Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: My Step-Grandchildren Lack Discipline

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I am a step-grandma. My concern is about my twin 5-year-old grandsons, who are at times delightful, at other times holy terrors (times two!). I’ve had a conversation with their mother, who tells me she and her husband use time-outs and then taking away toys for punishment.

However, these children hit, do reckless things (like climbing on wobbly chairs with sharp scissors), and sometimes use bad language. I’ve never seen any consequences other than yelling, “You’d better stop that!” and maybe taking the scissors away for a moment or two. Then the bad behavior is on again. Mom is often busy looking after the boys’ 1-year-old sister, and dad just sits and yells.

When they are at my house, I would like to have a few rules about behavior, e.g., no hitting, no bad language, don’t trash grandma’s house – nothing too outrageous, but I can’t see how to encourage/enforce anything without the backing of their parents. My husband’s position is “don’t rock the boat,” so there’s no help there. Thus far, when I try to say, “We don’t do that at Grandma’s house,” one of the boys just tends to ignore me, while the other goes into a sulk.

The overall dynamic when they visit is that mom takes care of the baby, dad and grandpa sit and chat, and this grandma runs ragged trying to keep the kids safe and entertained.

I have a pretty good relationship with their mom (my daughter-in-law). Their dad has more of a “what do you expect me to do?” approach. Neither of the twins listens very well when adults are trying to be corrective/instructive.  

Do you have any insights for me?

The most important insight I have to offer is: Yes, you absolutely get to set some basic ground rules for your step-grandsons regarding discipline and behavior in your own home! Before I make suggestions about how you might go about establishing and enforcing those rules, I want to make a few comments about what’s in your favor and what is working against you.

First, potential obstacles you face. Because neither young parent is a son or daughter you raised, you don’t as easily get to initiate any parental “as my child you need to know . . .” conversations. (Even grandparents who have raised the now-young parents have wisely learned to tread carefully here!) It appears that you will be working primarily solo in instilling some long-needed discipline with the twins – your husband and step son-in-law have opted out, and your step daughter-in-law is probably overwhelmed, frustrated, and feeling things are out of control with her twins.

Regarding discipline, as pointed out by one of my all time favorite parenting experts, Certified Parenting Coach, Brandi Davis, ACC, using discipline should begin at around 8 months: “Discipline is about teaching life lessons [italics added]. It is not about showing your authority, or about frightening your kid, or teaching her who is boss” (article here). Yes, there is some catching up to do with your grandsons’ discipline, but it is never too late, and others, including teachers and sports coaches, are/will be working with them, too.

Although Ms. Davis has a three-year-old in mind, she nevertheless succinctly summarizes the basics of discipline for all ages with these four rules:

  1. Stop negotiating
  2. Do not fear the tantrum
  3. Be clear about consequences and be sure to follow through quickly
  4. Clarity and follow through will end a lot of the drama.

I have three specific actions to help you with the twins when they are in your home.

Action I: First, and most important, you start saying to the twins, over and over again (ad nauseam!): “When you are with Grandma and Grandpa, we have three rules:

#1: You must be polite.

#2: You must be kind.

#3: You must do only safe things.

Boys, remember these three words: polite, kind, safe.”

Drill them on these three words; have them repeat them. You can set the context for this by saying, “Just like in school and at your sports activities, there are rules. You need to know the rules for when you are with Grandma and Grandpa.” You can let their parents know you are doing this. Explain to them that to ensure your time with your grandchildren is pleasant and fun for you and for them, you want to set some ground rules.

Do not worry about how the boys act in their own home or in other places when their parents are in charge of them. Just focus on what you expect when they are in your charge or in your home. (You will notice that I have set this up so that you and your husband are the grandparent team: he needs to do his fair share to support and be a part of what you are doing. But even if he is not on board, you need to steam ahead.)

Action II: You teach/remind them:

  • The difference between indoor and outdoor behavior. Appropriate indoor behavior is walking calmly, no throwing of objects, and using conversational voices. Appropriate outdoor behavior, such as at the playground, is running, jumping, using loud voices.

Action III: Start using – but not over using – the word “Freeze!” Use a strong and firm voice but not yelling. A clap of the hands is reinforcing. You tell the boys, “When Grandpa or I say the word, “Freeze!” you are to stop whatever you’re doing and freeze immediately in place, like you’re an ice cube. No movement, no talking. Freeze means you must stop whatever you’re doing and look at us. Freeze means something is happening that needs our attention.” When you have their attention, you can “unfreeze” them and calmly deal with the situation at hand, e.g., “I am seeing unkind/impolite/unsafe behavior when . . . and here is what needs to happen . . .”

Use of these three actions over and over will help your twins understand your expectations when they are at your home or in your charge. What about consequences? If they will not abide by the rules you have set out for them, take them home. Tell them you will invite them back another time and help them learn your rules. If they show some commendable progress, you might say, “I did not have to use one Freeze! this morning. You are doing a good job following Grandma’s rules, so I want to reward you with a trip to the zoo.”

Yes, by all means, tell their parents in advance your strategy. In fact, the parents may want to implement similar actions in their own home, but regardless, you have your game plan and you stick to it. You might also try having the boys come to your home or be in your charge separately as you work with them on the “grandparents’ rules.” The boys being together and acting in concert can reinforce each other’s naughty and mischievous behavior. The approaches and actions I am suggesting can go a long way in breaking up that dynamic and replacing it with behaviors that are polite, kind, and safe.

Update from the grandmother two weeks later

Thank you for affirming that I don’t have to be “in charge” at someone else’s house! I already sort of knew that, but so good to hear it from someone else. I very much like the idea of distilling all down to 3 simple rules: be polite, be kind, be safe. This makes a situation that was feeling overwhelming seem much more manageable.  I also had not thought about that these “rules” are basically the same ones they encounter at school, sports, etc.

Now, for the “bad” news: grandpa is not on board.  He says that if we try to “impose a bunch of rules” that his kids won’t bring their children here any more. When I asked him, “Do you really think their parents would object to having the boys being polite, kind and safe while they’re at our house?” he maintained that we can’t “force our ideas” on anyone.

I don’t think he’ll interfere, but I don’t think he’ll be supportive either. So, I have decided, at first opportunity, to enlist my daughter-in-law. I think she will be willing to go with any reasonable plan.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen:  Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues

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