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Get your parents on your side


“Talking Grandma into handing over candy is like shooting fish in a barrel, and it doesn’t matter what Mom and Dad say.”

Monica, a single mother living with her parents, has been trying to limit the amount of time her son spends playing home video games. She fears that Jesse, 8, is becoming a gaming addict. Her strategy appears sensible: allow him to play for a set period of time, and only on weekends. Jesse appears to accept this plan, but typical of children his age, he tries to work around his mother and seek out others to get his needs met. He goes right for the weakest link: his grandparents.

Grandpa knows Monica’s rules, but when Jesse asks to play a game on a Monday night before Monica returns home, Grandpa allows him, and deliberately tries to conceal this from Monica. Even worse, Jesse is playing a brand new game that Grandma had secretly ordered! Imagine Monica’s fury when she discovers him playing later that evening. It only takes her a moment to figure out that her parents conspired to allow this.

No matter their rationale, grandparents have no real justification for undermining parental authority

Why do Grandma and Grandpa collude with Jesse? Consider some possibilities:

  1. They do not consider the rule important.
  2. They believe it is their right to ignore certain rules Monica sets, because she is their daughter and they have authority over her.
  3. They believe they are more experienced caretakers and better able to determine what is best for Jesse.
  4. They devalue Monica’s rule-setting ability and judgment because she is a single parent.
  5. They own the home and believe they have the final say in all decisions within their territory.
  6. They want to spoil their grandchild and are not concerned about the consequences for Jesse’s behavioral development or Monica’s feelings.
  7. They are not skilled in setting limits and feel uncomfortable saying no to Jesse or aligning with Monica to enforce the rules.

“I know Muffin is not allowed on the couch, but who can say no to that face?”

Jesse’s splitting behavior–creating a division between his mother and grandparents to get his way–must be interrupted at an early age. If not, he may develop more manipulative and antisocial behaviors as he grows, and his relationship with his mother will be strained and uneven (she will progressively lose her parental authority). Besides, Monica will continue to feel angry and resentful toward her parents if their undermining continues. She has to take action–or move.

Teamwork is the key to successful parenting, no matter who is on the team

Monica tells her parents she feels angry that they helped Jesse break the rules, and worried that he will learn to be manipulative, never listen to her, and develop serious behavior problems. She also expresses how difficult it is to be a single parent, and that she is relying on their cooperation to raise Jesse right. Monica emphasizes that for this parenting teamwork to be effective, she must be the leader, and all decisions, especially exceptions to rules, must go through her. Despite feeling surprised by her take-charge attitude, her parents hear her concerns, develop new respect for her, and honor her parental authority.

Despite their superior experience, grandparents don’t always know what’s best.

Grandparents have a unique relationship with grandchildren. Ideally, they have the opportunity to express unconditional love without the complication of parental authority. If they live with their grandchildren or take an active role in their care and discipline, then their role must become more authoritative and less unconditional. However, as long as they align with the primary parent (s), respect their authority, and follow their rules, they will still have plenty of chances to pamper their grandchildren. My mother once sent my son a t-shirt that read, “That’s it! I’m calling Grandma!” Since Grandma has always been on my side, it never bothered me.

by Jason Sackett, LCSW
Professional Staff at CWFL

jsackett@usc.edu

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