The Grandparent Challenge

By Sonya Fehér, contributing editor for the API Speaks blog, leader for API of South Austin, Texas, USA, and blogger at

Sonya FeherHow many of us arrived at Attachment Parenting because we wanted to parent differently than we were parented? I have had the (mis)fortune recently of witnessing exactly how I was parented. First my mom came to visit, then my dad. It’s hard to get the distance to observe our relationship objectively, but watching each of them with my son was illuminating.

Unclear Boundaries

First was my mother’s inability to say no. While I am certainly not interested in the “no” that frequently is an automatic reaction in parenting, what gentle discipline means to me is that it is my responsibility to help my son by setting appropriate limits. Parental guidance means he doesn’t have to figure out what is okay or safe on his own.

We had gone out for lunch at an Indian restaurant, and my son had a mango lassi. Running errands afterward, I was going into one store while Gramma and Cavanaugh went to another. I told my mom that Cavanaugh couldn’t have chocolate milk because he already had a treat. So what did she do? She told Cavanaugh that the bookstore café was out of chocolate milk. Ultimately, the result was the same. Cavanaugh did not drink chocolate milk. But he also wasn’t given the boundary that two treats were too many. What my mom avoided by lying to him was the responsibility of saying no and having to answer his objections to that no.

I grew up with her lack of ability to set a clear boundary. It didn’t mean that I got everything I wanted. Instead, I often felt frustrated that I wasn’t getting what I wanted, but I didn’t really understand why I felt angry, sad, or disappointed. After all, no one had actually said no.

Do Not Feel

Later that day, I did say no to Cavanaugh when he was standing precariously on my rolling desk chair, leaning over my paper-covered desk. I explained I was afraid he would fall, because the papers or chair could slip. He cried. I understood the tears. He wanted something and wasn’t getting it. I held him in my arms and said, “I understand you feel sad. You really wanted to play on my desk.”

That gave him the room to talk about how he was feeling. “I wanted to close the printer.”

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know that’s what you were trying to do. It would be okay for you to say that’s what you wanted.”

“And what would you say?”

“I would say, ‘Okay, let me hold the chair steady while you do that, then you’ll have to get down because it’s too messy up there and it isn’t safe.’”

In the middle of this exchange, my mom came in, saw Cavanaugh crying, and attempted to distract him from his tears. I motioned for her to leave so he and I could finish talking. In that instant, I remembered just how often my feelings were denied. The message was: Don’t feel sad even when something sad is happening. Stuff those feelings, act happy, or distract yourself.

Having not heard no as a child or learned how to deal with direct boundary setting has affected me in school, jobs, my marriage, friendships, anywhere with authority, or just dealing with other human beings.

The same is true for the direct expression of my feelings. Knowing what I even feel, much less how to express those feelings, in an appropriate way or in particular settings is something I am still having to teach myself.

This is just one example of why Attachment Parenting is such an important practice for me. I want to honor my son’s feelings and experience by letting him have the feelings. It’s important to give him the room to express what’s going on with him. Gentle discipline gives me a way to accomplish that because I still set limits, but I do it consciously and kindly. I do it while respecting that he is a human being with needs and wants that will not always be in alignment with mine.

Criticism of Parenting Style

During my dad’s visit, just about every message he gave about my parenting was that it was too permissive and too attentive. I heard over and over, “He’s going to have to learn he just can’t have attention all the time.” So if I just give him less of what he needs or wants, then he’ll want it less? I don’t think so.

When Cavanaugh — who is only three years old by the way — interrupted because he was tired of the adults talking instead of giving him attention, my dad taught Cavanaugh to say, “Excuse me,” and then expected that my son would sit and wait patiently while his Granpa went on for another ten minutes.

Throughout Dad’s entire visit, I felt anxious because I couldn’t begin to anticipate what might come up as the next challenge, and the only limits I could think of setting were:

  1. Don’t be such a bully.
  2. Don’t talk to my son.

How to Deal?

