21/10/2012 15:32 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Are Grandparents Always The Help You Want Them To Be?

Are grandparents always the help you want them to be? Rex

"If only my parents lived nearer," I used to muse when my children were young. Life would have been so much easier: they would have looked after my children so I could have worked more (their suggestion) and been more hands-on grandparents than they ever could be living hundreds of miles away, only seeing my children every few months.

But is the reality as appealing as the idea? According to family psychologist Rachel Johnson, 'cross-generational child care is not always plain sailing'.

You may have a battle on your hands every time grandparents look after your children, until you sometimes wonder, "Is this really a good idea?" Although my parents only looked after my children now and then, it still raised some issues about what was allowed, and how they had different boundaries to mine.

How many of us have not experienced exasperation when a child pleads: "But Gran lets me eat it/stay up late/do my homework when I feel like it."

It's easy to begin to question if shared childcare is really the answer. If you use your parents for occasional babysitting at weekends then some over-indulgence from them may not seem a big deal.


But with more parents having to work longer hours it's estimated that between 60 and 80 per cent of grandparents are involved in child care – either after school or during the day for younger children.


Johnson explains: "There have been huge changes in parenting techniques over the last few decades, and parents today see and do things differently."

Simon found his children Sophie, six, and Jack, three, behaved very differently after spending time with their grandmother. "They'd come back over-tired, squabbling, and rude to us. I didn't expect my mum to treat them exactly the same as we did – a few extra sweets was fine- but bedtimes and manners mattered."

It can create even more strain if grandparents themselves can't agree on how to treat your children. Fiona says: "My father allows one of my children to do anything they want, whereas my mum feels she has to compensate by cracking the whip. We've had to explain to our children that what happens at their grandparents' house stays there; don't expect the same at home."

Rachel Johnson advises parents: "Consistency is the key. This doesn't mean just having boundaries, expectations, consequences and rewards consistent day-to-day, it's also important that these are shared by all the important adults in your child's life."

So what do you do when someone like Jane, grandmother to Poppy, nine, says, "It didn't feel like my place to discipline her. My belief was that my role was to spoil her rotten and that telling her off was her parents' job."

Johnson says it's important to communicate with your parents or in-laws. "Agree on some basic rules and expectations. Put your expectations into context: for instance, if your child's teacher has complained about your child never saying please or thank you, it's easier for grandparents to understand why Mum and Dad are crazy about it."

It's easy to tell grandparents how they have got it all wrong and you're feeling emotional. But if you can wait until your children aren't there, that's much better.

The advice from Johnson is, "Talk about these issues in advance. Parents and grandparents must present a united front. Don't allow your children to see you arguing with their grandparents about what is and is not allowed. Parents and grandparents should present themselves as a united team.

"If a grandparent is unsure of something, they can delay a decision until they have checked with the child's parents."

Most parents recognise only too well the scenario where their child asks them for something, gets no as the answer, and promptly goes to ask the other parent.

Johnson suggests these guidelines as a starting point for a family discussion:

• Your parenting styles: are you firm but fair, strict or laid back? If you and your parents are poles apart how can you find some middle ground?

• Smacking or not? Do you believe in physical punishments, or not? If not, what are the consequences if your child misbehaves?

• Are boundaries applied right across the board? For example, if you have said no TV today, does that mean none at the grandparents as well?

• How much television is allowed? For example, you may allow your child to watch TV only after they have done all their homework.

• What rewards do you give for good behaviour?

• What bedtimes do you want for your child? Can they stay up later if there is no school the following day?

• What is your policy on sweets and other treats?

• What is your policy on food? Are you a stickler for healthy food all of the time, or can you be flexible if your children are eating elsewhere?

• Do grandparents understand if your child isn't allowed certain foods for medical reasons? Are they tempted to offer them 'just a small amount' of something they should not be eating, as a treat, without realising the consequences?

Grandparents and your extended family can be a huge help, but honest communication in advance is essential if you are both to get the best out of it, and not end up with a child who is confused by conflicting boundaries.

More on Parentdish:

How to make grandparent child care work for everyone

Why we should make the most of grandparents

Do your parents or in-laws help look after your children? How does it work for you?