Accepting Grandparents’ Good Intentions (With Humble Apologies To My Father-in-Law)

After meeting motherhood dazed, confused, even panicked, I was greatly relieved to discover a child-rearing philosophy that made perfect sense to me. Captivated and empowered by infant expert Magda Gerber, I set about following her parenting principles to the letter. My gusto caused some missteps. The one I regret most is offending my father-in-law.

My handsome, fun-loving father-in-law is a successful Broadway producer, was a set designer in the early days of television, and has always been an artist. When his first granddaughter came to visit the family house in Vermont at 20 months old, Grandpa Edgar naturally wanted to connect, and one of the ways he did that was to draw with her. Charming, right?

What Edgar didn’t know was that I had been zealously protecting his granddaughter’s power of discovery for months,  suppressing my own urges to show her how to do things that she might later be able to discover on her own. By then, Magda Gerber’s belief that infants should be trusted to be initiators, explorers and self-learners had been confirmed for me by my daughter many times over. I had also been steeped in early childhood educator Bev Bos’ advice to “never draw for a child” and Piaget’s words, “Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself…That which we allow him to discover by himself…will remain with him.”

When my dear friend Stuart dropped by a few months before the Vermont trip and brought my daughter a small box of crayons, I cringed. He was probably a little offended, and certainly taken aback when I begged, “Don’t show her how they work!” But having been a best friend for years, Stuart was well-acquainted with my somewhat obsessive, perfectionist tendencies. He obeyed.

My daughter liked the crayons. She took them out of the box, and struggled until she got them all back in. Many, many times. I may have been the only mom in the world to appreciate such an activity. I thought it was perfect. And I knew the day would come (and it did weeks later) when she discovered the profound truth — crayons make marks! But even then, the marks of color were not as fulfilling to my daughter as getting those stately soldiers to line up again, just right, in the box.

So, well-meaning Grandpa Edgar didn’t have a prayer. I was polite (I think) when I asked him not to draw for his granddaughter, and I tried lamely to explain why, but in retrospect I believe opening my mouth at all was ungracious. After all, it wasn’t the same as if I drew for her — parents are much more influential to a child than anyone else. A demonstration from me might have been perceived as the “right” way to draw, and discouraged her because she wasn’t as able.

As my mother-in-law sagely pointed out, my daughter would just think of drawing as something special that her grandfather does.  And it is…and she does. And, she became something of an artist in her own right as a photographer. (And she’s still into composition – likes everything lined up, just so.)

So, the moral of this story is: tame your parenting zeal. Embrace tact, even if it means biting your tongue.  Leave the grandparents alone. They deserve to develop their own relationships with their grandchildren. If they are not daily caregivers, it matters little if they have different parenting practices than we do.

Do you have any grandparent stories? Or are you a grandparent? I’d love to hear from you.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Michelle R says:

    I agree with *almost* everything here — but the last line of this post made me cringe a little.

    I agree it’s essential to let go of the reigns a little with grandparents and other loved ones, but I vehemently disagree that “most of the time, they know better anyway.” Some of our parents were raised by well-meaning but ultimately damaging people and the way THEY were raised has influenced in every way — big or small — how they believe parenting should be done. My mom means well in everything she does for my daughter, but there are certain things that I know beyond a doubt (because I lived them) are not right. They stunt growth and creativity, and harm self-worth.

    All this is to say, I do believe in letting to sometimes, but I also think grandparents can and should be open to learning about new techniques. I doubt my mom realizes how some of the things she did hurt me as a child and even a developing adolescent, and I doubt she would want to perpetuate that cycle and have the same relationship with my daughter. Please don’t let anyone — including your parents and in-laws — interact with your baby in a way you aren’t comfortable with based on the false assumption that “they know better” or “you turned out fine.”