Besides pointing out the contrasts in our parenting styles, Gramma and Granpa’s visits have presented me with a challenge. Neither of my parents see my son that frequently, so how much should the messages they’re giving him concern me? What total impact are they having? I am aware that I can’t change their behavior. Believe me, I spent years trying.

Rather than trying to change my parents, the next plausible option is to talk directly to my son. Whether Granpa is giving an “Excuse me” lesson or Gramma is trying to distract from the no, what I chose to do was speak to Cavanaugh. “I know it’s hard to not get what you want” or “It’s polite not to interrupt people while they’re talking, and I know you’re ready for some attention.” Ultimately, my responsibility is to parent my son, not my parents.

Still, this dealing with grandparents feels like one of the trickiest issues I come up against in parenting. My instincts work much better with my son than with my parents. I’m still figuring out how to navigate the Grandparent Challenge? How do you handle it? Click here to share your comments about the AP-unfriendly adults in your life…

13 thoughts on “The Grandparent Challenge”

  1. This was a great article. I find myself in this struggle all the time, and for us it’s my in-laws. I choose to just attend to my daughters needs and rely on the idea that they will see how well she is doing as she grows up. But it is so hard it makes it easier to just avoid them which is not best.

  2. Thank you! I have very similar feelings when it comes to dealing with my children’s grandparents. One thing I am currently focusing on is being an advocate for my children (ages 2 and 4). I am hoping this will help me focus on the biggest issues and let the minor ones slide.

  3. Holy CATS! This is exactly (well rephrased) the question I posed in our online ap group. I haven’t finished reading, but am looking FORWARD to hearing more about how to COPE with all this!

    Truly, your son is blessed. But ditch the worry if you can and remember that old trees can’t be uprooted and transplanted but they can grow new roots and shoots.

    I am not trying to change my parents (DH’s mom is in LI and won’t visit, so we see her minimally. ) I simply try to take one situation at a time. I can’t do anything else without totally alienating them.

    And because I have seen the light doesn’t mean much of anyone else is going to. Even if I turn on the spotlight and try to help them read with it!

    There has got to be so much MORE!

  4. This is a complex issue that I would love to see The Attached Family explore further. Sometimes trying to set healthy boundaries with the grandparents is complicated by the lingering unresolved issues you have due to the inappropriate parenting you received. Case in point, my husband. His mother used a disapproving parenting style similar to the style used by your father. As a result, my husband still fears her disapproval and has a hard time standing up to her—even on behalf of our 3 year old. To make matters worse, his siblings (who have children under 5) parent the same way as his mother, setting my husband (and me) up for even more disapproval from his mom. I want our son to have a relationship with his grandma, but since I’m the only one setting boundaries with her, visits with her are always tense and upsetting for everyone. After a visit my husband often ends up questioning the attachment parenting we’ve been doing due to all the grief he is getting from his mom. In this way the grandparent challenge exacerbates the co-parent challenge. So, I agree with the comment above—would love to hear more ideas about how to COPE!!

  5. Thanks This is very interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger. I have joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your wonderful post.

  6. Thanks so much for this! My in-laws are constantly pulling my 10month daughter’s left hand away from things (Im left handed, and pretty confident that if she becomes left handed too, it will be fine!) and my parents announced that they will not babysit her until we recant on our decision not to spank (they follow michael and debbie pearls’ teachings) because they wont be allowed to spank her and she will be too spoiled. Your right tho…we cat change our parents. Dealing with different types of people is a part of life tho, and as my little girl gets older, she will be learning that too.

  7. Wow! This is EXACTLY the dynamic I encounter and was googling for advice about. I run into insecurities at times because it feels like my daughter starts to prefer my mother to me. I notice though, she is more cooperative, easy-going and grounded without Grandma around. This reassures me that our bond is strong and that my ability to say no creates a safe container for her to explore the world. Thanks for sharing this! What’s unfolded since the post? Any insights or advice?

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