Are Grandparents Discipline Killers?

How parents can maintain rules and routines even when the grandparents babysit.

Posted May 18, 2020

 Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

Andy and Mary both worked in demanding tech jobs. They put their two young children in preschool three days a week and the other two days Mary’s parents watched the little ones. This was a great arrangement, which gave the grandparents a chance to really “be with” the grandkids and gave Andy and Mary a lot of peace of mind. The only problem was that Mary’s parents couldn’t make themselves stick to the rules that Andy and Mary had worked so hard to put into place.

Mary put out healthy snacks for the kids. Her parents snuck in less healthy ones. Mary explained how much screen time and how many videos the kids could watch. Her parents stretched those numbers considerably. Mary wanted the kids to brush their teeth after every meal and wash their hands frequently. Her parents couldn’t make themselves face that pitched battle every time and often skipped them.

Mary’s kids were quick to tell their parents that grandpa and grandma had given them potato chips, let them watch three extra episodes of Peppa Pig, or allowed them to climb on the high structures at the playground. So, Andy and Mary knew what was going on and tried to call Mary’s parents on their “lapses.” Grandma and grandpa, for their part, were rather chagrined and pledged to do better—and for a day or two, they did.

But the kids would whine and complain: They knew exactly how to play their grandparents. And so, the cycle would begin again. Potato chips. No handwashing. Too many videos. To be sure, no one in the family thought that this was the end of the world. But it became an ongoing source of tension and irritation.

Mary and Andy grew increasingly irritated that Mary’s parents couldn’t “follow the rules,” rules that they felt were clear, reasonable, and eminently doable. For their part, Mary’s parents grew increasingly irritated that all of their helpfulness counted for so little. Eventually, Mary’s parents stopped volunteering. Andy and Mary were forced to keep the kids in preschool five days a week.

Tensions like these exist in many extended families. Parents try to make sense of bedtimes, snack times, screen time, and all the rest. Even grandparents who are very aware of these household routines and who are basically willing to follow them still often find themselves wanting to “take it easier” and relax the rules since that can make their time with the grandkids so much easier.

No tears from the kids about shutting off the videos—let them watch another one. No whining from the kids about an apple-and-carrot snack—let them have some crackers and chips. No screaming about needing to brush their teeth or wash their hands—let them skip that. Let their parents handle all that! The grandparents throw up their hands—and there are consequences for everyone.

Just as with most real-life family situations, there are no simple or one-size-fits-all answers. But following the key principles of good parenting can help. These include keeping lines of communication open, underscoring what is working, avoiding alliances that create “we win, you lose” situations, and not escalating dramas by using high-drama language like “Why can’t you ever listen?!”