Grandparents, parents and children in park with picnic basket

Parents vs. Grandparents: How to Clearly Define “Parenting” Roles

Remember your days as a child when you’d visit grandma and grandpa’s house and feel immediately met with love and warmth? Maybe you were greeted with a plate of cookies or sweets, and your grandparent would let you “sneak” one without telling your parents. You had a special bond with your grandparents and questioned them about their background and upbringing. Because, well, not many relationships can compare to that with grandmas and grandpas. 

Now, skip ahead to becoming a parent of your own and raising your children – with your parents being in the role of grandparent. You want your kids to have a similar relationship to your parents that you did with your grandparents. But, when you and your parents don’t agree on how you’re raising your children, it may cause friction. How can you balance becoming a parent in your own right without disregarding advice from the parents you love and respect? 

Define Your Roles 

It’s important that you, as the parent, clearly define your role as a mother or father and what you expect of your parents. It’s also just as important to you hear what your parents – your child’s grandparents – think their role is in your lives. Open communication on everything from the number of expected visits and babysitting rules to who will be in charge of disciplining, feeding, potty training and other duties is essential to discuss even before your child is born. That discussion will then be ongoing as your child grows up and encounters different scenarios. 

Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC, is a parent and marriage counselor as well as the founder and executive director of The Relationship Center. She notes that “it is important for grandparents to decide, based on their own preference and circumstance, the role they want to take in their grandchild's life. 

“It is always helpful if they communicate this to their grandchild’s parents. Grandparents need to define for themselves how much and in what areas they want to be involved,” she said. 

Consider Boundaries 

When grandparents undermine their children’s parenting, it can often lead to conflict and causes confusion for the grandchild. 

Both parties should focus on what’s best for the grandchild and practice open communication. Especially with first-time parents, grandparents can offer valuable information and tips. However, when it comes to decision-making on how to raise the child, the immediate parents should be in charge.   

“Grandparents must be careful not to intrude, interfere or undercut the parents,” Pincus said. “I believe conflicts happen when roles are unclear and boundaries are crossed. If there is conflict between parents and grandparents, they should talk to each other about their differences – thoughtfully rather than reactively. With boundaries in place, children and their parents can benefit greatly from grandparent’s wisdom, life experiences, love and support.” 

Make Grandparents Feel Welcome 

If parents immediately reject all of a grandparent’s advice, it can make the grandparent feel unwelcome and prevent them from forming a deeper bond with a grandchild. Although not all of grandma’s and grandpa’s advice needs to be followed, it is important to still listen and value the grandparent’s input. 

“Grandparents can be instrumental in teaching kids about the world,” Pincus said. “Kids and grandkids can thrive when the adults in their lives manage themselves in mature ways and maintain good relationships. The more adults that kids have in their lives, the more they can thrive.” 

Including your grandparents in your children’s lives will only add to the richness that comes from family while also allowing them to form intergenerational relationships that are beneficial to both parties. As a parent, you can get your child’s grandparents involved by keeping them updated on life events – be it school pictures and dances or first words and steps. Simple things like inviting grandparents to dance recitals and holiday events plus sharing with them details about the grandchild’s achievements, no matter how big or small, will foster a healthy relationship. Having a grandchild visit their grandparent at a senior living community can not only bring joy to the senior loved one but also the child. While there, your parents can introduce your child to their music (and vice versa) and movies. It can also help the senior ward off seasonal affective disorder

Encourage Rather than Criticize 

Using the appropriate tone can be the difference between a parent feeling encouraged versus feeling judged. Grandparents should be careful to encourage and support the parent instead of judging and overruling the parent. Simply telling the parent they are doing something wrong will only be met with hurt feelings. Grandparents should try to first praise what they believe the parent is doing well and then offer their advice as an additional nugget of knowledge rather than a command. 

Parents can benefit greatly from their own parent’s experiences and wisdom,” Pincus said. “However, unsolicited advice is rarely welcome and will often be heard as criticism. Grandparents can give advice respectfully by asking parents if they are open to their suggestions or advice first.” 

Trust is actually the key to all of this. Grandparents should trust the parents to raise the children, while parents should trust that their parents also offer valuable expertise on parenting. As long as the roles are clearly defined and respect is mutual, grandchildren can benefit from all the love and care they receive. 

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