Why some grandparents disagree with their kids' parenting styles — and what they should do about it

A grandmother, daughter and granddaughter
Parents and grandparents can sometimes clash over disciplining children, writes columnist Marcia Kester Doyle. (Getty Images)

Marcia Kester Doyle is the author of Who Stole My Spandex? Life in the Hot Flash Lane and the voice behind the midlife blog Menopausal Mother. She is a regular contributor to AARP the Magazine, and her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, HuffPost, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day and many others. She lives in sunny South Florida with her husband, four adult children, four grandchildren and two feisty pugs.

As a grandparent, one of the hardest things to do is sit quietly on the sidelines while watching your adult children make what you consider parenting mistakes with the grandkids. The temptation to offer advice is overwhelming, but there's a time and a place to communicate your concerns without shaming your kids. Unfortunately, too many grandparents are eager to jump in with unsolicited advice, which can strain the family relations.

I was raised in the 1960s by parents who resorted to corporal punishment, as did many families from that era. When my husband and I had children in the '80s, we used the "time-out" method to discipline our kids, and it worked just fine. Luckily, my parents respected our rules whenever they babysat the kids and never raised a hand to them. They also never offered parental advice unless we asked for their opinion. This show of respect proved their confidence in us as parents.

When grandparents and parents disagree

However, if a grandchild is often unruly and disrespectful and has parents who turn a blind eye to the bad behavior, should a grandparent speak up? Katherine, a grandmother of two in Tennessee, tried to discuss her grandson's aggressive behavior with her daughter but was immediately shut down. "My daughter lets my 8-year-old grandson do whatever he wants," she tells me. "There are no rules — [he] backtalks and even hits his mom. She yells at him, but he never listens, and then kisses him on the forehead. Or she'll take him to the store afterward to buy him something. We've tried talking to her about his bad behavior, but she gets defensive and says, 'Don't tell me what to do with my kid.' So we gave up, and now my grandson is just as spoiled as ever."

Many grandparents blame the breakdown of so-called proper parenting on a generation of new parents who, they feel, overindulge the kids.

"Some of these kids act entitled, lacking values and respect, " says Paul, a grandfather of four from Kansas. "But my friends are too afraid to confront their adult kids about this because they may be barred from seeing the grandchildren if the parents are offended. It's sad, really."

In Paul's view, "these parents give in to their children's tantrums because they're too busy or too distracted to discipline them." He adds, "They're too soft on discipline, letting their kids get away with bratty behavior — and without consequences — and it shows. Our generation was punished for our actions, which taught us not to make the same mistake again. Those consequences strengthened our moral compasses and gave us a tougher skin."

As Katherine's experience shows, pointing out these perceived parenting flaws (even when it comes from a place of love) often backfires, creating distance between the parents and grandparents. As difficult as it may seem, it's best for the child and the family if the parents are allowed to do the parenting themselves without interference from the grandparents, unless the child's safety is at risk.

What an expert says

According to Margaret Rutherford, a clinical psychologist and host of the podcast SelfWork, some of these parenting conflicts can be generational. "So much of what today's parents are exposed to — what the medical profession is saying about caring for children, what the current parenting trends are and what their friends are doing — influences their parenting," she says. "This is constantly changing, and parenting styles will change along with it. And what works for one child may not work for another."

Grandparents need to consider these factors before deciding whether to approach their adult children about a grandchild's behavioral issues. Rutherford suggests establishing a healthy, respectful relationship with the adult child and their partner or co-parent from the beginning.

"Once grandkids come along, the family bond has already been formed," she explains. "Ask your biological adult child first about what they notice are the differences between the way you raised them and the way they are parenting their own children. If you have a good working relationship with them, hopefully this will be a conversation, not an argument."

Cutting new parents some slack

But every generation of parents faces new challenges from the one before it. I'm sympathetic to today's parents because they're raising kids in a very different world — one in which screen time and social media are powerful influences. And let's not forget the impact of the pandemic, in which countless parents were tasked with juggling remote work and child care. Many are still dealing with the effects on their children's mental health, socialization, learning and more. It's hard to blame anyone for leaning on screen time or buying a new toy to entertain a child stuck at home.

"Sure, children today have been spoiled with an excessive amount of toys, but I blame it on COVID," says my friend Ronna, a grandmother of eight. "When parents returned to work, they felt bad for their kids and compensated by buying more things to ease the adjustment. So yes, this generation of grandkids may be spoiled when it comes to having lots of toys, but I think their parents are doing a wonderful job under these unusual circumstances."

Every generation believes they're raising their children better than the previous one. We've gone from authoritarian parenting to helicopter parenting to the current preoccupation with gentle parenting. Grandparents my age who were raised with strict rules may struggle to to stay quiet when they spot a grandchild misbehaving, and they may resent the recent changes in parenting styles.

"I'm sure grandparents find this difficult to watch if they think a swat on the butt might settle things," says Rutherford, "but their best bet is to have that trusting, family relationship in place first before the grandkids come along. Then their suggestions may flow a little more calmly. However, things will not go well for the grandparents if the advice comes from a place of control or disdain."

Most importantly, grandparents should never criticize the parents in front of the grandchildren, as this undermines their adult child's authority. Remember, they're the ones in charge, and the boundaries they've set should not be ignored (again, unless there is any endangerment to the child).

The good news is that millennials are introducing a new era of open communication that emphasizes raising emotionally intelligent children. They're paying closer attention to mental health issues and providing more encouragement by focusing on the positives. As grandparents, we should take a lesson from their parenting playbook and allow them to make their own choices without our interference.

Want insight and advice on grandparenting and other family dynamics? Email Marcia at heylifeeditors@yahooinc.com with your question, and it may inspire a future column.