How to build a successful grandparent-child bond

By Allison Lawlor on September 20, 2012
A couple of years ago, I found myself in an awkward situation with my normally calm and collected father-in-law. He was pushed to the limit by Lara, my then two-year-old daughter. Acting like the demanding toddler she can be, he yelled at her to stop crying, in front of me. I was shocked and confused. Respecting my father-in-law and the good relationship he has with my kids, I was sympathetic with his frustration, but on the other hand I was angry with him for further upsetting her and in turn interfering with my parenting. He later expressed regret and apologized for his outburst. We agreed to disagree on some aspects of parenting and for him to leave the disciplining up to me.

With longer life expectancies, today’s grandparents can play a significant role in their grandchildren’s lives for longer than previous generations, from gift giver and babysitter to confidant and role model. But like any close relationship, grandparents can also bring new sources of tension and frustration within an extended family as roles and relationships are negotiated. Parents and grandparents alike often find themselves trying to navigate uncharted waters, especially when it comes to sensitive issues like gift giving and discipline.

“Parents – loosen up on grandparents,” says Alyson Schafer, a Toronto-based parenting expert and author of the new book Ain’t Misbehavin’: Tactics for Tantrums, Meltdowns, Bedtime Blues and Other Perfectly Normal Kid Behaviors. “It is a parent’s job to raise and discipline their kids. It is a grandparent’s job to undermine that authority and spoil the grandkids.”

If grandma occasionally gives chocolate before dinner, even though that’s not the rule at home, it’s okay, says Alyson. The treat will not only create a laugh, but a bond between grandma and grandchild. Things won’t always go exactly as parents like, she says, but too often, strife about such issues can cause parents to push grandparents to the fringes of a child’s life, and that is far worse for the child. In extreme cases, some parents forbid the grandparents from visiting due to such differences.

Parents need to speak up when something becomes an ongoing problem – before resentment sets in, says Sara Dimerman, a Toronto-based family therapist and author of the parenting book Character is the Key. If, for example, a grandparent is babysitting after school and gives their grandchild treats, but when dinnertime comes later at home he won’t eat a healthy meal, the parent might share the reasons for her concerns with the grandparent and see if they can reach a reasonable compromise or solution – such as offering a healthy dinner at an earlier time followed by a treat.

“Since grandparents are very important in your kids’ lives, it’s best to try to maintain harmony,” says Sara.

When it comes to discipline, experts agree that it’s best for grandparents to not get involved. Grandparents can still set limits in their home, model good behaviour and respect, but when it comes to actually disciplining it’s better to leave it to the parents. If grandparents regularly contradict or take the lead in disciplining – especially when the parents are present too – relationships between adults can be damaged, says Sara.

If a grandparent becomes a disciplinarian and the parent isn’t comfortable, Alyson’s advice is: keep it simple. Instead of lecturing or getting defensive, she suggests saying something like: “Thanks for your concern, but it is my job to discipline.”

Some grandparents may need to learn new discipline techniques, she adds. A slap on the wrist might have been acceptable a generation ago, but many families today prefer less violent options such as time outs.

“The best thing for grandparents to do is be quiet when there’s a discipline issue,” says Elsie Cullum, a grandmother of eight who lives near Colborne, Ont. “If you’re not quiet then the parents can resent you. As a grandparent you have to tread carefully.”

When Elsie is babysitting and one of her grandchildren does something she doesn’t like, she makes sure to discipline in a way that she knows is consistent with the parents. Since the grandkids don’t want to get on grandma’s bad side, it usually means simply asking them to stop, explaining why she didn’t like what they did and telling them in a firm voice that it shouldn’t happen again. “I think it’s just called respect for the grandparent,” she says.

Discipline isn’t the only potential source of tension between parents and grandparents. When the elder generation showers money, toys and treats on little ones, it can create problems. If a large cheque has been given, Alyson advises grandparents to be clear on how the gift will be used to avoid misunderstandings. Can the money be spent however the child wants or should it be saved or go toward something specific like hockey equipment or summer camp?

While grandparents are often relied on to lend a helping hand, it can lead to misunderstandings. “It shouldn’t be assumed or expected that grandparents should always be available to babysit their grandchildren or that it is their responsibility to do so,” says Sara. “If they are free to lend a helping hand, then this should be appreciated and not taken for granted.”

For Elsie, babysitting is positive in two ways – she helps her kids by giving them a break, and spends quality time alone with her grandkids. “You really get to know the kids when mom and dad aren’t around,” says the retired teacher.

When it comes to the touchy issue of handing out advice, grandparents have to remember to ask if it is wanted, says Alyson. Often grandparents have valid things to say but deliver it in the wrong way, she says. Advice can easily feel like criticism. If the advice is welcome, she says give it gently, out of earshot of the grandkids. Once it has been given, leave it alone because harping on an issue will only create resentment.

“Grandparents feel that they have more experience because they have raised their own kids,” says Sara, but adds that doesn’t automatically make them experts. Parenting approaches change over the generations, so there’s a good chance parents aren’t raising their children exactly how they were raised.

A grandparent, for example, who raised their children in a punitive, authoritarian environment, may see it as a sign of disrespect when their grandkids express themselves honestly and freely. Parents and grandparents can try to communicate their differences or concerns, but may have to agree to disagree and accept there is more than one way to raise kids.

Starting on the right foot is important for grandparents wanting to develop strong bonds with their grandkids, while maintaining healthy relationships with their grown children. Susan Bosak is chair of the Legacy Project (legacyproject.org), a Toronto-based multigenerational education initiative. She recommends grandparents take a proactive approach:
  • Be there right after the birth to help with the baby.
  • Make weekly contact as children grow, either with a visit, a phone call, Skype or email. Ask “What happened this week? What are your plans for the weekend?” It doesn’t have to be a long conversation, but one where interest is shown in the grandchild’s life.

“Grandparents have to decide to make the relationship a priority,” says Susan. “You don’t want to just be the birthday present grandparent. You have to get to know the grandkids as people. It’s like developing a friendship.”

Building a meaningful relationship between generations isn’t about buying expensive, fancy gifts or going to exotic places, says Susan. “It is about the little things that make the biggest impact,” she says. Citing a story from her book, How to Build the Grandma Connection, Susan tells of a young boy who described his favourite memory of his grandfather soon after he died. It was the time they sat at the edge of a fountain in a mall sharing a chocolate bar. “For him it was a huge, special moment,” says Susan.

When Elsie visits her three grandchildren in Chester, N.S., they do simple things like cooking, taking the dog for a walk, playing on the beach and sewing. Every visit, she hauls out the sewing machine and they sit beside her while she mends their favourite clothes and stuffed animals.

“It’s such a thrill to see these kids growing up and blossoming. You’re so proud of the kids because you know them so well,” says Elsie. “You can enjoy them rather than be responsible for them.”


Allison Lawlor is a Halifax-based writer and mother of two girls who is grateful for all the grandparents in her life (or the grandparent support she receives).

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2012.

By Allison Lawlor| September 20, 2012

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