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Parents Are From Mars, Grandparents Are From Venus

It came as a shock to me. As soon as I had my first child, my mother and I suddenly shared expansive common ground: parenting. Practically overnight, I gained newfound respect and understanding for her. Nonetheless, whenever she trod on my territory — how I was raising my daughter — I'd bristle. I resented her observations ("Pacifiers are addictive"; "It's all right if the baby cries for a few minutes"). Even now, nearly five years since Maggie's birth, her random remarks sometimes still annoy me.

Although parents and grandparents want the same thing — safety and happiness for their brood — they may have contradictory operating procedures. "Parents today are more permissive, indulgent, and considerate of their child's feelings," says Lillian Carson, author of The Essential Grandparent and a grandma of ten. "As a family therapist, I think the new thoughtfulness is great. But many grandparents don't like it when a child interrupts them or acts up. They can't help themselves from talking about the way things used to be."

"It can be frustrating for a grandparent when her authority is superseded by an expert, a book, or a video because she has a powerful spiritual and emotional attachment to her grandchild," says Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., author of Grandparent Power. "She's not trying to criticize or meddle. She's trying to help."

Try as she may to be diplomatic, Grandma's good intentions can be taken badly. "One of the hardest things about being a grandparent is relinquishing control. We understand that we're not in charge anymore, but it's quite a transition to go from speaking our minds to biting our tongues," says Carson. "When we do let a comment slip out, it's especially hard on our adult children — they may still be seeking our approval." Leslie Linsley, author of Totally Cool Grandparenting, puts it this way: "We installed our kids' buttons, so we know how to push them."

Of course, not every parent-grandparent combination is bound to end up clashing strongly, but inevitably there will be some friction at certain times. "But conflicts don't have to turn into family feuds," says Dr. Kornhaber. Here, how to handle some common glitches.

Working Moms

The debate often begins long before the pregnancy test comes out positive. "My mother told me that if I went back to work as a vice president at an entertainment company after I had the baby, she'd take him home herself, even though we would need my income to raise the baby," says Anne Ross (not her real name), mom of a 3-month-old boy in Brooklyn. "She said, 'The baby should be raised by a relative, not by a hired stranger. If you want to work, then don't have a child.'"

Thankfully, not all grandmas see things the same way. My mother — a grandmother of four — encouraged my sister and me to go back to work after our maternity leaves. My mom vicariously enjoyed the balance in our lives, compared to her lopsided decades of housewifery.

"If the grandparents want to see their grandkids, they shouldn't second-guess the parents," says Linsley, a Nantucket grandma of six. Amen to that. But what if they do? "There's the time-honored approach of politely thanking someone for sharing her opinion and then ignoring it," says Linsley. Dr. Kornhaber stresses the importance of levelheaded dialogue: "Never accuse, as in, 'You're wrong to put me in this position.' Instead, start a sentence with I, as in, 'I'm hurt by your words.' This will keep the conversation moving, without too much anger," he says.

Another strategy: If your parents are like mine, you've been hearing about the accomplishments of their friends' kids for decades. In my house, my sister and I endured many rhapsodic chroniclings of the perfect Levinson girls. If there are any perfect Levinson girls in your life, telling your folks about their parenting choices — ideally, they match your own — may be just the ammunition you'll need. Should open conversation and friendly comparisons fail to stave off criticism, consider slamming a steel trap on the subject. Rule it off-limits.

Real Dads

Although some grandparents are shaky with the idea of a working mom, they think Dad should be in the Fathers' Hall of Fame for changing a diaper. Yes, it's wonderful to see fathers nowadays chipping in with childcare. "A father wanted to join the PTA when you were in elementary school," says my mother, Judy Frankel. "All the mothers couldn't believe it. We had a meeting about him. In the end, we didn't let him participate. We thought there had to be something wrong with him." This happened only 20 years ago, which shows just how drastically times have changed.

My dad, Howard Frankel, says, "I think it's great that fathers today do more. If the mothers are out in the workplace helping to bread-win, the fathers should be in the house, helping to raise the kids." (Other grandparents aren't as forward-thinking. The mother-in-law of a friend of mine thought it was wrong that her son "had" to get up for 3:00 a.m. feedings, even after my friend had returned to work from maternity leave.)

I'm happy to listen to all of my mom's praise about my husband's "wonderful" relationship with our 1-year-old, Lucy. It's true: Lucy is the love of his life. But I'm still the one who does most of the feeding, changing, and bathing. Granted, the praise discrepancy isn't a major source of conflict, but a little ping can turn into a pang. There's nothing wrong with asking for recognition or a few kind words. Otherwise, take your need for approval elsewhere. Where your parents or in-laws may fall short in acknowledgment, double the praise demands from your husband.


Most baffling to some grandparents is the amount of attention we pay to our offspring. "It wasn't that we didn't care about our kids. You were there, we took care of you," says one Stratford, Vermont, grandmother who wishes to remain nameless. "But we weren't so focused, obsessing about every drawing or utterance. Way back when, children were the natural extension of marriage. You got married; you had kids. Now that children are so frequently planned, they're more of a product than a by-product."

