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How Much Is Too Much? Setting Limits with Grandparents

by Brittney Schrick, Ph.D., CFLE - August 27, 2021

You've probably seen those cute signs that say "What happens at Granny's stays at Granny's." The idea that it is a grandparent's job to spoil their grandchild is widely accepted. But what happens if your ideas about raising your children and those of their grandparents cause friction? Learning to set firm boundaries with your child's grandparents can make things easier for everyone, including the kids.

Grandparents serve an invaluable role

Grandparents and other trusted, older adults offer immense value to growing families.

  • They can offer wisdom from their own experiences.
  • The give insight into your early life or that of your partner.
  • They can offer practical support such as child care or financial help and emotional support such as a sounding board.
  • Healthy intergenerational relationships benefit everyone involved. Kids gain trusted adults and grandparents gain health and wellness benefits from interacting with younger generations.

What does overindulgence mean?

Spoiling grandkids may be the prerogative of grandparents, but a little too much ice cream and staying up late aren’t the types of spoiling that can cause long-term issues in the family.

Overindulgence can fall into three categories: soft structure (lack of rules), over-nurture (doing jobs that belong to the child), and too much (giving more to the child than they need or putting hardship on the family in some way).

What do I tell the grandparents?

1. Let's agree on some non-negotiable rules. 

One of the bigger points of conflict between parents and grandparents can be when they disagree on discipline or rules. Kids need consistency in rules and guidance that makes sense to them and fits their age. Sometimes, parents are more lenient than grandparents wish they would be, and other times the opposite may be true.

It is important that age-appropriate structure be present for a child no matter who is taking care of them. Kids who don’t know what the rules are from person to person or place to place are more likely to push boundaries and have a harder time developing consistent behaviors. Non-negotiable rules need to be present that prioritize the child’s safety and help them develop trust.

For babies and toddlers: Teaching the baby to trust that they will be taken care of and their needs will be met is the most important process. As they become mobile, teaching them safety rules and what is ok and not ok to do as well as helping them learn cause and effect make later learning easier. They do not understand punishment a this age, so consistent routines, intervention to insure safety, and redirection are your best tools.

For older toddlers and preschoolers: Those non-negotiable rules can become more complex but still prioritize the child’s safety. Using short phrases like “stop” and “wait,” teaching about sharing and politeness, and allowing the child to practice saying “no” in a safe relationship are very important tools.

It is dangerous to teach a child to always do what an adult says, so allowing them to say “no” when they don’t want to do something, especially something related to their own body or possessions, teaches them that their boundaries will be respected. Preschoolers can handle more complex ideas, so introducing simple chores as well as offering brief explanation for why rules exist help them to grow and learn. Basic respect for self, others, and property should be prioritized.

Older kids: Provide opportunities for practicing skills and more complex reasoning. Teach them rules and consistently enforce them. They can understand the reasons behind rules assuming reasons exist, and they can learn to recognize safe and unsafe situations if they are allowed to experience the world around them. When they break a rule, offer logical consequences rather than an arbitrary punishment. If the consequence makes sense to them, they are more likely to remember why it was used.

Teens: As brains develop, expectations of following rules and contributing to the family should increase. Continue teaching with reinforcement and consistency of rules. Set clear rules about risk-taking behavior such as sex or substance use but remember to expect some impulsive and inconsistent behavior from your teen as their brains develop.

2. If the kids can do it themselves, let's let them. 

One of the biggest, most well-meaning mistakes parents and grandparents make with children (especially young children) is doing things for them that they can do for themselves. Sometimes, this impulse happens because of the temperament of the adult. It seems easier to do something for the child when they may make a mess or take longer to complete the task, so the adult says, “I’ll do this.”

Instead, let kids do what they’re capable of doing. This builds confidence and life skills.

3. Let's talk about the stuff. 

One of the ways grandparents might overindulge or spoil grandkids is by giving them too much stuff or otherwise putting hardship on the family through overstretching resources like space, time, or money.

Parents should be willing to set boundaries with grandparents and other trusted grownups when it comes to gifts or other things that could potentially cause a drain on resources. For example, if you have a grandparent who insists on giving large gifts for birthdays or other occasions, if you don’t have room in your home, it can cause stress and frustration over time. Even though it’s a hard conversation to have, it is important to let the grandparent know that you don’t have room for the gifts. If they insist on buying them, ask them to keep them at their home instead. Any gifts that require long-term maintenance or care such as pets or vehicles, or anything that requires a time commitment or transportation like lessons or sports should not be given without discussion with the parent.

Good Hearts Can't Lose

Most of the time, “spoiling” a child comes from a good heart. Parents and grandparents and other trusted adults love their kids, so they do what they can to make them happy. It is important to keep in mind a child’s development, their needs, what they can do for themselves, and the resources and rules of a family, and sometimes that means having a direct conversation and setting boundaries.

Communication about differences of opinion or conflicting ideas about how to raise children are important and help build trust. When everyone stays focused on their common goal, to raise healthy, happy children, everything can work out.


Jobs of the Child Handout: /life-skills-wellness/personal-family-well-being/family-life-fridays-blog/posts/images/handout-how%20much%20is%20too%20much-the%20jobs%20of%20the%20child.pdf

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