Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
My husband and I have rented a large vacation home at a beach for three weeks for our two grown daughters, their husbands, and our four grandchildren, all between the ages of 7 and 11. Each daughter has two kids. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, all of us have not been together in almost two years.
As excited as my husband and I are about everyone being together, we can anticipate a problem that could really ruin this time together. Our two daughters are like night and day when it comes to parenting our grandchildren. One is loosey-goosey, and lets her kids eat whatever they want, whenever they want (and they do eat some pretty unhealthy stuff). Our other daughter is regimented and very health conscious. Her idea of a treat is to let the kids have low-fat ice cream.
We saw inklings of what will probably happen when on the family vacation the last time we were all together, for example, one cousin saying, “How come they can eat that, and we can’t?” And now that they’re older, we’re pretty sure they’ll be even more aware that one set of cousins gets to eat things the other set isn’t allowed to have.
I am happy to shop for groceries, but I really do not want to buy junk food, so I am anxious about my one daughter putting a shopping list together that includes junk.
Help! I am losing sleep over this.
Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response
I want you to close your eyes. Picture a ten-foot pole lying on the ground with a big sign affixed to it that says, “DO NOT TOUCH.” That is my advice: stay out of this! Any kind of direct involvement on your part will be a minefield.
I applaud you for wanting to be proactive and not taking a well-let’s-keep-our-fingers-crossed attitude. That approach will no doubt end in disaster. Rather, here are the steps I suggest you take to address this situation.
Snack Food Shopping
You can let your daughters know in advance that you are happy to food shop, but, because they have different rules about snacks, you are going to let each set of parents be responsible for their own family’s snacks. Offer to take care of the grandchildren while they do their own snack shopping. I also suggest you have separate shelves or bins to store each family’s snacks.
If you feel pressure to “just buy my list of snacks, since you’ll be in the store anyway,” you stick to your guns: “No, I am going to leave the purchase of snacks to each of you, since you have some different rules.” It’s important to note that you’re not being judgmental, you’re just acknowledging differences and making it clear that this is one sandbox you’re choosing not to play in.
Your Mantra: You’ll Have to Take That Up with Your Parents
During the vacation, if one of the cousins raises the issue of “How come they can have that and we can’t,” your standard response is, “That’s your family’s business, so you’ll have to take that up with your parents.” You’ll probably get pushback from your grandkids that “that isn’t fair they get to have soda, but we can’t have any,” and you need to keep repeating that they need to take it up with their parents. They’ll get the message after a while, and they will stop pestering you. In fact, you may hear one of the grandchildren start to complain to you and then say, “I know, I know. I need to take it up with mom and dad.” Kids are very smart about these things.
Although you don’t mention it, it is possible that in addition to having different rules about snacks, your daughters may have different rules about other things, such as with bedtimes and screen time – that is, one daughter being more rules bound than the other. If your grandchildren try to get you involved in these matters, I suggest that this is still the same game, same advice: “That’s your family’s business, so you’ll have to take that up with your parents.”
If your daughters and their husbands want to do things, either alone or as couples, and they ask you to babysit the grandchildren, I suggest that you call an all-family meeting and go over the expectations together. This is especially important if there will be different rules for the two sets of cousins, regarding, for example, snacks, bedtimes, activities, or screen time.
Do not passively accept the parents saying, “Be good for Grandma and Granddad, and do whatever they ask you to do.” Require the parents to lay out what they want for their kids, in front of the kids, so you are the enforcer, not the rules maker.
Request the parents to keep their phones on so you can call them in case any new issues arise while they are out, and you need some clarification on what the parents want to see happen.
I think by now my general advice is clear: steer clear of your daughters’ differing parenting philosophies by requiring them to address issues between the cousins as they arise. You may find that over time, your daughters’ parenting styles regress to the mean: one daughter may lighten up a bit, as the other puts more rules in place. Even if this doesn’t happen, rest assured: all your grandkids will be just fine!
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