Conflicts arise when the grandparents don't understand why you'd rather go to a kid-friendly restaurant than hire a babysitter. One solution: For every three family dinners, arrange one civilized meal with the folks. Or when you're at home, sometimes feed the kids first, then have everyone gather around the table for dessert. "All clashes can be resolved with mutual understanding," says Dr. Kornhaber. "But in the end, you have every right to do what you think is best for your kids, and your parents need to accept that." If they don't want to, suggest they take a look at the child in question. "The proof is in the pudding, and the kid is the pudding," Dr. Kornhaber says. "If she's happy and thriving, then the parent's choices are okay."

Discipline, Fear,

PunishmentThese are nearly foreign concepts to contemporary parenting. I've made many threats ("No snacks tomorrow if you don't clean up"; "No playdates if you can't share"), I've given Maggie a few time-outs, but my husband and I would never spank, scream, or withhold affection. "My one-year-old, Alex, tends to go after the nightlight. I remove the light and put it on a high shelf. But my father tells me Alex has to learn 'No,'" says Jennifer Gorky, who's also the mother of Max, 4, in New Rochelle, New York. "He thinks I should be firmer. He ruled by fear. My brothers and I were spanked occasionally. I plan to raise my sons with communication and understanding. I want them to know what's right, not follow rules blindly out of fear of punishment."

One particular area of "permissiveness" that fills some grandparents with horror is potty training. A Short Hills, New Jersey, grandfather whose youngest grandchild wore diapers until nearly 5 says, "I know a child can hold her bladder and bowels by twelve months because that's when my kids were trained. It's crazy to allow a two- or three-year old who can construct complete sentences to wear diapers."

Unless that grandfather wants to sweat it out in the bathroom or change a few of those diapers, he can keep those opinions to himself. "From big issues like potty training to small ones — like banging on the table — grandparents must bite their tongues," says Dr. Kornhaber. Cindy Searight, mother of a 6- and a 9-year-old in Southport, Connecticut, admires the way her mom manages to keep a lid on it when her kids act up. "She never tells me what to do," says Searight. "Instead, she shows me by example. If one of the kids is having a meltdown, she doesn't say, 'Distract her;' she goes over and does it. Which is subtle and never mean. And when it works, her help is completely welcome."

No matter what, parents should avoid a power struggle over discipline in front of their child. Saying a simple "I'm taking care of it" should be a clear signal that additional help from the grandparent is not needed. "Grandparents can also make their own house rules of conduct," says Dr. Kornhaber. "In their home, when the parents and grandchildren are visiting, they can insist on certain behaviors." Saying "No toys on the table at Grandma's" is simple enough. If the rule is presented as specific to that house, the child won't be confused.

One traitorous note: Parents of kids who repeatedly throw tantrums, make scenes, and break things may actually do themselves a favor by listening to grandparents' suggestions.

Health and Safety

According to a survey conducted by Nissan, 21 percent of grandparents don't use car seats or booster seats with kids 8 and younger. Even grandparents who comply often do it grudgingly, saying, "We didn't have car seats or childproofing when you were kids."

Some members of the older generation also object to breastfeeding, despite the avalanche of information about its benefits. "My kids had formula, and they turned out okay" is their refrain.

If your grandparents fear baby gear and PDB (public display of breast), tell them that just because they didn't have safety latches doesn't mean you shouldn't use them now. Bring your sources of information. Give them access to the same authorities. Enlighten them.


Will they or won't they? That is the question. Some parents are annoyed or hurt when grandparents refuse to babysit. The dividing line is deep: Grandparents are either observers or participators. But babysitting should be seen as an opportunity, not as a requirement, says Carson. "Grandparents have their own lives. They may be too busy to drop everything," she says. In her practice, Carson rallies grandparents to do whatever they can to help, "but to a limit. If babysitting encroaches on their time too much or wears them out, they should slow down." Point out to grandparents that caring for grandkids is a gift. "It's the only way to really get to know the child. Plus, being around children can be energizing," says Dr. Kornhaber.

Yet some grandparents live by the coda "I've raised my kids; now it's your turn" or sink into an armchair and say, "Come here and give Papa a kiss. Now go run and play." But even spectators should be recruited to participate (if not babysit) by reading to a child, taking a walk together, anything. Grandfathers may feel awkward around kids, so direct them to fun jobs, such as playing with building blocks.

"Actively involving the grandparents may seem like more work for the parents," says Carson, "but the payoff is huge. Your kids will have an important addition to their lives."

Having had virtually no relationship with my own grandparents (very long story), I can attest to that. I may have missed out, but I'll see to it that my daughters don't. No matter how angry I may get at my folks or my folks-in-law, I quickly get over it when I see Maggie jumping on their furniture or Lucy drooling on their clothes. The sight just warms my heart. After all, it takes a village of people to raise a child. And, as Dr. Kornhaber says, "A few of them should be grandparents."

Valerie Frankel, the mother of two in New York City, is the author of the novel Smart Vs. Pretty.