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How to set boundaries with grandparents

Parenting is hard. Managing your own parents can be harder.

Illustration of grandparents and parents playing with children.
Grandparents are an important part of the lives of children. Here’s how to manage their involvement.
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Jay Deitcher is a writer, dad to three kiddos, and former social worker living in Albany, New York. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Esquire, The Cut, and more.

Having children can be an exciting opportunity to do things differently than your own parents did. Even if you have a great relationship with your parents, you probably won’t see eye-to-eye on everything — just because we love them doesn’t mean it’s always easy to tolerate their approach, especially as it concerns your own kids. Some of the most loving grandparents may have difficulty remembering household rules and inadvertently needle into childhood wounds. “The hardest part of being a parent is that we were kids first, and we have a whole lifetime of baggage,” says Megan O’Meara, a therapist I spoke to and the director of Rainbow Access Initiative in Albany, New York.

Grandparents might nag your kids to eat, and then tell them they are gaining too much weight. They might gender everything from colors to the play kitchens all kids love. They may have never allowed you ice cream as a child, and now they feed your children straight sugar. Or maybe your parents try hard to follow your guidance, but they just aren’t informed on current best practices.

There are more grandparents than ever, and having them involved in our kids’ lives offers major benefits to everyone involved. They help with child care and chip in on expenses. A 2019 Oxford University study showed that kids have fewer behavioral and emotional problems when grandparents are involved in their lives. According to a 2013 Boston University study, both adult grandchildren and grandparents show fewer signs of depression when their relationship is tight. Babysitting even helps grandparents live longer.

“Over the past couple of decades, grandparents have been alive longer, so they’re more able to take an active role in the families of their children and their grandchildren,” says Suzanne Degges-White, counselor, professor, and co-author of Mothers and Daughters: Living, Loving, and Learning Over a Lifetime. According to a 2021 Pew Research study, since 1971, the number of Americans living in intergenerational households has quadrupled. “It’s really wonderful that we get that multigenerational transmission of values and child care resources,” says Degges-White.

While it’s definitely beneficial to have grandparents in the picture — and many of us depend on them for child care — smoothly integrating your own parents into the lives of your children can be challenging, even if you have the best relationship with your parents. It can be triggering in different ways for both the parents and the grandparents, and it calls for important conversations and decisions about boundaries and parenting approaches. I spoke with four experts about how to sensitively include grandparents in the lives of their grandkids while making sure that everyone’s needs are met.

Be proactive

The best way to avoid future conflict with your parents is to “get in front of it” by having the tough discussions before problems even arise, says Ebony Butler, psychologist and creator of My Therapy Cards. It’s important to have these conversations early in your parenting journey, even before babies come, because those first days are when you may need the most caretaking support.

Before starting a conversation about expectations of what a visit with grandma or grandpa looks like, decide what is non-negotiable and what rules are flexible. Maybe you prefer your new baby wears cloth diapers, but you let your parents use disposables when they babysit because it’s easier for them. Maybe it’s not acceptable for your older kids to veg out in front of YouTube when Granny watches them, but they can stay up late.

Remember: While structure is necessary, being flexible and willing to negotiate are also skills that are essential to model for our kids. Whether your parents live with you or just stop in to babysit, negotiation skills will lead to greater peace in the home. This might mean the difference between not having a regular babysitter and being able to attend your job daily, sneak in a date night, or take a much-needed nap.

Butler recommends saying to grandparents, “Here’s the way that we want to raise our children. Here’s the things that we’re teaching them. Do you think you can get on board with this? If not, what is the middle path here?”

It’s important to come to the conversation with curiosity, says O’Meara. If they insist on enforcing things you disagree with, such as gender norms, give them the chance to explain where they’re coming from and why they feel the need to give that input. “Oftentimes, it’s out of fear,” she said. “Our parents really want all of us to be safe.”

As a parent, you can likely empathize with their fears on a certain level. Having a son who dresses more stereotypically feminine might lead to him getting bullied, so let your parents know that you understand where they are coming from but are doing what you can to keep him safe. Explain the importance of teaching kids to take pride in their authentic selves, something you and your parents may not have been afforded. And remember, you had to do your own unlearning of problematic societal beliefs, too.

“Many of us automatically assume that our parents should know certain things,” Butler says. “But they don’t. We have to teach them. If my kid has ADHD or is on the spectrum, there’s going to be some education that I’m going to have to provide to the grandparents.”

One way to help make the learning curve easier is to tap into their friend circle. “If you know that they have a friend who has a grandkid who is trans or queer in some way, encourage them to reach out to that person,” says O’Meara. “If you have a relationship with that person, reach out to them yourself and say, ‘Hey, I was wondering if we could lean on you a little to help us because we want to involve this person in our life.’”

