The Generation Clash


On most nights, Jackson has a strict bedtime routine of lights out at 8 p.m. At Grandma and Grandpa’s, he reports he’s often up well into the night.

When parenting and grandparenting styles clash, problems can escalate quickly. Parents often feel judged by grandparents as they struggle to find their own way to raise children. And grandparents feel as though their years of experience are being discarded, when their own kids reject the way they were brought up.

“Families have all kinds of dynamics,” says Suzanne LaFollette-Black, associate state director for North Carolina AARP. To avoid family discord, she encourages parents and grandparents to plan ahead before visits and care arrangements, so feelings don’t get hurt. The keys to reducing friction are fostering open communication, putting expectations in writing, acknowledging generational divides and ignoring the small stuff.

Communicating Expectations
Open communication enables each party to state expectations up front, especially when grandparents live nearby and offer regular babysitting, LaFollette-Black says. The first rule is to never assume retired grandparents can babysit. Instead, ask if they are available so resentment doesn’t build.

If parents have certain parameters and ideas of how they are raising their children, it’s also important they make their expectations clear to the grandparents. Don’t assume anything.

LaFollette-Black suggests putting an action plan into writing. “Writing it out makes sure everyone is on the same page and there is no resentment,” she says.

Lists of food choices (especially if there are food allergies or a limitation on sweets) or written daily routines provide grandparents a no-nonsense and non-threatening guide to what parents expect their child to eat or to do during the course of a day. When grandparents aren’t given a detailed plan, they revert to what they used to do when they were raising kids. And that’s often where problems arise.

Finding Middle Ground
Jennifer King of Durham says it is important to go with your intuition when it comes to navigating the grandparent relationship. Her in-laws, the Etters, moved from Tennessee to be closer to King’s son, Erik, a few years ago.

“I understand that they are going to have a different relationship with Erik than I am,” King says. “Part of that means different rules or habits or other ways of doing things. I think it’s OK for a child to understand that in different contexts, different behaviors are allowed.”

But being at Grandma’s house doesn’t mean anything goes. King says her in-laws have been instructed to put her 4-year-old son, Erik, into timeout for any destructive or hurtful behavior. King lets them know what his latest misbehaviors are and what punishments she has used. She allows the in-laws to decide whether or not to follow the rules. But with Erik spending more time with his grandparents, King says it’s important for them to be comfortable with discipline.

“I thought it was appropriate (his grandparents) put him in timeout or otherwise he’d think they didn’t have any rules,” King says. “As grandparents, they tend to spoil him more than we do. They also understand that if they let him have his way on everything, that he won’t be very pleasant to have over.”

And backing up parents’ rules doesn’t have to eliminate grandparents’ rights to spoil their grandkids. King says her son watches more television, stays up later and gets more treats at his grandparents’ house, but it’s not something she feels the need to speak up about.

Support and Understanding
Taking generational differences into account is extremely important in establishing grandparenting roles and expectations, says Lenora Campbell, director of the Grandparenting Program at Winston-Salem State University.
The important thing to remember, she says, is that different is not necessarily bad. Campbell urges grandparents and parents to sit down and discuss their unique perspectives.

“The whole parenting process with children today is so different than what the grandparents can recall or imagine, so they have to be patient with their parents,” Campbell says. “Remember, they are coming from a different reference point.”

On the other hand, it is important to remember that there are some aspects of parenting that just don’t change. Campbell encourages parents to tap into some of the perennial wisdom grandparents have.

Gayle Etter, Erik’s grandmother, says grandparents have to know their role, which is to be supportive. “You have to remember that you are just a support, and if you can’t be a support, then you better get out of the way,” she says. “You never want to do anything that would undermine your children. You have to love your children, and you have to love your grandchildren. It’s such an easy thing to do.”
Courtney Doi is a freelance writer and English instructor who lives in Durham with her husband and 2-year-old daughter.