When Sophie, a loving grandmother of two, complained to her adult son in front of the children that he was being too lenient with the boys, she was told to stop interfering.
On a weekend sleepover at his grandparents' house, 8-year-old Zack refused to go to bed. He insisted he be allowed to stay up past 10 p.m., because that was his bedtime at home.
Whether you're caring for your children's children after school, on weekends or during holidays, being a grandparent can be rewarding and satisfying. But when it comes to disciplining grandchildren or disagreeing with parents, tensions can run high.
"Today's grandparents are an important resource for parents and grandchildren," says Amy Goyer, coordinator of AARP's Grandparent Information Center. "Learning to handle family conflict is an important part of good grandparenting."
So who's in charge, the parent or grandparent? Experts say it's the parent's job to parent unless grandparents are told otherwise.
"The grandparent's role is not to challenge but to fit in with the family culture," says J. Lane Tanner, M.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California-San Francisco. "Parents delegate authority to the grandparent, not the other way around."
Good communication and problem-solving skills are keys to healthy family relations. Criticizing or judging the way parents handle a situation can undermine their authority. This can be particularly harmful when done in front of your grandchildren.
Listen to what parents say, and keep an open mind. Instead of reacting defensively, learn why your children do things a different way.
It pays to ask first if parents want your suggestion. If so, offer praise and positive feedback along with what you want changed. If parents don't want your advice, don't give it. Remember, your adult children have the right to make, and learn from, their own mistakes.
Spend time with your grandchildren and listen to what they have to say.
"Children need to know who is running the show," Dr. Tanner says. "When expectations aren't clear, they become confused and stressed."
Try not to give mixed messages. For instance, if the parent's rule is that your grandchildren can watch television only after they do their homework, respect the parent's wishes, even though you may feel them unfair.
Grandchildren need to know what is acceptable at their parents' house and what is acceptable only with grandparents. Your grandchildren should be able to voice how they feel, too. If not, they may try pitting parent against grandparent in an attempt to get their own way.
Also, be consistent. Children get confused if you berate them for being fresh one day, then laugh about it the next.
Don't wait until something becomes an issue. Get ready ahead of time. Knowing your grandchild has food allergies or runs out of the room when it's bath time can help you foresee a crisis before it happens. Also, ask how parents respond to these problems.
When can grandparents make decisions?
According to Dr. Tanner, when parents say they can, when parents are not present, when a child's behavior directly affects them, when a child's safety is at stake or when a child breaks their house rules.
Knowing how to handle discipline is vital for good family relations. Here are some ideas culled from guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on effective discipline:
Identify positive behaviors. Give praise and encouragement when grandchildren do the right things, such as listening to others without interrupting.
Use straightforward language and a matter-of-fact tone of voice. Keep your cool, even when your grandchild is blowing his. The way you talk with your grandchildren is as important as what you say.
Don't expect your grandchild's misbehavior to change overnight. You may need to correct a behavior problem many times before you see results. Patience is a virtue.
Impose consequences for negative behaviors. The AAP and the American Academy of Family Physicians advise against physical punishment, including spanking. Instead, try removing a privilege. Ban television or ground the child for the evening.
Try creating a time-out for your grandchild. That can allow frayed tempers to "chill" and let you and your grandchild gain perspective.