When mothers and grandmothers parent children togetherWritten by Joannie DeBrito
What's inside this article
Nine-year-old Daniella and her six-year-old brother, Jesse, are involved in an intense power struggle over who gets to sit in the front seat of the car for a trip to the grocery store. Their mother, Maria, tells them to “Shut up!” and threatens to send them to bed without dinner as soon as they get home.
Maria’s mother, Consuela, stands between Maria and her children and says, “Don’t listen to your Mama. She’s just being mean and doesn’t know the first thing about being a mama. You listen to your Nana Maria. C’mon my little angels. Stop fighting and let’s go get some ice cream.”
Now the power struggle switches from the kids to the two adults, and a heated argument ensues. Who do you suppose will win?
In reality, nobody wins. According to a study conducted by Barnett et.al., everyone loses in this scenario because conflict between co-parenting mothers and grandmothers negatively impacts their own relationship and may also contribute to problem behaviours and a decrease in the development of healthy social skills in the children under their care.
According to the Pew Research Center, the number of people living in multigenerational family homes has doubled since 1980. Many of those homes include mothers who are co-parenting their kids with their own mothers. While exposure to caregiver depression, aggression and mother-grandmother conflict may affect children negatively in these settings, an upbeat mood, calm demeanor and cooperation between co-parenting relatives are likely to encourage healthy development in children.
A word to grandmothers
With this in mind, it is important for a grandmother to enter the child care arena with a mood and demeanor that is likely to make her grandkids feel loved, accepted and safe. Therefore, she would be wise to release any negative emotions or current anxieties prior to engaging with her grandchildren.
I find it helpful to “go to my closet” to verbally vent any feelings or emotions that might interfere with me presenting a pleasant demeanor to my own grandchildren. If I’m feeling stressed prior to spending time with my grandkids, I actually go and sit in my closet for a few minutes, talk with God about my frustrations, and pray that he will ease my anxiety or anger or whatever I may be feeling. I find that God is a very good listener! Having left any negative feelings in my closet, I am free to enjoy my time with my grandchildren.
Mom and grandma – working together
Mothers and daughters often have an intense emotional relationship, typically tied to disagreements or problems they have experienced in the past. If they are truly committed to encouraging their children to grow and thrive, they should adopt a “that was then, and this is now” approach, making every effort to avoid letting those conflicts arise in their presence. This will go a long way toward providing a loving, nurturing environment in which children can develop the skills they need to be content and successful in life.
Most importantly, being in the care of loving and accepting women who demonstrate a harmonious relationship will expose the children to, and hopefully make them long for, the unconditional love that is available to them through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Once the stage is set for a stable co-parenting relationship, the question of who’s in charge needs to be answered. Generally speaking, the children’s mother should be responsible for setting the rules of the household and establishing the rewards for following them and the consequences for breaking them. Grandmothers need to remember that it is likely that they will not be the primary caregivers for their grandchildren long-term, so they would be wise to empower their daughters to be in charge and set them up for later success.
If mothers are young, inexperienced and clueless about appropriate strategies for discipline, grandmothers can certainly serve as mentors to teach and encourage them. But they should also bear in mind that many things have changed since they were raising their own children. What worked for them as young mothers may not work for their daughters and their children.
Suggest – don’t criticize
When grandmothers have wisdom to share, they would be wise to offer it in the form of a suggestion rather than critical commentary. Instead of stating, “You shouldn’t do that,” put a positive spin on it by saying, “You might want to try this approach and see how that works.”
I had the opportunity to practice this during a recent visit with my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren in their home. My daughter and I are on opposite ends of the cleaning and organization continuum. Let’s just say that she has a much more “relaxed” style than I do!
Rather than trying to get her to be as enthusiastic as I am about keeping things smudge and dirt free, I have watched her establish her own regimens for taking care of her house. In fact, I have learned to be less particular about the way my own house looks after observing her way of managing the space in her home.
During my recent visit, she was voicing frustration that her kids had not been doing such a good job of picking up after themselves. Having just passed by the bedroom she shares with her husband, I chuckled to myself as I thought, “Well, I can see why!” But instead of saying that, I smiled and very gently said, “I wonder if it might be easier for them to remember to pick up after themselves if you and John would do the same. You might want to try that and see if it makes a difference.”
I must have said it in a sufficiently non-critical way because a few weeks later she said, “Hey, Mom! I have gotten so organized lately! It has made my life so much easier and I actually feel better.” “Really?” I responded. “What made you decide to do that?” She laughed and said, “Well, when you mentioned – and you were really nice about it, Mom – that our kids might pick up after themselves if we did, that made sense, so I decided to try it.”
The most important part of that exchange was “I decided . . .” My offering a suggestion rather than a critical comment empowered my daughter to make her own decision. If I had criticized her, that would have set up a power struggle and robbed her of the opportunity to learn something new and helpful. She then went on to say, “I have a few more things I want to pick your brain about” and proceeded to ask for ideas about how to handle some other issues going on in her family. I have found that responding to her questions is ever so much more helpful than offering unsolicited advice.
5 action steps for grandmother/mother co-parenting
If you’re co-parenting with your daughter, here are some very specific steps you can take together to encourage a cooperative relationship and provide a nurturing, healthy environment for your grandchildren.
- Meet to discuss how to manage typical parenting issues, such as eating and feeding times, nap and bedtimes, safety, discipline and conflict between kids. Once rules have been established, along with rewards for following them and consequences for breaking them, write them down where they can be easily referenced. If the children are old enough, explain the rules, rewards and consequences together so the kids understand that Mom and Grandma both agree on them.
- Regularly review how things are going with your co-parenting, and agree to calmly discuss any disagreements when the children are not present. If either Mom or Grandma feels angry, take time to let the emotion go before talking about the disagreement.
- Take every opportunity to express gratitude to each other for caring for the children and cooperating with one another.
- Expose children to the unique qualities and skills of Mom and Grandma, and have each woman take leadership in areas of special gifts or talents. For example, if Mom is a great cook and Grandma loves to hike, set aside special time for engaging in those activities. This will help children appreciate each caregiver as special and unique and will remind Mom about Grandma’s important contributions to the kids’ lives, and vice versa.
- Be intentional about celebrating good behaviour, newly acquired skills and examples of good character together. If Mom and Grandma take the time to recognize achievements of all kinds with hugs, verbal encouragement and the occasional tangible reward, children will learn the value of obedience, hard work and cooperation.
The opportunity to shape the hearts, minds and souls of children is a privilege that must be taken very seriously. Parenting is an exhausting journey with rich rewards when children are provided with a loving environment in which to grow and develop. Caregivers who cooperate with one another, despite pre-existing conflicts and disagreements, are likely to see the benefits of their teamwork in children who feel safe, secure, loved and valued.
As you journey on the road of co-parenting with your daughter, may you find inspiration in these words from Scripture:
Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other's faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others (Colossians 3:12-13 NLT).
Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT, is the director of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family in the U.S. She draws from over 30 years of diverse experience as a parent educator, family life educator, school social worker, administrator and registered mental health professional.
© 2017 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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