Luke Voytas is a pediatrician and author in Portland, Oregon. His posts combine research and common sense to help parents be calm and confident in raising their kids.

Grandma and Grandpa: A Parent's Survival Guide

Grandma and Grandpa: A Parent's Survival Guide

“The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy.”

-Humorist Sam Levenson

Grandma and Grandpa aren’t just people. They are a glimmering hope, perhaps just out of reach, of free childcare, support, and valuable advice. They are a lingering cloud of judgment, passive aggression, and sabotage for your painstakingly crafted parenting style. They are a treasure trove of parental wisdom, wisdom that has been all but devoured by the urge to buy your kids any and everything that might loosely be described as “crap.”

Over the past few decades, grandparents have played increasingly bigger roles in taking care of their grandkids for a couple of reasons. First, grandparents are living longer than ever before, so there’s just more time for a relationship. Second, the percentage of families with two wage-earners has also steadily increased, which means that more families are relying on grandparents for all or part of their childcare. A recent 2018 study found that, in the United States, 50% of young kids, 35% of elementary-age kids, and 20% of teens spend at least some time with their grandparents in a typical week. (1) And thank god for them! They’re amazing! They’re great! We owe them so much! But. . . .they’re also so. . . .frustrating.

I love when grandparents come in to the office for their grandkids’ checkups, because they’re so sweet and proud. And I’ve noticed how they inevitably reminisce about all the cute and precocious things that mom or dad did when they were little, too. But I also talk with a lot of parents who are secretly frustrated by grandma and grandpa. It’s a fine line to have to depend on grandparents for help while still insisting that they care for your kids according to your principles. Some of the stories I hear are priceless. There’s the grandpa who loves his six-month-old grandson, but shows his affection by giving him a little Coke every time mom turns around (“But he likes it!”). The grandma who is willing to watch her granddaughter twice a week, but can’t do so without lunch at Burgerville and a new toy every time. The grandpa who’s always willing to help out but thinks booster seats are “a millennial thing” that makes kids soft.

What happened? Thirty years ago your parents wouldn’t let you get away with anything. They’d make you and your two siblings split a small sundae, and now they’re letting your kids get larges to have to themselves – and you’re the one who has to deal with the aftermath. Did they just forget? Or are they evil geniuses, and is this all payback for all the terrible things you did to them as a kid? In retrospect, you probably should have just been a better kid, but let’s move forward into the nitty-gritty of grandparent involvement. We’ll look at the costs and benefits to all parties, and try to validate the huge role grandparents play while striving to keep our sanity and control of how our kids are raised.

The benefits of grandparent involvement are undeniable. A 2008 survey of over 1500 kids aged 11-16 found that kids who were closer with their grandparents had fewer emotional and behavioral problems, and they also had more resiliency in dealing with stressful events such as bullying or their parents divorcing. (2) This shouldn’t be surprising. Resiliency, which may be the biggest single factor in a child’s success, is built by supportive relationships with loved ones. Grandparents add another pillar of support to that resiliency – and I’ve seen many teenagers lean heavily on this bond when they’re going through tough times with their parents. Other research has suggested better educational outcomes and more pro-social behavior in kids who spend more time with grandparents.

The benefits seem to go both ways – a 2015 Australian study found that grandmothers who “minded” grandchildren (as they say in Australia) had significantly higher cognitive scores than those who did not. (3) Stimulation is great for aging brains, and grandkids are nothing if not stimulating. BUT (don’t tell your parents this!) that benefit was seen for watching grandkids only once a week and scores fell with more days. So grandkids in moderation are a social and cognitive delight, while in heavy doses they are terrors that threaten one’s mental well-being.

Here’s another pearl that may come in handy when trying to recruit grandma and grandpa to help out. A 2017 study found that seniors who are involved in caring for their grandkids (but not the primary caregivers) have a 37% reduction in mortality. (4) This potentially changes the whole dynamic since watching your kids is literally essential for your parents’ survival. So the next time grandma and grandpa watch the kids while you and your partner head out for dinner and drinks, and you get home like an hour late, try saying “You’re welcome” rather than “Thank you.”

Now that we feel all cuddly about gammy and paw-paw, let’s bring it back down to earth. Some Debbie-downers decided to do a review study to look at how grandparents increase their grandkids’ chances of getting cancer! (5) You’ve gotta have some serious personal baggage to even conceive of a study like that. The researchers start with the premise that lifestyle patterns which predispose us to cancer are often established when we are children. They found that grandparents tended to have adverse effects on kids’ weight, physical activity, diet, and tobacco exposure/use – all factors that increase cancer risk. So the next time grandpa lets your five year-old eat two large pieces of pie because “he wanted more,” you can yell “Stop giving my kid cancer!”

So now for the hard part. How do you let grandparents know how much you value their help and still keep control over your parenting style? First, you’ve got to understand where your grandparents are coming from. They raised you in a different era, a time when five-year-olds could bounce around like Gummi Bears in the station wagon, and anything by Chef Boyardee was a good solid meal. Things change quickly in the world of parenting and pediatrics, and you need to be more tactful than just saying that everything they used to do is now wrong. So tell them why you do what you do. Buy them a simple parenting book, and consider bringing them along to the pediatrician (it helps to hear objective advice).

Also, you CANNOT get past the fact that your parents raised you. They did, and they’re very conscious and sensitive about that fact. For you, they have always been the authority, so it can feel like an indictment of the job they did for you when you question their expertise. Since you’ve been a teenager, you’ve probably treated most advice from your parents with an eye roll. But try to take a big breath now and ask them questions. It’ll go a long way towards them feeling useful and not defensive, and it will give you some currency for when you do need to challenge them. Plus, you might learn something. It’s possible. In my experience grandparents are kind of a disaster with little day-to-day stuff that infuriates us (but probably doesn’t matter so much) and pretty great with big picture perspective stuff (which probably matters more).

Finally, as Kenny Rogers would say, you’ve got to know when to fold ‘em and know when to scold ‘em. Pick your battles. Sometimes, you’ve got to let go of the small stuff such as butterscotch candies before dinner and getting the kids to bed 30 minutes late. But when it involves your kid’s well-being, or grandma and grandpa are ignoring something you’ve talked about multiple times, you need to put your foot down. Make it clear that it’s important to you, and that you and your partner have made decisions abut what’s best for your kid. That may be an uncomfortable tone to strike with your parents, but otherwise it will fester and probably sour your relationship. They may be a bit offended, but they’ll get over it – I mean, you’ve vomited on these people and wrecked a good portion of their stuff, and they’ve stuck with you to this point.

"The best babysitters, of course, are the baby's grandparents. You feel completely comfortable entrusting your baby to them for long periods, which is why most grandparents flee to Florida."

-Dave Barry

1. Dunifon RE et al. Backup parents, playmates, friends: grandparents’ time with grandchildren. Family Relations. March 2018; 80:752-767.

2. Buchanan A., & Flouri E. (2008). Involved grandparenting and child well-being: Non-technical summary (research summary) ESRC End of Award Report, RES-000-22-2283. Swindon: ESRC.

3. Burn KF, Szoeke C. Grandparenting predicts late-life cognition: results from the Women’s Healthy Ageing Project. Maturitas. March 2015;81(2): 317-22.

4. Hilbrand S et al. Caregiving within and beyond the family is associated with lower mortality for the caregiver: a prospective study. Evolution and Human Behavior. May 2017;38(3):397-403.

5. Chambers SA et al. A systematic review of grandparents’ influence on grandchildren’s cancer risk factors. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(11): e0185420.

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