Grandparents Who Have Problems With Boundaries

Line Between Parenting and Grandparenting Should Not Be Blurred

some grandparents have trouble with boundaries
Grandparents must be careful not to try to take over the parenting role. Photo © Sam Edwards | OJO Images | Getty Images

Many grandparents are raising their grandchildren due to circumstances beyond their control. These are not the grandparents being discussed here. This post is about grandparents who confuse or intermingle the grandparent and parent roles. In other words, they have problems with boundaries. How do I know that this happens? The parents tell us.

What Parents Say

My eyes were first opened to this topic by a parent who posted in one of my grandparent venues.

The general theme of her post was that grandparents should back off, because their grandchildren are not their kids, and the grandparents do not get to call the shots. She advised grandparents to Google "how to get grandparents to back off" or "mother-in-law acting like my kids are hers." The results, she contended, would show that many grandparents are guilty of not respecting boundaries.

What Grandparents Should Do

I did just what she said, and saw some disturbing posts. Many grandparents did show evidence of blurring the line between parenting and grandparenting. Of course, the incidents were reported by the parents, who may or may not have been honest and unbiased. Still, I did see areas where some grandparents have overstepped the boundaries. Here's some advice based on what I read:

  • Don't refer to your grandchildren as "my babies," "my darlings," "my boys" or "my girls." This will seem innocent enough to most grandparents. Of course, we will say, we know that they don't belong to us. It's just a way of talking. But parents don't care. They want no ambiguity about whom the children belong to.
  • On a related topic, don't choose a grandmother name that sounds like a mom, like Big Mommy or Mummi (the Finnish word for grandmother). And if you slip and call yourself "mom" to a grandchild, apologize profusely or the real mom will never believe it was a slip. (This issue, like several of the others, is almost exclusively a problem with grandmothers.)
  • If you hate your grandchild's name, you must never let on, even if they ask your opinion before the baby is born when there is still time to avoid the debacle. The parents aren't really asking your opinion because your opinion doesn't matter. You are not the parent.
  • When a big event is coming up, if you want to buy the christening dress, bake the first birthday cake or carve the Halloween pumpkin, tread gently. Some parents will welcome your doing these things, but some will see it as usurping the parent's role. Always ask.
  • On a related note, if a grandchild takes a first step or learns to spell his name while he is with you, keep quiet about it. There's nothing to be gained by pointing out that grandparent was with him on such an important occasion.
  • A few grandparents move to be closer to their grandchildren. Again, some families will welcome such proximity. Others will feel that their freedom and autonomy have been compromised. Discuss before you do.
  • Grandparents do not get to make parenting decisions, such as whether to co-sleep, when to potty train and when it is time for preschool. End of story. (It's a different story if they ask you to co-sleep.)
  • Be aware of the pitfalls of gift-giving. If you are in doubt about whether a particular gift is appropriate, ask before you buy.

    Now, lest parents get off scot-free, here is the grandparents' side of the story. You want your children to have grandparents in their lives, don't you? If so, be prepared to forgive some missteps. Grandparents are not perfect. Balance the occasional irritations against the good they can do in the lives of your children.

    Boundaries and balance. That about covers it.

    A lack of respect for boundaries frequently plays a part in family disputes and can even land grandparents in court, as happened in this Iowa grandparent visitation case.