As history’s first parents, Adam and Eve were either the luckiest couple ever, or the unluckiest. On one hand, they had no parents of their own to share the joy at the birth of the first grandchild, no grandpa to beam as he passed out cigars, no grandma to give helpful advice on colic or teething. On the other hand, no one was looking over their shoulders, criticizing their potty-training methods or their choice in baby formula.
Unlike Adam and Eve, many parents today have parents who can offer advice and beam at the new grandbaby. Sometimes, however, the grandparents’ good intentions feel more like an intrusion. Even the most well-meaning parents and in-laws may give "advice," to make sure you are raising their precious grandchildren the "right" way—grandparentspeak for, "Do it the way I did it."
Since parenting is the most challenging of jobs, it’s ironic that it comes with the least formal training. Still, many parents are reluctant to accept advice from their own parents.
"Advice isn’t always necessary or even helpful," says Michael Horowitz, psychology professor and president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, "and it may very well be perceived as criticism."
This has to do with feelings and personalities, not necessarily any parenting issue. "Our most complicated relationships are with our own parents," he says. "We think we’ll do better than they did, that we won’t make mistakes."
Grandparenting expert Myrna Thompson agrees. As founder and director of South Suburban Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, Thompson runs weekly support groups for grandparents who have the primary responsibility for their grandchildren. She says parents—especially young parents—often hear their own parents’ advice as "You’ve failed."
"One way we teach the grandparents how to reduce conflict with the parent," Thompson says, "is by avoiding outright criticism of a parent’s actions—such as saying ‘I taught you better!’ "
Finding common ground
Adjusting to the new roles of parents and grandparents does have the potential to cause tremendous conflict. Chicago grandmother Bonnie Azose says she has avoided this because, "I just don’t give advice, period."
Daughter-in-law Orah Azose says that’s not strictly true. But, she says, she welcomes the advice because of the way it’s given and the overall nature of the relationship. "My mother-in-law sometimes tells me, ‘This is what worked for me,’ but it’s not like they’re telling us what to do," says Azose, mom of Michael, 8; Bentzi, 7; Ephraim, 3½, and Elisheva, 10 months.
Azose especially appreciated her mother-in-law’s careful questioning about the kids’ routines when she went to the hospital to deliver Elisheva. "She wanted to know exactly how we did things—what the kids ate for breakfast, what time they went to bed—so that everything would be the same for them," she says. "Her concern was for the kids."
Grandmother Sarah Rabens of Chicago says the two essential elements in having a good relationship are patience and respect.
"I mostly try to be supportive," she says, and generally doesn’t offer unsolicited advice. "My mother-in-law didn’t give me advice when I was raising my children; she knew that we had different parenting styles."
That respect for different styles is crucial, says Horowitz.
Grandparents should worry less about their children’s parenting, and focus on their own relationship with the grandchildren, which can and should be a cherished gift for both, he says. And when grandparents give unsolicited advice, parents should "try to understand that most advice is well intentioned," he says. "They’re motivated by caring."
Work it out in private
When disagreements occur, the key is to deal with it in a way that doesn’t confuse the children or undermine the parents’ authority.
Part of the beauty of having extended family involved in children’s lives is that "children get different things from different people," Horowitz says. For the three oldest Azose children, those "things" include the pickles and olives the kids eat at their grandfather’s house on Friday evenings and the games of Monopoly, UNO and Skip-Bo their grandmother plays with them.
Rabens’ grandchildren, 8-year-old twins Daniel and Heather Robinson and their brother, Jason, 6, of Skokie, can count on a special treat from their grandma that they don’t get at home: Doritos at dinner.
"My mom got in the habit of giving the kids Doritos when they were younger," says the children’s mother, Rachel Robinson, "and now the kids expect it."
Robinson doesn’t mind. "I think it’s OK for grandparents to spoil their grandchildren a little bit," she says, "and I certainly don’t want to interfere with their relationship, so I try to give my parents a little leeway."
Grandmother Pam Flowers of Chicago, is a hands-on grandmother who takes care of her three grandchildren while her two daughters work and attend school. That means she makes the majority of the decisions in the daily lives of her grandchildren, Ariyana and Amaya Davis, ages 6 and 3, and Branden Flowers, 4.
Although there may be times when she and her daughters disagree, Flowers says they’ve had no real conflicts.
"They trust me to make good decisions," she says.
And her daughters back her up, even when she makes decisions that are unpopular with the kids. "They always tell the kids, ‘Listen to your grandma.’ "
Us vs. them
In cultures where grandparents normally live with their adult children, there is often an unwritten set of rules so boundaries are clear, and things tend to go more smoothly.
But today in our culture, there can be other, complicating factors. "Sometimes the parents were too young when they had children," Thompson says, "and they just can’t handle the responsibility."
So the grandparents assume the parenting role, which can lead to resentment, Thompson says. "To the parent, every conversation about the children reaffirms the fact that the parent couldn’t handle it, and the grandparent may resent having had to take on this role."
"Grandparents should acknowledge that it’s the parents’ right to decide the important things," Horowitz says.
Unless, of course, the children are in danger. "In obvious cases of abuse or neglect, of course, grandparents need to bring this up directly with the parents, and if necessary, contact the appropriate authorities," Horowitz says.
Otherwise, grandparents should refrain as much as possible.
For parents and grandparents alike, Horowitz offers this advice: "It’s best for everyone to be easygoing about the little things."
Such as, perhaps, Doritos.
When our oldest daughter got married, it took my husband and me a while to figure out the boundaries of our new roles as in-laws. When she gave birth to our first grandchild, there was a completely new area of potential conflict. As seasoned parents, we knew all there was to know about raising children. But to our adult children, our unsolicited advice meant we thought they were unqualified for the job.
Obviously, the truth lies somewhere in between. With that in mind, the four of us compiled this list of definitions explaining what your mother or mother-in-law says, what you hear and what she really means.
She says: "You should cut up that apple into smaller pieces, or he’s going to choke on it."
You hear: "You don’t know what’s safe for your child."
She means: "I know you know this, but it’s hard for me to not be in control."
She says: "Aren’t you going to wash the high chair tray before you feed him?"
You hear: "This is unsanitary and you’re harming your child."
She means: "I’ve forgotten how a parent of young children needs to let the little things go."
She says: "Let me wash those dishes for you."
You hear: "Your kitchen is a disgusting mess and I can’t stand it."
She means: "You have an exhausting job as a new parent, and this is how I can help."
She says: "Your sister’s children are so smart!"
You hear: "Your child isn’t!"
She means: "I love all my grandchildren so much that I can’t help but brag about them to everyone, even to my other children. I didn’t realize it makes you feel bad."
She says: "When you were a baby, I never (insert appropriate verb here)."
You hear: "You’re doing it wrong."
She means: "I’m amazed at how much things have changed since you were a baby."
She says: "You can’t do that by yourself!"
You hear: "You’re incompetent; I have to help you."
She means: "I can see how hard you’re working and I just want to help."
She says: "Your children are the most beautiful, smartest and sweetest children in the world."
You hear and she means: "Your children are the most beautiful, smartest and sweetest children in the world."
Phyllis Nutkis is a writer and former preschool teacher living in Skokie. She and her husband have three grown children and two grandchildren.