Set your parents up to win

Making changes is tough, so ask your parents how you can make things easier for them. “You can offer support to the elder [by asking] how you can help them remember to do this stuff,” Butler says.

When you involve your parents in a visit or allow them to babysit, make sure everyone’s accommodations are met. If your child has a special diet, leave the correct snacks on the counter. If your mom can’t drive after sunset, don’t schedule family hangs past dusk. This goes for religion, too. Serve dinners that follow your parents’ religious diets, and don’t schedule events when they’d normally attend their services.

When it comes to finances, be sure to discuss who pays for what before it becomes a conflict. In some families, when a grandparent takes a grandchild out, the parent pays for the activity. In others, that would be unheard of. When a parent provides regular caretaking, it’s especially important to have these details hashed out. “A lot of stuff is unspoken that we need to be talking about,” says Butler.

As your parents learn new ways of doing things and new perspectives, create activities both your parents and kids can take joy in, zeroing in on your parents’ strengths, O’Meara says. If your dad’s an artist and your son loves attending the Pride parade, have them craft posters together to march through town.

“It’s human nature to immediately zero in on the negative,” says Nava Silton, psychologist, professor, and author of Family Dynamics and Romantic Relationships in a Changing Society, so catch your parents being awesome and give them props.

Understand that parents will make mistakes

Every generation does things differently and thinks they are right and that the previous generation is wrong. “Be tolerant of your parents and recognize that you turned out okay,” says Degges-White, “so you know they’re not going to do that much damage to your kid.”

If your parents go against a family belief or rule, it’s important to address it soon after so your frustration doesn’t fester.

At the same time, your child needs to see you advocating for them, so don’t hesitate to redirect your parent in the moment. “There is a way to respect them and also protect your children,” says Butler. “You saying, ‘Oh, we don’t use that word in this house’ is not disrespectful.”

Use a sandwich approach when offering criticism. “Start off with a positive,” Silton says. Tell them you are grateful for their help, drop in your critique, and then end on a positive note, recognizing something they did well.

For those of us who approach parents for frequent caretaking, even if our parents get on our nerves, remember that they are there because they love our kids and are dedicated to them. Plus, they are probably more reliable and comfortable to leave your kids with than some random teen babysitter.

Own your own mistakes, too

If you find yourself dwelling on everything your parents do wrong, it’s important to analyze why. Your anger and frustration are likely related to unprocessed resentments from your upbringing.

“If your parent does something that we would consider relatively small, and you find yourself being extremely mad about it, that is probably a really good indicator that we are holding unfair expectations,” O’Meara says.

The first step to working through the resentment is recognizing it’s there, Degges-White says, and accepting that it’s interfering with the relationship your parents have with your children. Ask yourself, if a friend told you that they were in a similar situation, what advice would you give them?

Work with what you got

If your parents have addiction issues or are abusive, you may legitimately need to cut them out of your kids’ lives, says Degges-White, but it’s not a decision to take lightly. For some parents who depend on grandparents for caretaking, it’s not an option at all, Butler pointed out.

“If you’ve got a grandparent who just cannot or will not honor your child’s orientation or your child’s gender, that’s really hard,” O’Meara says, “but maybe this means we do dinner once a week and we just honor this relationship for what it is … We can’t change a person but we can find ways to love them and have relationships with them that doesn’t hurt us or hurt our kids.”

When grandparents have views you and your kids don’t agree with, teach your kids about historical context, says Silton. Explain that they grew up during a different era when people viewed things differently. Tell them, “As you get older, you’ll be able to decide how you feel about these conversations.”

Be a model for your parents and kids

Model forgiveness for your parents, because you too will make mistakes. “Your parents messed you up in ways that are their own unique ways,” says Degges-White. “You’re gonna mess your own kids up in ways that are their own unique ways. We’re all going to make mistakes. And we have to recognize that it’s okay to be human.”

Your kids will notice the way you treat your parents, and it will serve as a blueprint for how they care for you down the line. Don’t bad mouth your parents behind their backs, and let your parents know you love them.

Your parents will also learn caretaking from watching you and seeing the positive results it brings about, especially if they live with you or are frequently at the house. “The more they see our kids being authentically themselves and proud of that, the easier it becomes to not act out of fear,” says O’Meara.

Many of the rules that you set for your parents you will butcher yourself. “One of the things our parents didn’t learn or that wasn’t modeled for them is apologizing to your kids and simultaneously owning your mistakes with your grandparents,” says O’Meara. If you told your parents that it’s okay for kids to cry, and 10 minutes later you find yourself hushing your daughter throwing a tantrum, own up to it. Apologize to your kid, apologize to your parents, and let them know caretaking is hard.

“Be easy on yourself,” says Degges-White. “Be easy on your parents. We’re all doing the best we can.”

Jay Deitcher is a stay-at-home dad, writer, and former social worker living in Albany, New York.

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