A persistent problem in parent-grandparent relationships is that the parents feel that the grandparents are overstepping boundaries. Sometimes they feel that the grandparents are undermining the parents' right to make decisions about their children. Sometimes the problem is that the grandparents horn in on special occasions and claim special privileges that rightfully belong to the parents.
Many grandparents are raising their grandchildren due to circumstances beyond their control.
These grandparents must simultaneously occupy the parenting and grandparenting roles. They are not the grandparents being discussed here. They do a difficult job and deserve accolades, not criticism.
When grandparents provide routine child care, or when they live with their grandchildren in a multi-generational home, the likelihood of boundary issues increases. But these issues can occur in any grandparenting situation. The breaching of boundaries is an issue in many family disputes, including disputes that lead to grandparents being cut off from grandchildren.
What Parents Say
My eyes were first opened to the topic of boundaries 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:
- 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.
- Since grandparents do not get to make parenting decisions, you should refrain from expressing your opinion about such decisions. If asked for an opinion, you can give it, but phrase it diplomatically. If you label an idea as "stupid," "misguided" or "ridiculous," and the parents decide to go in that direction, they won't forget your words.
- If you are a grandparent who contributes financially to your grandchildren's welfare, that contribution does not buy you extra input into your grandchildren's lives. You are still the grandparent. If you can't live with this reality, hold on to your money.
- 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, some parents will object to grandmother names that sounds like moms, such as 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. One grandparents' right case revolved around the fact that the grandparents took their grandchild to see Santa Claus. I kid you not.
- 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 the grandparent was present and the parent was absent 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.
- Be aware of the pitfalls of gift-giving. If you are in doubt about whether a particular gift is appropriate, ask before you buy. Be especially wary of outshining the parents on gift-giving occasions.
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.