    1. Excellent point, Michelle. Thank you, I’m going to edit my comment.

  2. Liz McFee says:

    This is a good reminder, but something I am currently struggling with. I am extremely lucky, and my mother is watching my youngest son during the week while I’m at work. My son is nearly 10 months old, and the plan is for her to watch him until he is 18 months old and can attend the same school his older brother does. Like you said, my mother means well, no question. But I struggle with leaving well enough alone, because she is the queen of distraction and constant entertainment. Which would be fine on occasion, but I worry it’s not ok given the amount of time she is now spending with him. I’ve tried to send links to your articles, in a tactful manner, just saying these have really helped me, etc. In short, am I being too crazy, should I just let go (considering how much money we are saving…)?

  3. Linda Long says:

    I’m a grandmother to twins who I have the honor to care for 3 days a week while their mom is at work. I have read your books and follow you on Facebook which has helped me enormously. I can’t say that I am even close to perfect at following all the good advice… now three years old … twins are hard!!! I love the whole “let them figure it out” though that did recently result in a tricycle being dragged and pushed up a slide to see if it was fun to ride it down the slide! The bruises seemed to be worth it as well as the hilarity that my horrified screams elicited. Sigh. I hope I live through your parenting advice! Lol. I think relaxing and setting the example for your children that compromise and meeting difference with kindness is worth so much more than almost anything I could ever teach. So I strive daily to reinforce patience, kindness, and a joyful learning! (Might be sneaking in some physics lessons about gravity and why we need to respect it! And why giving grandma more gray hair isn’t acceptable!) Thanks for all you do.

  4. Cynthia Cunningham Shigo says:

    I am a care-giving grandma, and I sometimes struggle to meet your high standards of leaving well enough alone. I will admit to giving constant attention and entertainment, mostly just because my grandson is so much fun to be with. And he is so smart, that it is impossible for this teacher to not teach when ever I am with him! I take him to the library every week. He is 3 and is reading on his own and picks about half of the books we get every week. I did buy him crayons and even some coloring books, but he has never been very interested in them. I try very hard to answer every question he asks, and to be interested in his conversation. I do think a special relationship with grandparents is a great benefit to children. It can’t hurt to have more people who love him, just the way he is, and enjoy his company so well. And one of my firmly held beliefs, as a parent, has been that if we share our passions with our children we establish life long bonds with them, which cannot be broken. I have been a teacher of drama and creative writing for years. One of my daughters is a poet and the other teaches drama now, too. Wouldn’t it have been a shame if I had neglected to share my love of poetry and theatre with them because I wanted them to “discover it for themselves”?

    1. Yes, it would have been a shame! I agree wholeheartedly about sharing our passions and I hope it came across that I realized I was overzealous at that time.

      Regarding drawing and other forms of visual art, I often hear from parents whose children refuse to engage in these activities and insist that the parent do it for them. This is apparently a common result of parents drawing, painting, etc., for a child. The child sees something that is beyond what he or she can achieve and it intimidates and discourages them. I haven’t heard of that happening with poetry. 🙂 Anyway, your relationship sounds wonderful and I appreciate your comment.

      1. In the same vein, I struggle with extended family, some of whom have a tendency to try and make my toddler ‘perform’ and like to test her to see if she can do x y or z. I have always felt uncomfortable as it feels the spirit in which it is done isn’t for fun but to test how ‘smart’ she is, or not. It’s not ‘as bad’ when she is able to do what they expected, but comments have also included how many times they taught her something and how she ‘still couldn’t do it’. It is hard for me to keep my emotions in check so I bit my tongue, but what I wanted to say was she’s not a monkey and she doesn’t have to perform for you. I also have first hand experience of this treatment as I was growing up too so I know the detriment it has. How do I respond respectfully but firmly?

        1. One of my sons hates performing and he is old enough now to actually tell people. It makes them uncomfortable, but honestly, I’m glad he’s very stubborn and refuses when he doesnt want to. My other son is 2 and he loves to perform. If someone asks him to sing the ABCs, he will do it 10 times. I bite my tongue with it since I know he loves it and it’s temporary. The thing I struggle with is people constantly telling my kids that they’re smart. It drives me nuts. My husband and I never say that to our kids ourselves and feel it’s a huge motivation killer. It’s definitely hard for me to stop myself with the grandparents tell our kids they’re smart. I’ll try to remember this post and try harder to let it go.

