Do Grandparents Have the Right to Spoil?

Grandparents have always had a special bond with grandchildren. They have raised kids and have a wealth of experience and knowledge. They've also got a tendency to step outside rules made by parents. Here are some tips on how to make sure everyone gets along


Photography courtesy of Travis Swan via Flickr.

Rianne van Velzen loves her in-laws dearly, but she could no longer allow two-year-old Mats staying over with them.

“My in-laws just don’t seem to grasp the idea that their grandson would benefit from eating less, not more. And Mats was really prone to obesity. Even health experts of the children’s health clinic – a clinic that follows every Dutch child’s growth and development until the age of four – recommended careful monitoring of his diet. His weight put him off the grow charts of his age.”

So she sat down with her parents-in-law and explained that Mats was already overweight. In other words, no more of those huge portions of cake. But unfortunately, the situation didn’t improve. Spoiling their grandson was like second nature and an unbreakable habit to her in-laws.

This extreme example highlights how tricky and touchy ‘grandparent spoiling’ is, whether with sugary treats, late-night bedtimes or other practices that just don’t fit with the parent’s desires. It can be tough for parents and grandparents to find the right equilibrium. On the one side you have grandparents who want to foster unique relationships with their grandchildren. They care for their grandchildren and want to help out. Besides, their years of experience should count for something, right?

But on the other side you have the parents who want their parenting style, including all the rules and routines, to be taken seriously. It’s a recipe for potential tensions, frustrations and verbal fireworks. Especially because the common concern is the child, about whom both parent and grandparent feel strongly.

“Parenting and grandparenting is kind of the bad and good cop scenario,” says Rohit Saxena, Ottawa-based father of a four-month-old son. “My parents had to be the bad cop for all those years. And now all of a sudden this is their opportunity to be the good cop.”

Ann Huston, living in Toronto, thinks the role of her mother-in-law as the good cop is blown out of proportion. At grandma’s anything goes. “My word doesn’t mean anything in her house. My son can eat as many chocolates as he likes. He goes to bed at 11pm instead of his usual 7:30 p.m. He watches cartoons for three hours in a row.”

Ann feels like fighting “an uphill battle”: “Especially when he comes home from her house. The whole next day is about reconditioning him. Because he doesn’t have any boundaries at grandma’s. It’s taking me 24 hours to get him back in the role of the seven-year-old instead of the seventeen-year-old who gets to do whatever he wants.”

Many times she has said to her mother-in-law: “He doesn’t eat a lot of candy, I like to keep it that way. He doesn’t watch tv a lot, I like to keep it that way.” The response of her mother-in-law was always something like: “He’s a kid, let him do whatever he wants. It’s fine, you’re too strict.”

Ann is getting to the point where she thinks ‘whatever’ and shrugs it off. But at the same time: “My mother-in-law had four kids. She had her chance to raise her kids the way she wanted to. Now it’s my turn, she should respect that!”

Talk openly with grandparents

So how does one best deal with the delicate situation of grandparents who spoil? “It’s really hard or impossible to control what happens outside of your home,” says Maggie Mamen, an Ottawa-based psychologist and author of The Pampered Child Syndrome. “If a spoiling situation you disapprove of occurs in your own home, you have more of an opportunity or even obligation to say or do something about it.

We cannot leave it up to our children to control their grandparents’ behaviour, especially by expecting them to say no to treats!” So should you jump in and correct your parents instantly? Mamen suggests that you step in and ask the grandparent(s) for a quick word in private. Then you can share your concern and your appreciation of them cooperating in the future. “There should never be any kind of humiliation in front of the children.”

Ideally, parents would avoid these nasty situations by talking openly with grandparents before there’s an opportunity for things to go wrong, says Mamen. “There should be more open communication about what parents are trying to teach the children. Parents have a set of values, a child-raising philosophy. If grandparents don’t respect that, you could easily move into the realm of conflict of different parenting styles.” So consider to sit down for a serious talk with the grandparents when they come over to help out with the newborn, or ahead of that first sleepover at the grandparent’s home.

Mamen thinks it’s fine for grandparents to indulge their grandchildren with occasional toys and pasteries, as long it’s not the norm. “If you give children a treat, gift or privilege, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re spoiling them. Spoiling really has a negative connotation that has a lot to do with the outcome and reaction of a child. The child doesn’t recognize the treat as a special thing anymore, instead he feels he has a right to it and starts demanding it.”

When giving becomes spoiling

An overload of toys, treats and special outings courtesy of grandparents doesn’t necessarily lead to a spoiled child. “People assume that giving a child a lot of things or opportunities is spoiling. However, children who have a lot can still be very nice, well-behaved, balanced people,” says Calgary child psychologist Roslyn Mendelson.

The problem comes about when we don’t impose limits on kids or expectations of them, or when giving things becomes the default way to express love, she says. “Or if we don’t teach children to be grateful and appreciate what they have, and to understand that they are lucky.”

