Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Older Grandson Favored by Grandmother

I have two sons, ages 5 and 3, both of whom adore their grandmother (my mother-in-law), who lives nearby. My mother-in-law favors the elder over his brother; she is more than willing to spend time with the elder (especially one-on-one time), so much so she pretty much gets to have him every Saturday night for a sleepover. Up until about a year and a half ago, I was okay with this because my younger son was still a baby.

Now she doesn’t want to spend much time with my younger son. She occasionally takes them both for an hour or two, but then calls for us to come pick up my younger son, saying she’s either too tired or busy. At first, my husband was going to put a stop to it if she didn’t alternate weekends or something, but she has since convinced him that it’s natural because she’s closer to my elder son.

I’m not expecting overnight visits with my younger son. All I want is for her to try to show him the same love she is giving our older son. She is ALWAYS more than willing to do things one-on-one with our older son, but not with the younger son; she has NEVER done anything one-on-one with him. This hurts my younger son to no end. He bawls.

I worry that as our younger son gets older he’s going to start resenting our older son for the things he gets to do with Grandma. While I have never had to deal with favoritism I have read what the affects can be on children, and I don’t like it.

Your mother-in-law (MIL) can try to justify her unwillingness to treat her grandsons similarly in terms of spending time with them, but none of her rationalizations or explanations can change the fact that she is showing favoritism towards your older son at the expense of your younger son. There is no subtle way to phrase this: your sons must be protected from your MIL’s favoritism, as it can cause serious damage to both your sons.

You are correct if you are picking up on my frustration with and unforgiving attitude towards your MIL’s blatant favoritism. I did a quick tally of the 150, or so, Ask Dr. Gramma Karen columns I have written in the past seven years, and sadly, about 5% of them have to do with some form of grandparents showing favoritism toward one or more grandchildren. In all of these columns (referenced below), there is justifiable worry that children can be seriously harmed by grandparents’ favoritism.

In addition to your concern that your younger son might come to resent his older brother’s favored treatment by your MIL, definitely a real possibility, of greater concern is the possibility that your younger son concludes that there is something wrong with him, that he is unlovable: otherwise, he would enjoy the love and attention he witnesses his older brother receiving from their grandmother. The mere thought of you son thinking he is unlovable breaks my heart, as I know it does yours and your husband’s, too.

Yes, you and your husband must intervene, and immediately.

You may not be able to control your MIL’s feelings towards your sons, but you can control her access to them. You can explain to your MIL that because your younger son is older and more aware, you and your husband are concerned about her obvious preference to spend time with your older son at the exclusion of your younger son. So, going forward, you have decided to do things all together as a family, and that she can expect invitations to join you in some of these activities.

The key is “as a family.” This means Grandma is no longer in charge of one-on-ones with your older son, or having sleepovers. No more Grandma agreeing to have both boys come to her home and then call you to come retrieve your younger son.

Here are some suggestions for some family activities in which you can invite Grandma to participate:

  • Have lunch or dinner together. I suggest you have Grandma sit between both of your boys. You and your husband facilitate conversations that include both boys, e.g., talk about their favorite toys, their friends, their activities.
  • Read books together.
  • Play board games together.
  • Create artwork together.
  • Go to a movie together.
  • Play in the park together.

You get the idea . . . family activities together. If your MIL opposes you and talks about how she “feels closer” to your older son and she wants to continue to spend special one-on-one time with him, you need to patiently, calmly, and firmly explain to her that her special time with your older son can make your younger son feel excluded, unworthy, and unloved — and that you cannot, and will not, let that happen. Your MIL may be upset with you and may decline your invitations. So be it: She needs to understand that her only option right now is to join you in family activities.

As time goes on, depending on how your MIL treats both your sons, you may make other decisions.

I close with a quote from a woman who, growing up, was a victim of her grandmother’s favoritism: “ . . . as a child living through it [grandmother’s favoritism towards her two siblings] I felt unloved, confused, and humiliated.” You and your husband are in a position to make sure this doesn’t happen to your son.

With regard to the potential harm to you older son, grandchildren who have been favored by grandparents over their siblings report feelings of guilt and sadness at the unfairness. The action you need to take will benefit both your sons.

Note — Here are some other columns I have written on the topic of grandparent favoritism that you might find helpful:

  1. Grandmother Shows Favoritism
  2. Grandmother Worries about Other Grandmother’s Favoritism
  3. Step-Grandmother Discusses Her Favoritism
  4. Grandparents’ Favoritism Is Upsetting Young Parents
  5. Ongoing Issues With the Grandparents

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
E-mail queries to [email protected].

Karen L. Rancourt’s most recent book is,
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts.

Like what you read? Also check out our latest FREE online classes, parenting advice, jobs for moms, events, childcare listings, casting calls & raffles.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.