It’s unreasonable to expect the family’s rules to change for your visit, and the price of admission to your child’s “hotel” is following those rules. At the same time, if the rules in your own house are so rigid that visiting grandchildren find them difficult to follow, or parents become fearful of making a mistake, your children might decide to limit their visits. Wise parents and grandparents talk about their expectations in advance and negotiate the differences. We all need to be flexible and sensitive to written and unwritten house rules if we want to spend time together.

When You Babysit

When your adult children leave you in charge of your grandchildren, they may need to be more flexible about whose rules apply. When parents and grandparents are opposed on issues like what snacks a child is permitted, or what kind of bedtime routine to follow, youngsters can get caught, uncomfortably, in the middle of an intergenerational battle. Be honest with your adult children about which rules you are able to follow and explain, respectfully, why you cannot follow others. If you believe that you cannot babysit unless your own rules are followed, be honest with your children. But keep in mind that if you are uncompromising, your adult children may decide not to leave their kids with you. If you are able to reach a compromise, make sure to tell your grandchildren about any changes to expect in their usual routine before their parents go out, so the parents can help to reinforce your own “house rules” themselves.

What It’s Really About

Sometimes our adult children’s babysitting instructions come with a tinge of guilt and blame. Comments such as, “Whatever you do, don’t send my child to the store the way you sent me,” may hurt you, at first. But they can also help you understand why your children may set the rules they have. And they give you a chance to talk with your children about your life, the circumstances you dealt with as a parent, and the reasons you developed the approach you did. We can’t change the past, but we can share the lessons we learned from it and, if necessary, ask our children for forgiveness or understanding.

Over the years, parents and grandparents will negotiate ways to coexist with each other for the benefit of the new generation, and eventually our grandchildren will become old enough to add their own opinions to the mix. Thankfully, when they grow up, most of them will become much less “out of control.”
Dr. Ruth Nemzoff is resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center and speaks widely on family dynamics. She is also the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave Macmillan).

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