The Dueling Grandmothers


My sister Dawn is mother to Madge and grandmother to four-year-old Riley. I have a very close relationship with Dawn, whereas my relationship with my niece Madge is comfortable, but not one where I would feel comfortable giving her any parenting advice, especially since I am not a mother. Riley is an adorable and extremely bright little girl. Riley calls my sister Nonna; she calls her other grandmother Grandma.

What’s bothering me involves Riley’s two grandmothers, who seem to be competing with each other, trying to buy her love, bribing her with their one-upmanship. Here are some examples. Nonna will give Riley a book. Then when Grandma is visiting and hears about Nonna giving Riley a new book, Grandma immediately has a gift basket of books sent to Riley. Or, Grandma makes arrangements to take Riley on an all-day outing to the zoo. Nonna immediately plans a weekend trip for Riley. And so it goes.

My husband sees what’s going on, too, but no one else in the family seems aware. Maybe it shouldn’t bother me, but I don’t think this competitive behavior between the grandmothers is good for Riley. Any thoughts?

The phenomenon you describe, competing grandparents, has been dubbed by one commentator as “…the ‘Grandparent Olympics.’ One cutthroat grandfather who asked that his name not be used calls it the ‘grandparent wars – it’s a game you play for keeps.’ No one keeps statistics on grandparents gone wild. But Susan Stiffelman, a licensed marriage, child and family therapist, says she regularly sees a ‘low-key desperation to be the most popular grandparent’ ” (http://www.boston.com/lifestyle/family/articles/2009/05/14/senior_games/).

In fact, Barbara Graham, a blogger and regular contributor to www.Grandparents.com suggests the competition between Riley’s Nonna and Grandma is inevitable: “Love for our grandkids may unite us, but, like members of any pack, we sniff out the competition and jockey for position in the new order. Inevitably, the playing field is uneven. One set of grandparents may live close to the grandchildren and babysit regularly, another set may be able to afford lavish gifts and trips to Disney World, yet another grandparent may have the zip (and balance) to rollerblade alongside the kids. And so we worry and stew and compare ourselves to the competition.”

I agree that the competition between grandparents may be an all-too-common occurrence in general, but I don’t agree that it is inevitable. Yes, it is only natural that a grandparent wants to have a special and unique bond with a grandchild, but this desire for a special relationship becomes problematic only when a grandparent wants the grandchild to regard him/her as the Most Favored Grandparent. Hence the competition, a striving to outdo another grandparent, a desire to be acknowledged as better or more cherished. Although we can all agree that this type of competition for a child’s love and affection is unhealthy and grounded in insecurity, it will continue until one of three things happens.

One simple and effective way to end the competition among grandparents is that the parents observe the jousting and dueling and they declare a cease and desist. They can do this by letting the grandparents know that they, the parents, need to be consulted before the grandparents give the grandchildren any gifts or plan any trips or experiences for them. Many young parents head off the potential for competition between the grandparents by making this a ground rule when the first grandchild is born, or even before. Because you have already said that you don’t think your niece Madge would appreciate your initiating a discussion with her that involves her parenting, the option of suggesting she reign in the competing grandmothers with a cease and desist order probably is not a viable option for you.

A second option is to say nothing, and as Riley gets older, she herself may draw attention to the competing grandmothers. Their competing over her may make her uncomfortable and she may verbally express her uneasiness with their behavior: “I don’t like it when you sort of fight over me.” A worse situation would be if a grandchild discerns the grandmothers competing over him/her and the child becomes manipulative, for example, by making sure the purchases and events planned by one grandmother become known to the other with the intention of stirring the flames and upping the ante. A bit diabolical and extreme perhaps, but such manipulation could be an outcome in this type of situation, if it is left unchecked.

A third way for the competition to end is that one of the competitors, for example, your sister, drops out. No contenders, no competition. You said you have a close relationship with your sister, so it might make sense for you to approach her, perhaps along these lines: “Dawn, I have observed a family dynamic that involves you, Riley and Riley’s other grandmother. You need to know that my observation could hurt your feelings because it will require you to look at something I think you’re doing. I worry about upsetting you, but because we all love and care about Riley, I want to share my observation with you, if you want me to do so.”

You feel close with Dawn, so chances are she will be open to listening to you. You will want to share your observation objectively and non-judgmentally: “It seems that when either you or Grandma does something nice for Riley, the other grandmother immediately does something similar, but bigger or grander. To me, it looks and feels like a bit like a contest or a competition. I just wanted to share this observation with you.” Wait for Dawn’s response, and you’ll then know how your sister feels about your observation and you sharing it.

Hopefully she will appreciate your good intentions and will give some consideration to what you’ve said. She may come to realize that she and Grandma both should want Riley to learn that the potential love available for and from Riley is not a zero-sum game, meaning there is only so much love in the pot and as one gains love, another must lose some – a winner and a loser. On the contrary!

One of the wonderful things about love is that there is no need to compete over it – it is self-generating and there can be more than enough for everyone. If you decide to talk with your sister, you may help her focus on not being The Best Grandmother in Riley’s estimation, but rather, to focus on just being the best grandmother she can possibly be. This also includes being as loving and supportive of the other grandmother as possible in a non-competitive way. Game over.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Thursday through Labor Day.
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