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Heavy Meddle: How Do We Tell Our Parents Not To Mess With Our Parenting?

This article is more than 7 years old.

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Dear Steve,

My husband and I have a parenting style that differs from how we were raised by our parents. Our parents think we are spoiling our child. They think we should adopt a more authoritative stance and “show him who is boss.”

We love our parents and know that they want what is best for us. We would like our son to visit them as often as possible. However, we would like to avoid the power struggles over our different parenting styles. How do we encourage our parents to respect our parenting philosophy?

Thank you,
Happy Mama


Dear Happy Mama,

Wow, you are singing my song! In fact, I suspect you are singing the song of millions of parents who are struggling to raise their kids differently than their folks. Actually, I should use the verb “parent” shouldn’t I?

My wife and I talk about this stuff all the time. For instance, every time we bolt one our children into a car seat. “Remember when we were growing up?” we say, somewhat nostalgically. “Our folks just chucked us in the way back and let us rattle around!” Or when we find ourselves issuing little parenting catch phrases such as “use your words” when what we want to say is, “shut your jam-smeared little pie hole before Daddy throws a nutter.”

What I’m getting at — though probably not very well — is that modern, American-style parenting does tend to be far more patient and “child-centered” than in previous generations (and in other countries). That doesn’t make it bad parenting. But it does explain why grandparents can sometimes second-guess us.

This should be a conversation, not a sermon, in which you guys can openly address what has been, to this point, a kind of half-spoken conflict.

The best thing you can do, Happy, is to sit down and explain to your respective parents what your parenting philosophy is, and how you’ve come to it. Remember: your folks probably aren’t hip to all the studies and research and books and articles that form the intellectual and psychological basis of modern parenting. I’m not suggesting that you give them a reading list, or a lecture. But it’s important for them to realize that you’re not just pulling your edicts out of the ether, or letting your kids push you around; that your approach is based on a thoughtful consideration of what’s best for your kids, and for you. You should make it clear to them that you love and respect them, and that you cherish their interest and involvement with your kids. Lead with gratitude. But you should also be clear about what rules you’ve established for your family, and the extent to which you expect these rules to be respected — whether you’re in their homes or your own.

To reiterate: this should be a conversation, not a sermon, in which you guys can openly address what has been, to this point, a kind of half-spoken conflict.

Let me offer one additional suggestion, Happy. Be open to what your folks have to say, and to the possibility that they may have constructive, if potentially painful, insights.

Care for a potentially painful personal example? A couple of summers ago, my own dad took me aside to observe that our kids were badly behaved at the dinner table during an extended stay at their home. (He also, unwisely, made a less tactful comment to my wife.) We were both pretty taken aback. But the more we talked about it, the more we realized that the guy had a point. Our kids truly hadn’t learned good table manners. And I don’t mean that they didn’t sit up straight and listen respectfully and use their shrimp fork correctly. I mean that they disrupted meals in ways that were disrespectful, and ruined the experience for the adults.

It was embarrassing to admit this. It reflected poorly on our own parenting, after all. But it was also indicative of the fact that we (like a lot of modern parents) had failed to provide the kind of clear rules and structure that kids need. In pointing this out, my dad wasn’t trying to make us feel bad. He was trying to address what he saw as an unhealthy situation.

I’m not suggesting that your parents have cause to issue these sorts of judgments. Frankly, I have no idea. But I am saying that you should be open to the possibility. As we both know, raising children is hard work. We all need as much help as we can get, especially from loving grandparents.

No kidding.

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Editor's Note: As part of this year's First Night festivities, Steve will be hosting Beantown Outloud: A Literary Celebration of Boston with authors Sue Miller, Chris Castellani, and Reg Gibson. The event will be from 3 to 4 p.m. at the Boston Public Library on Tuesday, December 31st. More info here.

This program aired on December 30, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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