I have a question requesting clarification on your column, “Aunt Has Issues with Her Niece”. This situation is real for me in regards to my daughter-in-law, Megan, and her two daughters, Laura (age 10) and Amanda (age 4). They recently moved near us and I now spend more time with them.
In your advice you write: “Your sister, as their mother, is their primary parent who decides what she wants in terms of parenting practices. Your role as an aunt, and the role of the grandparents, is to support and carry out your sister’s parenting preferences. It is not your role not to question them and/or impose your own parenting practices.”
So here is where I need clarification: Is it your opinion that as a grandparent my role is to support terrible food issues? I watch Amanda and Laura eat complex carbohydrates all day long – from boxed pancakes, to Goldfish crackers, chips, cookies, candy, boxed mac-’n-cheese, etc. Rarely are meals eaten together at the table; the girls are allowed to eat in the living area, off a TV-tray or the coffee table, while watching TV. There is very little structure regarding this.
Amanda is getting fat and I fear Megan will soon follow her. I mention the ‘how’ and ‘where’ they eat as I think this is part of the issue. I have true concerns about health and social issues for my granddaughters.
For the record, I have a very good relationship with her my daughter-in-law. I think she would describe me as involved, engaged, loving, patient, fun, and a good role model. I also think she would describe our relationship as strong, that we are close friends and that I am someone she can count on, someone who has her back. I think I could discuss this with her, if appropriate. It is also important to note that my daughter-in-law is a child therapist.
So, do I call a private meeting with my son and daughter-in-law to discuss this? Or do I sit back and watch?
I am often asked when it is appropriate for grandparents to speak up about their grown kids’ and their spouses’ parenting decisions. My stock answer typically ranges somewhere between never and rarely. However, an exception is when a child’s health and/or safety are at risk. A corollary condition is that the grandparent is so sure that a child’s health and/or safety are at risk that he/she will speak up even though he/she knows the relationship with the young parents may be jeopardized, or even terminated.
Examples: A baby vomits and has constant diarrhea and the parents say they want to give it some time before calling the doctor (health issue); or even though a loaded gun is stored on a high shelf, it could still be accessed by a child (safety issue). In situations such as those, most people would agree that they would be unrelentingly vociferous about their concerns, and the relationship can be damned!
While I understand the concerns you express, I am not convinced that the situation you describe with your granddaughters’ eating a lot of complex carbohydrates while watching TV puts their health and/or safety at such immediate risk that it warrants jeopardizing the good relationship you have with your DIL.
Of course you always have the option of sharing your concerns with your DIL and son, but I want to suggest you save that kind of discussion as your last option, rather than leading with it. No matter how gently and sensitively you express your concerns, it is almost impossible for the young parents not to feel that they are being judged and criticized.
In effect, you would be telling them that they should be feeding their kids different foods and they should change some of the conditions under which the kids are eating. Once this message is delivered, it is pretty hard to walk it back. And to complicate things further, the fact that your DIL is a child psychologist suggests she may feel she has the necessary expertise when it comes to child growth and development. The potential for resentment toward you could be huge, perhaps permanent.
Grandma’s Rules Rule Here
Rather, I am going to suggest a couple of other approaches. First, when your granddaughters are at your house, Grandma’s rules rule here. You don’t have any of the foods on hand that you don’t want them to eat. If certain foods and snacks are not available, there is nothing to argue about or negotiate. If they compare what you have on hand with what they can eat at home, four words will suffice: “Grandma’s rules rule here.”
Your rules might include, for example: you serve only foods you know to be healthful; you eat together as a family at your dining table; there are no electronic devices allowed while eating; you have round-robin discussions with everyone contributing, e.g., “What was the best part of you day, Why?”
In this way, you are introducing them to alternative eating experiences without criticizing how it is often done in their own home. You may find that, at least initially, they find what you are doing to be odd or dorky. Hang in there. Over time they may come to prefer your way and look forward to eating at your house; they may ask their parents to do more of it in their own home.
Involve Your Grandchildren
In parallel, another suggestion I have is that you involve your grandchildren in the preparation of their meals and snacks. You can approach their mom by saying, “I want to run an idea by you. I’d like to see if I can interest the girls in doing more with me regarding planning our meals, shopping, and preparing them. I think we could have some fun together. You okay with this?” It would be surprising (and enlightening) if she didn’t give you the green light.
Below I’ve put some resources together that I think you might find helpful: Some might give you ideas for incorporating healthful eating choices and habits into your interactions and activities with your granddaughters, while others are resources you can use directly with the girls, such as recipes.
I close by reiterating that you are not in an either-or situation: Either you sit idly by – distressing to you – or you bluntly and directly spell out for your son and DIL why you think what they are doing is wrong, an approach that could imperil the solid relationships you currently enjoy.
Children’s Books About Food
Healthy Eating Made Easier
(Although the recommended reading age for most of these is more appropriate for your younger granddaughter, there are a few that might appeal to your older one.)
Recipes for Cooking With Kids from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
(Numerous recipes with short videos with kids doing the cooking and baking.)
Update: Several Weeks Later
Although I appreciate your points, I am still conflicted about what to do. And, since I am not 100% certain of the reception I would get, or the damage it might cause, I thought doing nothing the best solution.
Now, having said that, I may now have an opening with my daughter-in-law for a discussion.
In a casual conversation with Justin, my son, I asked him how Megan was doing. He said, “Well she’s been pretty upset with herself. She took Amanda and Laura to the dentist and they both have a lot of cavities.”
I will be with all of them soon, and most likely this will come up. I truly believe that my DIL has no knowledge of what comprises a proper, nutritional diet. And further, I don’t think she has a good understanding of the problems eating junk (candies and complex carbs) throughout the day plays on one’s health – now and in the future.
So, the dilemma continues, but I may have an opening for discussion. I will keep you posted.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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