3 Major Grandparenting Challenges

A grandfather looks out of the corner of his eye to find that instead of fishing with him off of the pier, the boy is completely distracted by a tablet and a cell phone.
Be prepared for these three challenges when grandchildren are in your care

Larry and Sarah’s son and his wife planned a seven-day vacation to Hawaii. So Larry and Sarah offered to watch their three grandchildren. They envisioned extended time to enjoy their grandkids. Early into the experience, though, they realized they were not prepared to deal with issues that required parenting, rather than just grandparenting.

They also were shocked by how much time their grandchildren spent on their phones texting friends and watching videos. And two of the three grandchildren were picky eaters and refused to eat half of the meals Sarah served. Larry and Sarah stumbled through it all, making do as best they could while still enjoying their time together.

Discipline problem

That changed when their eldest grandson, Nathan, snuck out in the middle of the night to hang out with friends. They didn’t know he’d done this until someone called and alerted them. As soon as they found out, they sat Nathan down and told him he had betrayed their trust and that he was not going to be able to go out with his friends until his parents returned.

Nathan responded by texting his mother, who said he was allowed to go out with friends and use his phone.

Larry and Sarah told their grandson that his parents had given them the responsibility and authority while he was staying with them. They were going to stick with their decision.

Strained relationships

When their son and daughter-in-law returned, Larry and Sarah tried to explain their decision. But they were told they had overstepped. Though Larry and Sarah’s boundaries were appropriate, they were not the same as their adult children’s — something they didn’t realize until it was too late.

“I wish we would have known those boundaries before we watched our grandkids,” Sarah says. “We probably wouldn’t have the tension we have now with our kids.”

You too may want to successfully partner with your adult children to help grandkids become strong and mature adults. But grandparents need to understand how and when they should enforce boundaries — especially when it comes to three potential landmines: discipline, food choices and media.

Grandparenting Challenge No. 1

The best way to get on the same page with your kids is to discuss what to do when a grandchild is under your care and is disobedient. The more time you spend with a grandchild, the more important it is to gain clarity, especially if you watch grandchildren weekly or for an extended period. Consider these questions to start the discussion.

How would you like us to navigate discipline?

In general, you want to learn if the grandchild’s parents prefer you to discipline or wait for them to deal with the child’s disobedience. If the parents prefer that you do not discipline, then ask how they envision you enforcing boundaries in your home. If they want you to discipline, then talk about specific scenarios, such as what to do if a child refuses to go to bed or is repeatedly disrespectful. The goal is not to insinuate that grandchildren have behavior problems, but rather to communicate expectations and reduce surprises.

What type of discipline do you want us to use?

You want clarity about how you should discipline a grandchild in your care. What is the parents’ preference about:

  • Timeouts
  • Grounding
  • Taking away a personal item such as a phone
  • Other methods you might use

Do you have the freedom to spank, or do the parents view discipline as their responsibility? Most grandparents do not want to discipline a grandchild. But some grandparents watch grandchildren on a weekly basis and their adult children have asked them to do so in order to maintain consistency in a grandchild’s life.

Grandparenting Challenge No. 2

A friend approached me with a big smile and asked if I wanted to see a photo of his refrigerator’s vegetable drawer. His mischievous smile told me that I wouldn’t see carrots or lettuce. Sure enough, he presented a picture of a fully extended vegetable drawer that was halfway filled with candy bars. “I love to feed my grandchildren vegetables, and they love to eat them,” he said with a chuckle.

The truth is that my friend longs to be a good grandparent. But without realizing it, his approach to grandparenting created frustration because his son purposefully limits the amount of sugar his children consume.

For some parents, food is a major issue because of food sensitivities, allergies or eating habits. Generally, if food issues matter to a grandchild’s parents, it should matter to you. Here are some questions you can ask:

  • What are your food preferences for your kids?
  • How can we accommodate specific eating habits?
  • Are there any special diets, allergies or sensitivities we should be aware of?
  • What meals, snacks and drinks are your children’s favorites?
  • How much sugary foods and beverages are allowed?
  • What would you like us to do when a grandchild refuses to eat a meal or does not eat everything on his or her plate?

Accommodate as much as possible. One of the secrets to making Grandma and Grandpa’s house special is serving food that everyone enjoys and feels good about.

Grandparenting Challenge No. 3

When my oldest two sons were in preschool, they were blessed to spend a couple of afternoons each week at their grandparents’ house. One day, they came home and began talking about a Star Wars movie they had seen at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I was disappointed because I had envisioned watching that movie as a fun father-and-son activity.

I asked their grandparents if the boys had watched the movie. As it turned out, the boys had only watched a commercial for a new Star Wars movie. It reminded me not to jump to conclusions and helped me realize I had expectations about television and movies that I had not communicated, which led to a productive conversation about media usage when grandchildren were at their home.

Questions to clarify

If you haven’t discussed this topic, here are some questions to clarify parents’ media expectations:

  • What movies and shows are the grandchildren allowed to watch? Which would you prefer they not see?
  • What video games can a grandchild play?
  • How much time do you allow your child to spend on devices such as iPads or smartphones?
  • Would you like us to ask permission before watching something a grandchild has never seen?

If parents are conservative in their media choices, err on the side of caution. But if parents are liberal in their media consumption, do not speak poorly to a grandchild or condescendingly to adult children about their choices. If you are going to establish screen-time limits that grandchildren don’t have in their own home, be proactive. You should state that at your house you only watch television for an hour a day because you want to spend time having fun together.

The underlying reason

Your goal is to learn parent preferences, discover unstated expectations and arrive at an agreement about what is acceptable and unacceptable. For younger grandchildren, invite your adult child to provide a list of parent-approved shows or send movies that the grandkids can watch. For grandchildren with a phone, ask how the phone is used at their home. Is the phone allowed in the bedroom at night? Can the grandchild text or call others? Is the grandchild allowed to go on the internet? You will build trust if you let your adult child know that you want to honor his or her media preferences.

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