When Grandparenting Clashes With Parenting

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?