The Unspoken Wedge Between Parents and Grandparents

Each generation has its own norms for parenting. Arguing over the differences can be an emotional minefield.

grandparents drinking sodas with kids eating chips at beach
Martin parr / Magnum photos

One of the sweetest parts of being a grandparent is being invited by your own adult children to spend time with your grandkids. But the invitation comes with a few conditions, and in even the most loving families, grandparents ignore these rules on a regular basis. For many reasons, they can’t help overstepping the boundaries, whether because of a prickliness at their own kids telling them what to do, a sincere belief that they know more about raising children than their kids do, or, more poignantly, a resistance to the harsh reality that they’ve aged out of the cherished role of family decision maker.

The result can be fraught encounters that can make or break a relationship.

“It increasingly feels like my parents are spending a lot of time trying to instill Christianity into our son,” says a 34-year-old editor who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two young boys. Neither she nor her husband is religious, yet their older son, age 3, “often comes back from time spent with [his grandparents] singing church songs and saying things like ‘God made us!’ and ‘God watches us!’” she told me.

At first, this mother (who requested anonymity to avoid offending her parents) and her husband were “sort of alarmed” about it, she said. But now they’re just a bit flummoxed—and, on a good day, amused. “I think we both have a sense of humor about how funny it is for two agnostic parents to have a kid running around singing ‘Jesus Loves Me,’” she said.

Yet even if she wanted to raise the issue with her parents, she said she’s not quite sure how she would. “My mom gets quite defensive about anything with the kids,” she said. “Even when I’ve tried to bring things up with her as carefully as possible, not at an emotional moment, there’s a lot of fallout.” She said this fallout comes from any disputed choice at all, such as Grandma bribing her grandson with sweets to get him to eat another carrot. “I rarely bring these things up with her, because the risk-benefit ratio is not there,” she said.

Her parents moved halfway across the country so they could be close to the editor’s two children—their only grandchildren—and they have a loving relationship with the boys. “We are so intertwined in each other’s lives; we see them several times a week,” the editor said. “Having a difficult conversation that leads to a few days of discomfort and cold-shoulder treatment—that’s tough, and not something I want to get into unless really, really important.”

Conflicts between parents and grandparents over what is best for a grandchild can be as varied as fights about junk food or disagreements about spanking. How many grandparents refuse to put infants to sleep on their back, as parents ask them to, because in their day babies were put down on their belly? How many insist on allowing their grandchildren another cookie or half hour of television, even when they know the parents have rules about sugar or screen time?

Last year, the Mott Poll, a project of the C. S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan, surveyed families with at least one living grandparent. Did parents and grandparents ever disagree about what was best for the grandchildren? Yes, said 43 percent of the respondents, who were all parents, not grandparents. Among that group, the points of contention included, among others, discipline (57 percent), food (44 percent), screen time (36 percent), and bedtime (21 percent). (Surprisingly, to me at least, only 10 percent expressed concern about how often the grandparents posted photos of their grandchildren on social media.)

Parents sometimes think that complaining about Grandma’s food choices just isn’t worth it, because she provides so much in terms of adoration, attention, emotional support, and free babysitting. But even unspoken conflicts can drive a wedge between the two generations—which is why some of the parents I interviewed for this story begged me not to use even their first name.

Many parents think carefully about how they raise their kids as a specific corrective to the way they themselves were raised. They see their parenting style as a way to fix their own parents’ mistakes. This might make it extra vexing when grandparents disregard the parents’ rules.

Several of the mothers I spoke with, for instance, mentioned their own disordered eating as children, which set off alarm bells when they saw their mothers engaging in the same triggering behavior: making the grandchildren clean their plates, or urging them to eat more than they seemed to want. “Immigrant moms especially think the bigger the child, the healthier,” said a 37-year-old business owner and mother from Chicago, whose parents and in-laws are all from the Middle East. “I had to sit my mom down and say, ‘You’re force-feeding my child; this can cause an unhealthy relationship to food.’”

She tried to explain her philosophy, and her pediatrician’s, to her mother and mother-in-law: that children should have healthy food offered to them, and after half an hour, whatever is left uneaten should be taken away. “That wasn’t part of the culture when they were raising us,” she told me. “They said they never heard of any of the things we mentioned to them.” Instead, her mother would sit her 3-year-old granddaughter on the floor and hand-feed her dinner for two hours until the plate was clean. It drove the Chicago mother a bit batty.

She tried to explain to her mother why two hours of hand-feeding went against what she and her husband wanted for their two young daughters, but she thinks her mother never really got it. Maybe, she feels, she was too delicate about laying down the rules. After all, there’s no good way to tell your mother, “I don’t want to make the same parenting mistakes you did.”

Karen Fingerman, who studies the relationship between parents and their adult children, has found that disagreement about how to raise grandchildren is a common refrain.

The hardest situation is when a grandparent leaps in with advice about how to feed, dress, educate, or discipline the grandchild. “It doesn’t matter who gives you unsolicited advice—nobody likes it,” Fingerman, the director of the Texas Aging & Longevity Center at the University of Texas at Austin, told me. It’s a hard habit for grandparents to break, she said. They’re just used to giving advice to their grown children, starting from as far back as “when the kids were babies and you were telling them, ‘Don’t touch that, honey,’ ‘Don’t cross the street.’ That’s your role as a parent, to tell your kid how to do something better.”

What has to happen is something quite difficult—from the perspective of both the parents and the grandparents. The grandparents have to learn to step back and allow their kids to call the shots. And the parents have to learn not to take the advice so personally. Ideally, Fingerman said, “they see their parents are flawed, and it’s okay.”

