One of the common questions I get from parents is how to address all of the issues surrounding visits from grandparents and the inevitable complexities that arise. Grandparents treat kids very differently than we do as parents and therein lie the potential problems. Unless grandparents are involved in the day to day rearing of the child, they tend to be more laid back about rules, less likely to discipline and apt to spoil. This trifecta can create quite a disruption in the normal routine without taking steps to manage the temporary changes.
Obviously, there is a wide range of family scenarios and not every family will function in the same manner. But, almost universally, parents and grandparents approach children differently. I find it humorous how frequently I hear from grandparents, “I get to spoil them and then send them home with their parents.” It seems to be a rite of passage that allows grandparents to lavish praise and affectionately dote without fear of the consequences.
One of the most frequent parental concerns is that grandparents break the normal household rules, or allow the kids to do so. It is a challenge to set consistent rules and reach a point where it is no longer a battle to have those rules followed. But, in comes Grandpa with chocolates in his shirt pocket and the “dessert comes after dinner, not before” rule flies out the window with the discarded foil wrappers. Or, Grandma is notorious for letting those little pesky things we call bedtimes casually pass by while Nickelodeon continues to offer show after show that is “his favorite”.
Understandably, we cannot expect grandparents or our kids to adhere to a hard and fast set of rules all of the time. However, it is our job to monitor what is changing, and gauge whether it is worth addressing it. The phrase “Pick your battles” is appropriately referenced here. Is a chocolate before dinner really going to mean that she is not going to eat anything on her plate? Is one night of staying up later than usual going to thwart a bedtime routine permanently? The answer is different for every child. Children that really need routine may be more adversely affected. Age plays a factor in the decision as well; older kids will understand that there are special circumstances and will not expect permanent changes, younger ones may not.
The risk of addressing the issues is three-fold, as I see it. First, part of Grandpa and Grandma’s joy comes from spoiling their grandchildren. Taking that away from them may leave a negative taste in their mouths for the duration of the visit.If something is severe enough that it needs to be discussed, do so neutrally and diplomatically. Most Grandparents do not even realize their actions are breaking rules, they are just enjoying their grandkids. Try to focus on the solution and not the problem, using “I” statements. For example, “I would like to see Johnny in bed by 8:00 tomorrow night so he gets good sleep, so I’m wondering if you can start reading to him a little earlier?” This is a more effective statement than, “Johnny needs to be asleep by 8:00 and you have been allowing him to stay up later than that.” Notice the response would likely be defensive to the latter, but accommodating to the former.
Second, things can not always be idyllic in the home and giving kids the opportunity to adjust to last-minute changes can be a good thing. If never expected to handle modifications to the normal routine, they will likely not build the skills to roll with the punches of life. A little off-schedule moments now and again actually help train kids to be flexible. This should not be taken to the extreme, however, and even in the midst of guests you should try to keep most of the routine the same as usual.
Finally, you don’t want to come across as the evil parent that is never any fun and always has rules, especially in stark contrast to the always fun-loving grandparents who love to break them. When your parents or spouse’s parents come to visit, feel free to relax a little on the rules. You were once spoiled by your grandparents, and loved them for it. My guess is that you don’t feel any negative repercussions from those experiences now, as an adult, and neither will your kids. If you always insist on the rules for the rules’ sake, it may be hindering your kids from getting those unforgettable memories of when “Mom and Dad never knew this but…” with Grandpa and Grandma.
Grandparents play a very vital role in the lives of your children, in many ways. The idea that different people and places will have different sets of expectations is one. Another is that some rules NEVER change while others are flexible. Another is that love is much more significant than who is giving it.
Children need to experience relationships with people of all ages, and grandparents give wisdom and knowledge that kids soak up. We, as parents, need to sit back and watch the wonder in our children’s eyes when Grandma and Grandpa come to visit, noticing the value of that interaction. We need to let that relationship develop at every opportunity, even with chocolates before dinner. And, maybe most importantly, remember that we will be those grandparents spoiling our grandkids sooner than we think!