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Will you end up on the naughty step?

With grandparents increasingly being called on to provide childcare for their grandkids, can you stay on good terms with your own offspring if you disagree with their parenting style? Lee Rodwell investigates.

Does your approach to caring for grandkids clash with that of thier parents?When your kids were little you insisted they ate their greens. You always insisted on ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and if anyone was really disobedient, a smack on the bottom wasn’t out of the question.

But now your kids are fully grown – and have kids of their own. They also have their own ideas on parenting.

So what happens when, as is increasingly the case for grandparents, you’re asked to help out with childcare? 

It’s quite possible that you might have differences of opinion over a number of key issues from discipline to diet. 

Should you always follow the parents’ wishes – even if you disagree with them? And how can you avoid falling out with your offspring over how to manage bad behaviour, or what should happen at meal times? 

Grandma’s house, grandma’s rules 

Marilyn, 61, sometimes picks up her two grandchildren from primary school if her daughter Lucy is running late at work. 

She says: “The one thing I’m scrupulous about is not going against any instructions Lucy gives me in the children’s presence. Other than that, it’s Grandma’s rules in Grandma’s house.”

Parenting expert Elizabeth O’Shea, who runs parenting workshops and offers advice via her website, says this is fine when you are only helping out occasionally. 

But she adds: “If you are looking after grandchildren on a regular basis then you need to have a very firm agreement about discipline and boundaries. 

“Remember, your child is now the parent and you are the grandparent – that changes the relationship. As grandparents you have had your chance to raise your children; this is your children’s opportunity. 

“Now you are supporting them, not the ones in charge. So let them do it their way, even if it’s different to your way”

Recognise that times have changed 

Elizabeth says that grandparents often have very firm ideas about what they did when their children were younger. 

But one of the things grandparents have to recognise is that times have changed since they were raising children. 

Instead of a handful of channels on tv, we have catch-up, cable, box sets, laptops, tablets, mobiles, social media, YouTube and the rest. 

Screen time can be an issue. Grandparents have to know how the parents want them to deal with that. But equally, says Elizabeth, grandparents should be honest about how useful it can be.

“The key is to be specific. Ask: ‘While I’m getting tea, is it ok if they watch tv for half an hour? It’s all about communication.”

Children need boundaries 

Times have also changed when it comes to theories about getting children to behave the way you’d like them to. Children need firm boundaries, says Elizabeth, but psychologists have found that it’s more effective to praise good behaviour – as this reinforces it – than to criticise bad behaviour. 

And she also says that asking questions is a useful tool. Take manners, for example. She says: “Explain that in your house you’d prefer them to say please and thank you. 
“Ask them: ‘Why do you think we say it? How do you think it makes us feel? Then pre-empt the problem with a prompt. ‘What do granny and grandpa like to hear?’”

Before any regular childcare takes place, she says, you need to discuss what the parents want in terms of discipline, diet and other potential flashpoints. And you need to keep checking once the caring is under way.

She says: “Being upfront about everything at the start saves so much angst. The parents need to be clear. 

“They need to say, for instance: ‘We offer this range of foods. If they won’t eat them, don’t offer biscuits or sweets instead.’

“Grandparents need to know how to maintain discipline – children soon learn there are differences between parents and grandparents and are bound to try it on. 

“So parents need to say: ‘We don’t smack but this is how we deal with unacceptable behaviour.’ 

Above all – enjoy! 

In addition, she says, the rules need to be clearly explained to the children. But what happens when the grandchildren don’t listen?

Elizabeth says that there are ways grandparents can raise their concerns without falling out with their own children. A useful format, she suggests, is one that goes: I feel… when… and I’d like to …

So if a child won’t hold your hand when crossing the road, you might say to his parents: ‘I feel worried when Jamie won’t hold my hand when we cross the main road and I’d like to find a way to make sure he does, so I can keep him safe.’”

Above all else, though, Elizabeth says that grandparents should enjoy the times they spend looking after their grandchildren and recognise what a privilege it is. 

“Just love them and play with them and have a whale of a time. They are one of the greatest prizes of all,” she says. 

Real life: “It’s different from looking after your own”

Rachel Ronald, 68, says looking after her grandchildren was enjoyable but tiring – especially trying to follow their mum’s instructionsRachel Ronald looked after grandchildren for more than five years when her daughter went back to work. At first, when there was just one grandson, she did two days a week but as the family grew she cut back her hours and then stopped altogether when the third baby was born. 

Rachel, 68, says: “I enjoyed it but it was tiring – both physically and emotionally. For instance, I was told not to let them nap too long during the day or else they wouldn’t sleep at night.

“Sometimes it was really difficult to get them to wake up. I used to open the curtains, talk loudly, but when she was a toddler Sienna would just curl up in a ball and refuse to budge. I did my back in trying to lift her out of the cot! 

“Then I was told not to let her go to sleep during the day at all – but when I went to pick up her older brother from school she would just fall asleep in the buggy. I just never let on. 

“It is different from looking after your own children. With your own, your skills grow with them. You know what each child is capable of doing – but if you’re only with children a couple of days of week you can be caught out.

“And with your own, if you make a mistake it’s your problem. You don’t have to explain it to anyone else. But when you are caring for your grandchildren it feels like a huge responsibility.

“Overall I did try to conform to my daughter’s rules about everything – even sweets. But there are times when you feel like spoiling them. It’s Grandma’s perks.”

This article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.

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