Talking with these young mothers made me wonder how my own grandmothering stacked up in my daughter’s eyes.

We generally agree on most details about what is best for my two granddaughters, ages 3 and almost 6. Or at least I think we do. But would my daughter, who is 37, gripe to a reporter about how I always cave in to my granddaughters’ requests to take a trip to their neighborhood dollar store? Or about how I laugh when they get a bit wild at dinnertime—they can be very funny—instead of insisting that they stay seated at the table and behave?

Or, for that matter, would I have complained about my own mother, who I felt undermined me every time I nursed my baby by saying that in her day, mothers were told that bottle-feeding was best, and, by the way, how did I know she was getting enough milk?

I never said anything to my mother, though my daughter did mention to me that she thought the dollar-store purchases were getting a bit excessive. (I tried to cut back, and then the pandemic happened and I stopped picking up my granddaughters from school and day care, so the situation became moot.)

Yet even a conversation about how grandparents might be overstepping, if the parents are brave enough to broach the subject, might not do much good, according to the Mott Poll.

Only 43 percent of the poll respondents mentioned complaints about grandparents’ behavior to the grandparents. Almost half of the grandparents who were involved in these discussions took the parents’ concerns seriously, and said that they would try to do better—and, according to the parents, changed their ways.

The other half did not. About one-third of the grandparents who were told about a conflict with the parents’ rules said they would try to do better, but, according to the parents, did not change. Another 17 percent flat-out refused to modify their behavior. “By the time people get to grandparent age, it’s really hard to change the way you interact with kids,” says Sarah Clark, a co-director of the Mott Poll.

As people get older, they’re more likely to find comfort and security in long-standing, familiar habits—and the routine of basic child care is a particularly well-worn one. Also ingrained is the belief that when you’re caring for a child you adore, your opinion is the only one that matters.

But how about that other large group of grandparents from the Mott Poll and their counterparts in real life—the ones whose children do have some complaints about how they interact with the grandchildren, but never mention them? How are the Brooklyn editor’s parents supposed to know that their bedtime Bible stories irritate their daughter and son-in-law if the daughter and son-in-law never bring it up? Look at it from the grandparents’ point of view: They have more experience raising children than their grown children do, and they think they must have done it pretty well too, because they’ve heard no complaints from their grown children about how they’re interacting with the grandkids.

Some of these requests, of course, are not just preferences about, say, whether screens are allowed at the dinner table, but are matters of health and safety that should be nonnegotiable: using a car seat correctly, taking cigarette smoking outside, insisting that the grandchild wear a bike helmet. And when grandparents ignore parents’ rules pertaining to health and safety, the result might be an outcome that neither party wants: restricted access to the grandchild.

That’s what happened with Shannon, 32, who had a baby girl last summer, at the height of the pandemic in her home state of Colorado. She and her husband wanted the baby’s grandparents to come meet her, but first they did their research to determine when that would be safe.

The couple decided that all four grandparents would need to wait two months before visiting the newborn, and that they would then need to isolate for 14 days, either in an RV or an Airbnb, before coming into the house. In addition, to protect the baby, the grandparents would need to get the two vaccines that pediatricians recommend for anyone in frequent contact with an infant: a Tdap booster shot and a flu vaccine.

The maternal grandparents drove an RV from their home in the Northwest, following all of the parents’ protocols. But Shannon told me that the paternal grandparents “don’t believe in science.” “COVID is not a real risk in their eyes. They have ignored the virus—going out to restaurants, going out with their friends,” she said. “They refuse to isolate; they say that’s something only liberals do.” Because they would not quarantine or vaccinate, they were not welcome to visit. They still have not personally met the baby, who is now almost nine months old.

Political differences with her in-laws had already led to a rather distressing relationship even before the baby was born, Shannon said. “We’ve had arguments about climate change, about vaccines, but we’ve been able to overcome those arguments somewhat,” she said, adding that she thought things would improve once they could all bond over a new baby. But with the grandparents’ refusal to follow the parents’ rules, any hopes of improvement evaporated. And in Shannon’s view, everyone’s life is worse off.

She said she is “heartbroken” for her daughter, who “could know what it’s like to be loved by [all four of] her grandparents. And it’s not because of COVID; it’s because of politics.” And she’s sad for her in-laws. “They’re missing this entire stage; it’s their only grandchild and they don’t know her.” They had been asking for a grandchild for years, she said, but they have more or less shut themselves out of her life. Now a FaceTime relationship is all they have.

Limiting access to grandchildren is an extreme response, but it’s not that rare. The Mott Poll found that when parents got up the resolve to talk with grandparents about whatever was bothering them, the grandparents who were intransigent sometimes ended up facing consequences. When grandparents said they would do better but didn’t really change their behavior, 32 percent of parents followed up by limiting their time with the grandchildren. When grandparents said outright that they wouldn’t follow the parents’ rules, 42 percent of them ended up with restricted access to the grandchildren.

Still, the majority of parents in the Mott Poll took the path that my correspondents took—the path I took, too, when I chafed at some of the things my own mother did that felt like a harsh judgment of my mothering skills. They didn’t say anything, and they didn’t limit the time the grandparents spent with the grandchildren.

“It’s been so precious to watch their bond with my children grow since they moved here,” the Brooklyn mother said. In that context, the Jesus issue is just “one thing that causes some head scratching, and leads us to think harder about our own point of view and the way we’re raising our kids.”

In sum, parents steer clear of conflict for several reasons. There are the complicated ones, which involve reckoning with new roles of authority in the family and sensitivities around dishing out parenting advice. Then there’s the simple one: the recognition that the grandparent-grandchild relationship, even if it comes with some tension, is ultimately a gift.