A different String Theory
Mothers must be gentle but clear about grandparents indulging their children
By Patti Carmalt-Vener 12/26/2013
I home school my children and take my role as a mother very seriously. All three of my daughters — Hannah, 11, Brooklyn, 7, and Harper, 4 — are thriving beautifully in academics, music, sports and the arts. My husband’s parents are wonderful, I love them dearly and I realize our daughters are their only grandchildren and mean everything to them but they’re often overindulgent in spoiling them.
The day before Christmas each girl wanted to see a different movie, so they took them to see both Hobbit movies and “Frozen,” one after the other. All three girls love to visit Grandma and Grandpa and usually stay with them one weekend a month. My mother-in-law bakes them too many sweets, my father-in-law allows them to stay up way past their bedtimes, and both grandparents buy them a lot of gifts.
This Christmas, it’s unbelievable to see that almost everything on our daughters’ wish lists was under the tree. They also convinced my husband and me that the girls needed a puppy and bought them one; even I cried because the girls were so happy and the puppy is so sweet.
It really doesn’t seem to bother my husband, but he encourages me to talk to my in-laws. When I do, they nod in response, agree that I know best, compliment me on how well I’m raising them … and then, inevitably, go back to their old habits. I want my daughters to grow up responsibly. How can I impress upon my in-laws without hurting their feelings that this isn’t good parental behavior?
There’s an old saying: Grandparents are like a piece of string; handy to have around and easily wrapped around grandchildren’s fingers. While you’re correct that they are not providing good parental behavior, remember that they’re not your children’s parents and, therefore, aren’t providing parental behavior in the same capacity as you and your husband. Within reason, they also have a right to set the rules for visits that take place under their roof.
Children learn to adapt quickly and amazingly well to prevailing expectations in various environments. They know, for instance, that the way they behave at Disneyland isn’t the way they’re expected to behave in church or temple. In junior high and high school, kids have to change their behavior daily for multiple teachers, and they do so quite naturally and with a minimum level of confusion.
Because of the good job you’re already doing, the easygoing style your in-laws like to embrace when taking care of them on a monthly basis probably won’t harm them. At the same time, it’s important for your in-laws to respect you and your husband’s roles as parents and to resist the temptation of undermining your efforts by interfering, giving too much unsolicited advice, or creating conflict that can cause friction and distance within the family.
Choose your battles wisely. In the areas where you have true concerns, sit down with your in-laws and make clear which of their rules you’re uncomfortable with. If a rule is important to you, it’s necessary they follow it. Gently explain your trepidations, and then be willing to compromise. For example, if your mother-in-law is comfortable with her grandchildren sneaking a baked cookie from her counter whenever they wish — as opposed to your own rule of only at dessert time — you can compromise to only a couple of times a day and not for two hours before dinner. After this discussion, have an all-inclusive, three-generation conversation that imparts the new ground rules to your children and how they differ from the rules at home.
Recent studies reveal that children close to at least one grandparent are more emotionally secure than those without such a tie. The bond between a child and a grandparent is often unique, with unlimited love, mutual admiration and unqualified acceptance. Allow your children to feel special when they’re with them. They’re babysitters who watch your children, not the television. Grandparents often provide help when needed and strengthen family ties. It’s most likely very good for your in-laws, too; many grandparents feel mentally stimulated and physically renewed after having been with their grandchildren.
While it’s not acceptable for your daughters to develop an unhealthy sense of entitlement, demand a constant array of gifts or expect the universe to revolve around them, there’s something to be said about them being the center of their grandparents’ world. Grandparents hold their hands for just a little while but hold their hearts forever.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.