Discipline Protocol When Divorced Daughter and Grandkids Are Living at Parents’ Home

As grandparents, how should we approach discipline with grandchildren who live under our roof? Our divorced daughter and her children recently moved in with us, and this has already led to some tense situations. What's the best way to handle this?

Look at it this way. With or without children, your daughter is an adult – not a child who is obligated to obey your rules and adhere to your standards simply because you happen to be her mother and father. She will always owe you honor and respect (Exodus 20:12), but as an adult she is your peer and your equal in every way. She may be living in your home, but there’s an important sense in which her status there is comparable to that of any other rent-paying boarder. Your relationship with her is no longer what it was during her childhood and adolescent years.

Part of what this means is that you are no longer responsible for her in quite the same way. As a full-fledged adult, she has acquired a number of adult responsibilities of her own, including those related to her former marriage and her decision to bring children into the world. God has laid those responsibilities squarely on her shoulders, not yours. This is something that you all need to understand if you’re to function efficiently as three adults living together in the same house. There is a division of labor here that needs to be clearly specified and observed.

To put it another way, this is primarily an issue of boundaries. The main question you need to settle is, “What’s mine and what isn’t?” Naturally, you love your grandchildren and you have an important role to play in their lives, but in the final analysis they aren’t yours – they’re your daughter’s. Among other things, this means that it’s not up to you to make sure that their hair is brushed and their faces washed, that they eat the right foods and wear the right clothes, or that they’re appropriately punished when they misbehave. You may have very definite opinions on these subjects, but the fact remains that this isn’t “your stuff.” The bottom line is that Mom is still Mom, and it’s up to her to raise her children as she sees fit. If she asks you for advice, by all means give it. Otherwise, it’s best to stand aside and keep your mouth closed.

Having established what isn’t yours, it’s also crucial to determine what is. And in a situation like this, it’s worth remembering that your house, your furniture, your yard, your pets and all of your personal effects belong to you. So does your personal dignity. As guests in your home, your daughter and her children need to understand all this. You may disapprove when little Susie eats a Ding-Dong half an hour before dinner or when teenage Johnny gets a tattoo, but in either case there isn’t much you can do. If, on the other hand, Susie jumps on your sofa or uses your best china to make mud pies, or if Johnny smashes your car or sasses you to your face, you have every right to demand satisfaction. No one is entitled to abuse other people’s property or treat them disrespectfully.

We strongly suggest that you set up a couple of family meetings to sort all this out before any more water is allowed to go under the bridge. The first of these gatherings should be an “adults only” affair. This will give you and your daughter an opportunity to establish expectations and clarify boundaries without the children listening in (we don’t want to assume anything about your grandchildren, but in their position some kids might try to manipulate the situation so as to “divide and conquer” the adults). The second meeting should include everyone.

What should you do at the first meeting? You can begin by talking about your daughter’s future. Is she looking to stay on with you indefinitely, or does she see this as a stop-gap measure? Is she willing to divvy up the chores and play her part in maintaining the household? Will she take on a fair share of the cooking, cleaning, and financial expenses? These are things that should be openly discussed and written down. Don’t assume anything. You should also make it clear that while grandparents are more than willing to pitch in and help, they must not be taken advantage of or regarded as “automatic babysitters.” And it’s important to agree between yourselves that the children will never be used as pawns in a competitive game for control. Once you’re all on the same page, you can proceed to set up a time to sit down with the kids and make sure they understand the ground-rules.

If you need help working through these suggestions and applying them to your personal circumstances, feel free to call our Counseling department. Our counselors would love to speak with you, and they can provide referrals to Christian family counselors practicing in your local area.


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