Jillian Taylor of Richmond, B.C., remembers her son asking “Grandma, what did you bring me?” every time her mum came over. More and more ‘plastic fantastic’ stuff entered her home. Jillian felt she had to put her foot down: “You just have to draw the line when the kids start to expect gifts all the time and when your house is overflowing with crap,” says the mother of a one-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son.

Around Christmas time Jillian and her husband, Ryan, sent out an e-mail to grandparents and close family outlining what they did not want the kids to get for Christmas—electronics, games, plastic toys—and stating that one gift would be sufficient. And every now and then they intervene when Ryan’s mother Sandra asks if she can buy the children some toys. Jillian explains, “It’s sort of funny because she tries to explain her logic to buying five different kinds of dumptrucks in five different sizes, and we just have to cut her off and say, ‘no’.”

Sometimes a grandparent can inadvertently wander into unsafe territory with treats, simply because they may not be up-to-date on the latest medical wisdom. Lesley Spencer couldn’t look away when her mother put her little finger in some peanut butter icing and fed it to her grandson. “He was two months old and my mom was giving him peanut butter icing!” She stepped in, explaining his breastmilk-only diet and the allergy risk, and her mother understood.

Accepting parenting styles

Acceptance of a different parenting style is a must-have quality of a grandparent. Think about a child who has done something that a parent is angry about. The child runs off to a grandparent that takes the child on his lap, comforts him and says ‘never mind’. A parent would feel his authority is severely shredded. Undermining parental authority is not a path that you want to pursue as a grandparent, Mamen acknowledges.

She often uses a metaphor of a family being like a small company: “You have the management team (parents), and the people they are managing (children). And then you get management consultants who take over the company (grandparents). That’s not how it should work. You can take advice from management consultants, you can ask for their opinion. The people who are actually managing the family, are the ones making the final decisions. As grandparents we basically have to suck that up.”

That’s easier said than done. For Ryan Taylor’s parents, Sandra and Tom, it remains an internal struggle. Sandra remarked: “I would like the rules for our grandkids to be less strict. I can give many examples of times I didn’t want to follow their rules. I really didn’t want to. But then I thought ‘no’: they set the boundaries, they decide what they want. For example: I’ve taken our four-year-old grandson to West Edmonton Mall. He was having a wonderful time.

He kept saying: “Grandma, I’m having fun, I’m having fun.” I was looking at the clock and I knew what time his afternoon nap was. It broke my heart, but I took him home for a nap.”

When to set boundaries and when to cross them

Ryan understands that grandparents will ‘spoil’ kids. He’s fine with the idea that boundaries are “off the table” when they visit the grandparents. It’s like a special treat. Still Sandra recognizes that ‘the spoiling’ at their home has to stay within certain parameters: “I let our grandson be up maximum half an hour later than usual. That’s fine. But kids can’t have double standards. He can’t have the feeling that grandma will let him do something, but mum and dad won’t.”

Often grandparents make a tremendous effort to please both their children and grandchildren. Hence, the internal conflict that Sandra and Tom are experiencing. When grandparents get the impression they can’t juggle the conflicting interests of their child and grandchild, the needs of a grandchild might just prevail (in the heat of the moment).

Ryan remembers that Jillian’s mum must have felt like that when babysitting one evening: “When our son was about one year old, he was going to a period in which he cried in his crib and didn’t want to sleep. We knew that there was nothing wrong, so he had to stay in his crib. Jillian’s mum was babysitting.

Rule number one: do not get him out of the crib. You can go up to him, but don’t get him out of the crib. Rule number two: absolutely no television. And of course, what do I see when I come home at 9pm? I see a one-year-old curled up with grandma watching television.” Ryan chose to let it be. It makes for a funny story in retrospect. In other words, don’t judge too quickly, let grandparents treasure their few special rituals with their grandchildren. After all, it creates joy and happy memories.

Tips on dealing with (over)pampering

For Both Parents and grandparents:

  • Keep the lines of communication open and respectful. Do not let frustrations build up; sit down with each other and talk.
  • Teach grandchildren to be grateful and gracious.

For Parents:

  • Choose your battles. Is this really worth the fuss? Most of the time probably not, unless the attitude of the grandparents is harmful for the children or contradictory to your parenting style.
  • Keep in mind that it’s not always easy to make you and your children happy at the same time. Most grandparents do their utmost to please everyone.
  • Be open about your ‘child-raising philosophy’ and the boundaries you expect grandparents not to cross.
  • Give your parents some space for their advice and knowledge – you might benefit from it.

For Grandparents:

  • Respect the child-raising philosophy of your children, even if you don’t always agree with it. Bringing up children is out of your hands now. You can give advice, but you can’t expect your child to accept it.
  • Dealing with blurry boundaries? If you’re in the dark about what the parents in general would approve or disapprove of, ask them.
  • Don’t buy your grandchildren’s love. Playing games and reading books with children can be just as fulfilling for everyone. If you want to buy a huge present, discuss it with the parents first.

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