Parenting styles can clash across generations

Posted August 11, 2009

When parenting and grandparenting styles clash, problems can escalate quickly.

Parents may feel judged by the grandparents as they struggle to find their own way to rear children, while grandparents might feel as though their years of experience are being discarded, that their own kids are rejecting the way that they were brought up.

“Families have all kinds of dynamics,” says Suzanne LaFollette-Black, associate state director for North Carolina AARP. “There are all kinds of relationships that have different types of foundations. It’s important to look at the whole picture.”

To avoid family discord, it is important to plan ahead for visits and care arrangements with grandparents so feelings don’t get hurt, experts say. The keys to reducing friction between grandparents and parents are fostering open communication, putting expectations in writing, acknowledging generational divides and ignoring the small stuff, they say.

Open communication enables each party to state expectations up front, especially when grandparents live nearby and offer regular babysitting, LaFollette-Black says. The first rule is to never assume that retired grandparents can babysit. Ask if they are available so that resentment doesn’t build.

If parents have certain parameters and ideas of how they are rearing their children, it’s also important that they make their expectations clear to the grandparents, LaFollette-Black says. Don’t assume your parents or your spouse’s parents know how you want your children to be taken care of or know that it is different than the way you were brought up. LaFollette-Black suggests putting an action plan into writing.

“Writing it out makes sure that everyone is on the same page and that there is no resentment,” she says.

Lists of food choices or written daily routines provide grandparents a no-nonsense and non-threatening guide to what parents expect their child to eat or to do during the course of a day. When grandparents aren’t given a detailed plan, they revert to what they used to do when they were rearing kids – and that’s often where problems arise.

Jennifer King of Durham says it is important to go with your intuition when it comes to navigating the grandparent relationship. Her in-laws moved from Tennessee to be closer to King’s 4-year-old son, Erik, a few years ago.

“I understand that they are going to have a different relationship with Erik than I am,” King says. “Part of that means different rules or habits or other ways of doing things. I think it’s OK for a child to understand that, in different contexts, different behaviors are allowed.”

But being at the grandparents’ house doesn’t mean anything goes. King says her in-laws have been instructed to put Erik into timeout for any destructive or hurtful behavior. She lets them know what his latest misbehaviors are and what punishments she has used. She allows them to decide whether or not to follow the rules, but with Erik spending more time with his grandparents, she says it’s important for them to be comfortable with discipline.

“I thought it was appropriate that they put him in timeout, or otherwise he’d think that they were no rules over there,” King says. “As grandparents, they tend to spoil him more than we would. They also understand that, if they let him have his way on everything, he won’t be very pleasant to have over.”

Gayle Etter says she likes being able to follow through on the rules that her son and daughter-in-law have set for Erik.

“It really makes it easy for the grandparents,” she says. “They don’t have to make up the rules. They just have to follow them. It’s totally different than being a parent.”

Backing up the parents’ rules doesn’t have to eliminate the grandparents’ right to spoil their grandkids. King says Erik watches more television, stays up later and gets more treats at his grandparents' house, but it’s not something she feels the need to speak up about.

“You have to let some things slide and just understand that grandparents want to have a certain amount of latitude,” she says. “For us, it’s pretty easy. We’re lucky that way.”

Taking generational differences into account is extremely important in establishing grandparenting roles and expectations, says Lenora Campbell, director of the Grandparenting Program at Winston-Salem State University.

How grandparents parented a generation ago and how parents rear their kids now are going to be different due to the era and its corresponding societal expectations, Campbell says. The important thing to remember is that different is not necessarily bad.

She urges grandparents and parents to sit down together and discuss their unique perspectives. It takes understanding, she says, to figure out what parts of the older generation’s experiences work best in today’s world.

“The whole parenting process with children today is so different than what the grandparents can recall or imagine, so they have to be patient with their parents,” Campbell says. “Remember that they are coming from a different reference point.”

On the other hand, it is important to remember that there are some aspects of parenting that just don’t change. Campbell encourages parents to tap into some of the perennial wisdom that grandparents have if they are willing to move past those generational misunderstandings.

Reminding grandparents how difficult it is to be a parent and that there is no perfect way to do it also can relieve tension. Parents often try to make it seem as though they have it all together, but they are struggling with a number of different aspects. Relating those troubles to the grandparents can trigger memories for them of how hard it is to be in the parenting trenches, Campbell says.

“It’s an imperfect process,” she says. “The (grandparent’s) role is to support them in that process, which sometimes means not saying anything.”

Etter agrees that the most important thing is to support the parents.

“Grandparents have to know their role,” she says. “Their role is to be supportive. You’re not in charge, and that’s hard for some people to know that’s the way it is. Our kids make it easy. They’re good parents, so we don’t have to say you’re doing it the wrong way.”

As a grandmother, she says, she doesn’t think there should ever be a battle about how a child is being reared.

“You have to remember that you are just a support, and if you can’t be a support, then you better get out of the way,” she says. “You never want to do anything that would undermine your children. You have to love your children, and you have to love your grandchildren. It’s such an easy thing to do. We’re very blessed.”


This story is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • back2basics Aug 11, 2009

    Hey Stefany
    I had an issue with my in-laws but it was more of don't feed him candy, don't smoke around him (he has asthma) and they thought I was making a big deal out of nothing- and of course lead to a huge argument. I finally talked with my husband about it and told him how upset and concerned I was and ask him to have a son to parent talk with them- and now they do go out side to smoke when we are there and they always say "ask your mama and daddy if you can have a "whatever" and that gives us the ability to say yes he can have one piece and the parnets and the grandparnets are in somewhat of an agreement. Good luck with you situation.

  • scarletindurham Aug 11, 2009

    Tell this to my husband's mother.. She's the only grandparent my child has in the area, and she refuses to listen to any thing we say about our daughter's discipline. I don't want to keep our daughter from her, but she thinks her "house" rules trump our parenting rules. She will undermine us in front of our daughter when we are at her house. I'm getting to the point where I'm about to say she can't go over there anymore, but she loves her grandma and vice versa. I just don't really know what to do!