You know what they say about too much of a good thing?
Yeah, that’s kind of what visiting grandparents is like for us.
Every summer and winter holiday we go to the Midwest for a long visit with both sets of grandparents.
My kids love it. Which isn’t surprising at all considering how much both our parents love spoiling grandchildren.
My kids eat more ice cream in those few weeks than they do all year round. They’re allowed to stay up late. They consume more television than is humanly possible. They play all day, every day.
On one hand, it’s lovely. I love that my kids get to do this.
But it also drives me crazy. No homework gets done. Kids are tired and cranky from missing bedtimes and getting up early. Vegetables are a distant memory.
And I end up with the unsavory task of wrestling things back to normal when we get back home.
Time at Grandma and Grandpa’s is special. It should be. I don’t want to get in the way of that.
At the same time, I don’t like how out of balance my parenting feels by the end of the trip.
So for the past couple of years now, I’ve been trying out a few tricks to make the most of the fact that my kids have such wonderful grandparents, while at the same keeping it from straining my own relationship with my parents, or my kids.
Here are 4 things that have really helped:
#1 What Happens at Grandma’s Stays at Grandma’s
The idea that grandparents are supposed to spoil their grandchildren has become our parents’ mantra. My dad will drop everything to take the boys fishing. My husband’s parents buy each of the boys a bike every summer so they can all go riding together. One summer the boys got ice cream 3 times a day. Christmas is a never-ending parade of cookies, cakes, and chocolates.
Over the years I have learned to accept all the inevitable spoiling.
However, I want to make sure that these special treats won’t ruin all the careful parenting that we try to do the rest of the year. Before we visit I make it clear to the boys that some things that are “okay” at Grandma’s will not fly at home. It makes Grandma’s house even more special.
A bonus of having a WHaGSaG rule is that it can create a safe space for sharing problems. Knowing that certain things are for grandma or grandpa’s house only can turn your parents into confidants for their grandchildren.
This was especially important for a friend of mine who was going through a divorce. Her son had so many conflicting feelings and questions and didn’t feel like he could talk to his mom. But because they had already established that grandma’s house was special, he did feel safe about talking to his grandmother.
Their special connection made one of the hardest things a kid can go through more bearable.
#2 Clearly Define Which Parenting Responsibilities Stay with You
My parents are great parents. Wonderful, in fact. So are my husband’s.
However, we are not going to parent like we were parented. We are different people with different realities. And we definitely have our own ideas about what our children need.
Our parents also have very specific ideas about what is “good” for children. And sometimes, those ideas don’t line up.
We had to decide what is important. We had to figure out what our core parenting values or rules were. We had to decide what parenting responsibilities had to stay with us.
Experts suggest keeping the list short or it would be hard to stick to. And they are right. The fewer things we need to keep firmly under our purview the easier it is for us to be consistent.
Together my husband and I decided that the most important one for us was to stand firm on how we discipline our children. We do not spank and we try to parent positively. We try to handle squabbling between the children ourselves.
And we had to decide what we could let go for now. What kinds of things could be OK at Grandma’s House?
What we decided to let go of was the keen oversight of a proper diet, the fixed bedtime, and the scientifically researched screen-time limits.
Having a conversation with our parents and being firm on what parenting responsibilities we needed to handle, and committing openly to what we wouldn’t interfere with, actually made things tons better for all of us.
It allowed them to be more fun and nurturing. It helped keep some consistencies in the message we were sending the boys and prevented them from playing us against their grandparents. And it helped me to be more relaxed and enjoy our visits more.
#3 Walk a Mile in Their Orthotics
Some grandparents get why you are making certain parenting choices. Some don’t. There are times our parenting decision are … well … commented upon. We hear “it was good enough for you,” or “back in my day.”
And I get it. Their parenting was good enough for us. But things were different back in their day.
There are some grandparents who might take how you parent as a critique of how they raised you.
Reassure them that your choices have to do with your children and not your childhood.
Empathize with their feelings. When you empathize you use your emotions to imagine and to understand how or why people are feeling the way they do. Think about what “their day” was like. Was it the 1980s? The 1970s? What kind of society did they live in? What was it like to raise you?
Once I have an idea of where they are coming from, their behaviors start to make more sense. Of course my dad doesn’t have a problem with letting my 6 year old run around the farm alone. His mom died when he was 6 and he had no adults around to supervise him while he played. That kind of freedom was normal.
Understanding this diffuses a lot of anger on my part and I am much more able to have an active listening conversation with him about why I do not want my child, who is rarely on a farm and has no experience whatsoever with any unexpected situations that might arise, to wander by himself around tractors and other large machines.
#4 Listen Sincerely (Even if You Can’t/Don’t Follow the Advice)
I used to think that my husband’s parents wanted me to parent exactly like they parented him. Spoilers: they don’t.
More than anything they wanted to be heard.
They wanted to share their experiences and have me appreciate and validate their parenting decisions. To do this I practice active listening. Sometimes I take their advice and sometimes I say, “That is really interesting. I will have to think about how that will work for us.”
Saying I will think about their suggestion sends them the message that I’ve heard them and I find what they have to say has value. Even when I can’t/don’t follow their advice.
Once people know that you will actively listen to them they will listen to you. Practicing active listening allows everyone to build a common understanding. Once everyone is on the same page we can become a more effective parenting team.
Grandparents won’t always agree with us, but by listening we increase the odds others will see things from our point of view. Being listened to makes me feel like there is mutual respect between us.
Besides these are folks with 20+ years of life experience on us. Maybe they do know a thing or two and it wouldn’t hurt to at least listen to them.
Mutual respect is a big key to successfully parenting with your parents.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
For today’s short contemplation let’s consider the following:
- How often do you see your parents? Once or twice a year? More? How involved are they in your children’s lives?
- How close is your parenting style to that of your parents? Are you polar opposites? Or maybe you are more similar in styles?
- What kinds of special things or behaviors can be Grandma’s House Only things?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
For a more detailed plan of action, consider these:
- What are your core parenting values? What ideas, philosophies, or strategies make up your core parenting practices? What do you absolutely not want to give up on, and what can you let go?
- Journal the journey. Write about your parenting and compare it to your childhood and your parents’ childhood. What was it like for them to be a parent? What experiences do you remember? Use your imagination and build an empathy story to help give you some insight into their perspective. You could even try to get grandparents to journal their side of it… journals like this and this can be great keepsake gifts for your kids, while allowing you a glimpse into the reasons behind your parents choices and decisions.
- Brush up your active listening skills by practicing some active listening conversations with your children and your partner. Then go into your parent’s house visit with all those active listening skills ready to go.