How to Honor Boundaries as a Grandparent

some grandparents have trouble with boundaries
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Complaints about grandparents overstepping boundaries is an age-old problem that has plagued parents for years. Whether it is undermining a parent's decision regarding their children or horning in on special occasions and claiming privileges that don't belong to them, it is not uncommon for grandparents to overstep. Meanwhile, parents struggle to find ways to deal with these situations tactfully.

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. Obviously, the exception 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.

For most families though, breaching boundaries is a regular occurrence and an issue that can cause family disputes. 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.

Why Boundaries Are Important

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 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 also can cause parents to feel inadequate and judged.

Meanwhile, if boundaries are established an 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 Honor Boundaries

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

But sometimes grandparents cross a line that needs to be addressed. 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 also is illegal.

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. Now, all you need to do is honor their wishes. Here are some additional tips on respecting their wishes while enjoying your role as a grandparent.

Honor the Parents' Wishes

Even if you don't agree with the parents' rules and guidelines, you have to honor them.

Remember, you are the grandparent and not the parent. So, you cannot 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.

Apologize and Admit Wrongdoing

Even after boundaries are established, it's not uncommon for grandparents to blur the line between parenting and grandparenting. If this happens and you have upset the parents, be sure to apologize profusely and admit where you were wrong. Trying to argue, 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.

Refrain from Making Parenting Decisions

Decisions like co-sleeping, potty training, and even starting preschool are not decisions a grandparent should be making. Grandparents also should refrain from making suggestions about parenting issues unless specifically asked. Then, if you do 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 that direction anyway, they will never forget your words.

Keep Opinions to Yourself

As hard as it might be, it is best if grandparents do not assert their opinions about parenting issues—especially if the opinions could be misconstrued as criticisms.

Instead, compliment your grandchildren's parents as often as you can and refrain from making negative or judging comments.

Even suggestions on how to improve a pasta dish can be misconstrued as a criticism. And if you hate your grandchild's name, you must never let on.

Understand Monetary Gifts Do Not Give You Rights

When grandparents contribute financially to their grandchildren's welfare, they need to understand that this money does not buy them extra input into their grandchildren's lives nor does it give them the right to make parenting decisions. However, it is 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 it is negotiated ahead of time.

Honor Their Time to Be a Family

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 burden it places on the parents to show up every weekend, especially if you are there at meal times.

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, some 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 First

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.

Refrain From Bragging

If one of your grandchildren takes their first step or learns to spell their name while with you, keep quiet about it. There's nothing to be gained by pointing out that you were there and witnessed it and the parent was absent for such an important occasion.

These milestones are things the parents want to commemorate, and while they are exciting for you too, don't rob them of this joy. You already had your chance to revel in these little miracles with your kids. Now, it's their turn.

Be Careful About Nicknames

In most cases, you should not refer to your grandchildren as "my babies," "my darlings," "my boys," or "my girls." These pet names seem innocent enough to most grandparents, but they actually bother a lot of parents. Even though most grandparents admit that the grandchildren do not belong to them, a lot of parents won't see it that way. They don't want any ambiguity about whom the children belong to. Additionally some parents object to grandmother names that sound like mom's name, such as Big Mommy or Mummi (the Finnish word for grandmother). And if you slip and call yourself "mom" to a grandchild, apologize profusely or the real mom will never believe it was a slip.

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 their wishes, you risk losing precious time with your grandchildren.

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

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