Sometimes, spending time with the grandparents—as in over the holidays—can lead to tension and conflict. One major cause is a difference in parenting choices.

Here’s an example: Sarah is the mother of one-year-old Molly. At Thanksgiving dinner, Sarah’s mother gives Molly some pumpkin pie. Sarah becomes angry because she had told her mother earlier that she has decided not to give Molly desserts until she is two. Sarah’s mother, however, doesn’t know what the big deal is. Although the specifics of the conflict may change, the root of the disagreement is the same: Sarah made a choice about her parenting, and her mother disregarded her wishes. Family time can be more enjoyable when parents and grandparents understand reasons for conflict, respond respectfully to disagreements, and negotiate new family roles.

Parents often put a lot of thought into making choices about raising their children. When grandparents contradict them, parents may feel that their parents do not respect them or have confidence in their ability to be a parent. On the other hand, grandparents may feel defensive about the choices they made when they parented their own children. For example, Sarah’s mother may have given Sarah desserts before she was two and this must have been an acceptable parenting choice because Sarah turned out just fine. Sarah’s mother might even feel that Sarah thinks the parenting she received was not good enough or up to Sarah’s standards, resulting in these different parenting choices.

Communicating effectively

Grandparents have a different perspective, having raised their own children to adulthood, and parents can sometimes benefit from that wisdom. Clear communication that is respectful can resolve conflicts quickly with fewer hurt feelings. When communicating about conflict stay calm, acknowledge the other person’s point of view, communicate your message, and give a brief explanation. Sarah could say, for example, “Mom, I know things were different for me, but I decided not to give Molly desserts because I’m trying to keep her interested in other foods. Please don’t give her any more pie.”

Family roles

When children become parents and parents become grandparents, everyone has a new role to adjust to. New parents need to be confident in their role as the parent, but grandparents also need to know that they are important. Parents can ease this transition by clearly communicating family rules to grandparents to help keep everyone on the same page. In addition, they can acknowledge the importance of grandparents in children’s lives, and emphasize how it is just as important for mom and grandma to be consistent as it is for mom and dad to be consistent.

Grandparents can do their part by asking about the rules for their new grandchildren, and respecting those rules. By asking, the grandparent can avoid miscommunication while showing support for the new parents’ choices.

The benefit of respectful and consistent intergenerational parenting goes beyond keeping tensions calm at the holiday dinner table. Research has shown that intergenerational co-parenting encourages children’s social development. Children of parents and grandparents who could cooperate were more socially competent. Young children who learn social skills before they attend school make friends more easily and do better in school.


In families where parents and grandparents are all involved, the grandparent role can be a benefit to everyone. A visiting grandparent does not have to be a clone of the parent. Children can feel the joy, unconditional love, and acceptance that come from that more carefree relationship. At The Parenting Center, membership includes parents and grandparents. While we meet a lot of grandparents who bring children in to play when they are visiting, others provide caregiving on a regular basis. In these families grandparents may provide both consistent routines and an extra source of love and support.

Whatever the arrangement is in your family, and no matter how different the parenting styles, take some time to communicate the things that are most important to you regarding rules and values. Then take a breath, step back, and let your child benefit from another successful parent…yours.

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