          1. Yes, I hear you, Em! But it really is the daily diet that has an effect, and primarily if the comments are coming from us. With your obvious dedication, I’m sure they’ll be fine!

          2. Hi, I’m not sure how old this comment is, hopefully not too old but what are the concerns for telling children they’re smart ?

  5. Hi Janet,
    I would love to hear your thoughts on a grandma who buys grandson turning 5 new toys every week!has done so for 6 mths now. So now we have nothing left to give for Christmas & Birthdays, he doesn’t appreciate much, & knows he will get a new toy when he goes to grandmas, once or twice a week! So constantly begs me to go to grandmas because he wants …… new toy & she will buy it for him. HELP! This is my MIL & my partner won’t come into it. She also shows him content from inappropriate movies, such as Raptors trying to kill humans in Jurassic park ( I have never watched this) as well as the ANaconda eating a human from the horror movie Anaconda because he wanted to see what an Anaconda looked like. How do I deal with this without becoming a single mom? I am terribly upset by it but neither my partner nor his family taking my parenting seriously, probably because I didn’t have anything to do with kids prior to my own. Thanks!

  6. Hi Janet

    Thank you for this article – I had a difficult encounter at our little girl’s grandparents (my Dad and stepmum) a few months ago and as soon as I got home and got the little one in bed I searched to find what you had to say on the topic and how to deal with it so was very grateful to find this as otherwise I would have said something and harmed relationships when really I needn’t have! Since then I have practiced and got much more relaxed with just letting things go in terms of how the grandparents interact with our girl (now 16 months) knowing that it is how we as parents interact with her that really counts. There are a couple of sticking points though that keep coming up that I wanted to ask your advice on please.

    The first is about letting our little one do things for herself – the grandparents insist on helping her if she doesn’t do it herself in 1.5 seconds, like climbing up somewhere, getting her leg out of a stuck position etc. I have worked on just letting this go as it is not all the time but yesterday one thing really jarred with me and I think it is because it brings up emotions from my own childhood. My Dad had asked earlier in the week what kind of instruments our little girl was into and I said that she liked banging on the drums. When we went to visit about an hour into the visit he went and got out a set of old toy drums. It was so sweet that he had thought about what to get for her to play with that I made a big deal (which is not what I would usually do about a new item, following RIE approach of nonchalance to allow independent discovery) but I knew it was what my Dad expected and he is really trying to build that relationship. Anyway, after everyone was like “look xx come and see what Poppa has!” he started banging the drums to show her how they worked. When she just watched he then took her hands to make her bang on the drums. He paused a moment, and when she was still just looking at the drums he said “oh she’ll get there” and got up and walked away. The whole encounter made me cringe and was triggering I guess for my own interactions with my father. After a couple of minutes and sitting with me of course our little one then began banging happily on the drums (which her Poppa didn’t notice and said nothing about 🙁 ). I am wondering what your advice would be in these situations as I am sure they are going to keep coming up. I bit my tongue in line with your advice above but I feel like I need to defend her personal space (i.e. stop people grabbing her hands etc. to make her do things) and help family members to understand that just because she isn’t doing what you want her to within 2 seconds doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know how or needs to “get there” but I am unsure how to do so delicately!

    The other thing is about phones. We are protecting our daughter’s ability to learn through play and have been strict on no screens whatsover (which really hasn’t been difficult at all). We’ve tried to talk to the grandparents about this but they have been very stubborn – to the point that yesterday after her Dad asked her to give Nan’s phone back and perhaps didn’t wait quite long enough (as she usually hands them over after we give her time to decide herself) she let out a cry and her Poppa immediately handed her his instead … her Nan then said “oh we have an old iphone she can have if you like” (she’s 16 months old!?!) Grateful for any advice on how to deal with this topic!

    Thank you so much for all of your work <3

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