How to Honor Boundaries as a Grandparent

Boy and girl having a fun day at the beach with their parents and grandparents
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Being a grandparent can be one of the most rewarding experiences in a person's life. After all, you get to enjoy your grandkids without the responsibility and headaches that come with parenting. But sometimes, conflicts occur between parents and grandparents.

For instance, complaints about overstepping boundaries are common. Whether it's a grandparent inadvertently undermining a parent's decision such as allowing a child dessert after a parent has said no or monopolizing special firsts like taking a child for their first haircut without the parents' knowledge, it's easy for grandparents to overstep without even realizing it.

In fact, after years of being a parent and being the one calling the shots, it takes some time as a grandparent to adjust to your new role.

Overview

For most families, breaching boundaries only occurs on occasion but when it's not addressed, it can become an issue that causes conflict. To further complicate matters, when grandparents provide routine childcare, or when they live with their grandchildren in a multi-generational home, the likelihood of boundary issues increases.

In extreme cases, these disputes can lead to grandparents being cut off from grandchildren. Most parents, though, want the grandparents to be involved in their kids' lives, but at the same time they don't want their roles and responsibilities usurped.

Ultimately, it comes down to finding a balance between sharing your wisdom and allowing room for the parents to learn as they go.

Obviously, the exceptions to this rule are the grandparents who are raising their grandchildren without the parents' involvement. These grandparents must simultaneously occupy parenting and grandparenting roles. They have taken on a difficult job and deserve accolades.

Why Boundaries Matter

Healthy boundaries are an important part of any relationship. When used effectively, they establish expectations regarding the relationship and encourage people to treat each other mindfully and respectfully.

They are especially important in parent-grandparent relationships because they not only establish roles and expectations but also provide a structure that keeps the children from being confused or caught in the middle.

It's hard for kids when a parent says one thing and a grandparent says something entirely different. Even when a grandparent tries to "help" by agreeing with the parent, this can create tension in the relationship.

For instance, the parent may feel like their authority is being undermined and the children may feel like they are being ganged up on. Overstepping boundaries can also cause parents to feel inadequate and judged.

Meanwhile, if boundaries are established and honored, parents feel secure in their role to parent their children, and grandparents can enjoy their role without the responsibility that comes with parenting. Grandparents have a great deal to offer their grandchildren without trying to take on a parenting role as well.

How to Work Together

Helpful grandparents are wonderful and most parents are delighted to have them in their lives. Whether it's assisting when the baby first arrives or babysitting so the parents can have a night out, it's nice to have a loving, trustworthy support system. Even help with carpooling and school functions is a welcome addition.

But, sometimes grandparents cross a line that upsets the parents.

It could be something as simple as letting the grandkids watch too much television or allowing them to play on the iPad all day. Or, it could be more drastic like giving your milk-allergic grandchild a cookie without reading the label or allowing your grandchild to ride in the cab of a pickup without a booster seat.

Not only are these things violating the parents' rules, but in the case of the booster seat, it likely violates car seat laws. Here are some ways to make sure you are honoring boundaries while still enjoying your grandchildren.

Honor the Parents' Wishes

Even if you don't agree with the parents' rules and guidelines, aim to honor them. Remember, you are the grandparent and not the parent—you should not usurp their authority and do what you want.

If you want to have more time with your grandchildren, you need to be sure you are doing things the way they want them to be done. This includes indulgences like sweets, television time, and staying up past bedtime.

Likewise, decisions about co-sleeping, potty training, and even starting preschool are not decisions a grandparent should be making. Grandparents also should also tread lightly when making suggestions about parenting issues.

When you share your thoughts, be sure you state them diplomatically. Also beware of labeling ideas as "stupid," "misguided," or "ridiculous." If the parents decide to go in a different direction, you need to OK with that.

Give Them Space

While every grandparent wants to see their grandchildren as much as possible, it's important to also allow them space to be a family. Be aware of the potential burden it places on the parents to show up every weekend, especially if you are there at mealtimes.

Allow the parents to dictate how much autonomy and alone time they need. Even though extended family is important, they need space to build intimacy and togetherness as a core family unit as well.

Likewise, if you are considering moving to be closer to your grandchildren, discuss the idea first. Again, many families will welcome such proximity. Others will feel like their freedom and autonomy have been compromised. This does not mean you cannot move, but you need to realize that it may not result in more together-time as you had hoped.

Ask Permission

While it is a really nice gesture to bake your grandchild's first birthday cake or to purchase a Christening gown, you should always ask permission first. Even carving that first pumpkin on Halloween or taking your grandchild to see Santa should be approved by the parents first. You don't want to inadvertently "steal" these firsts from the parents.

Additionally, they may have set opinions or preferences about these seemingly harmless activities, and you want to avoid stepping on their toes. Sure, some parents might welcome these activities, but some will see it as usurping their role.

Also, be aware of gift-giving pitfalls. If you are in doubt about whether a particular gift is appropriate, ask before you buy. Be especially wary of outshining the parents on gift-giving occasions.

Give Without Strings

When grandparents contribute financially to their grandchildren's welfare, most parents greatly appreciate the help. However, keep in mind that giving money to the family does not buy extra input into your grandchildren's lives nor does it give you the right to make parenting decisions.

However, it's absolutely acceptable to designate the money for specific purposes like paying for preschool or daycare. But deciding which preschool or daycare the child attends still remains up to the parent unless you negotiate it ahead of time.

Be Encouraging

As hard as it might be, it is best if grandparents tread carefully when offering suggestions about parenting issues—especially if the opinions could be misconstrued as criticisms. Even suggestions on how to improve a pasta recipe can be misconstrued as criticism.

Try to remember what it was like when you were a new parent and how challenging it could be at times.

Instead, compliment your grandchildren's parents as often as you can and refrain from making negative or judging comments. And if you dislike your grandchild's name or disagree with their approach to sleep training, you should not let on.

Keep Communication Open

Ideally, you have already had open conversations with your grandchildren's parents from the beginning. As a result, you should know where they stand on big issues like electronics, car seats, food, bedtimes, and more.

If you don't know where the parents stand on specific issues, be sure to ask. You want to be sure you do everything you can to honor their wishes.

The goal is that the parents love when you spend time with the grandkids and that they don't have to worry about rules being bent or broken.

Even after common ground has been established, it's not uncommon to accidentally blur the line between parenting and grandparenting. If this happens and you upset the parents, be sure to apologize and admit where you were wrong. Trying to minimize, justify, or prove your point, is not going to work in your favor. Instead, you may end up losing precious time with your grandchildren.

A Word From Verywell

It's important for grandparents to realize that honoring boundaries is important. Balance occasional irritations about rules or guidelines against the benefits of having your grandkids in your life. Remember, if you insist on doing things your way and don't respect the parents' wishes, you risk losing precious time with your grandchildren.

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Article Sources
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  1. Meyer MH, Kandic A. Grandparenting in the United States. Innov Aging. 2017;1(2). doi:10.1093/geroni/igx023

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