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When Grandma Misbehaves: How to Avoid 5 Situations That Could Lead to a Grandparent ‘Time Out’

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Linda Ferguson was eager to meet her new granddaughter. She hadn’t been invited to the birth or allowed to visit in the weeks following, since the parents wanted to bond with their baby without visitors.

Finally Linda, a long-distance grandmother, was invited for a visit. She fed the baby and changed diapers. She exchanged coos and funny faces with her granddaughter, but was warned not to rock her. The baby was falling asleep on her own, and the parents, a busy two-career couple, didn’t want that to change.

On the last night of her visit, while babysitting, Linda broke the rule and had a lovely time rocking her granddaughter to sleep. Then, after Linda had left for home, her granddaughter cried inconsolably at bedtime. The frustrated parents told the grandmother that she was barred from visiting again for a matter of weeks. Linda had been put in grandmother time out.

Grandparent time out may sound like a joke, but to the grandparents who are penalized, it’s very real. Instead of having to sit on a stair step for 10 minutes, some grandparents are being separated from their grandchildren for weeks or even months at a time. Their misdemeanors range from not following the parents’ rules to offering unsolicited advice. “Time out” is such a common topic of conversation on some parenting blogs that they abbreviate it: TO.

How to Avoid a Grandparent Time Out

If grandparent TOs have a positive side, it’s that they’re not permanent. After all, for various reasons, some parents completely cut off contact between their children and the children’s grandparents forever; time outs, at least, have a limited time span.

What situations have led to these time outs? Here are five of the most common scenarios, along with advice for both sides about avoiding conflict.

1. The grandparents tread on the parents’ turf. 

Grandparents: You don’t get to make parenting decisions, and you shouldn’t even offer an opinion unless asked for it. Trust that the parents don’t make decisions lightly but consider their choices carefully. Parents: Try to put yourself in the grandparents’ positions. Their love for their grandchildren is very close to parental love, yet they get none of the parental choices. Give them a break if they occasionally overstep boundaries as long as they do it out of the best of motives — and don’t repeat the error.

2. The parents and grandparents don’t share the same beliefs or values.

Grandparents: Don’t say, “I didn’t raise you that way.” You reared your children to be independent and make their own choices as adults. Don’t penalize them for doing it. Parents: If you have discarded some of the practices or beliefs of your parents, at least be respectful of them and don’t make derisive comments, especially in front of the grandchildren.

3. The grandparents give too many gifts.

Grandparents: If the parents do not want their children to have certain items, respect their wishes. When gifts are called for, give one or two, not dozens. You don’t want to upstage the parents. Parents: Suggest other ways that the grandparents can show their love. For example, they could pay for summer camp or dance lessons instead of buying toys. And spending time together can be the best gift of all.

4. The grandparents don’t follow the parents’ dietary rules.

Grandparents: It doesn’t matter whether you agree with the regimen that the parents have chosen for their children. Whether it is gluten-free, sugar-free or vegetarian, you are obligated to follow it. Parents: If your children are on special diets, explain why to the grandparents and help them understand which foods are allowed. If the children will be staying with their grandparents and you’re very picky about what they eat, pack food for them. Also, be forgiving of an occasional slip — unless a child has a life-threatening allergy.

5. The grandparents don’t follow procedures to keep grandchildren safe.

Grandparents: This one is absolutely non-negotiable. Learn about car seats and use them correctly. Enforce the parents’ rules about bike helmets and other safety measures. It doesn’t matter that you never used car seats or bike helmets with your own children. We know better now. Parents: Show grandparents how to use safety measures correctly. As early as possible, train your children to put on their own seat belts and bike helmets.

How to Get Out of a Time Out Once You’re in It

Just like time outs for children, grandparent time outs should have a specified time span. Sometimes the parents may propose a trial run in which the grandparent can show respect for the rules. This strategy can lead to a positive outcome for all.

As for Grandma Linda? She waited out her time out with good grace, and she now has frequent visits with her granddaughter and with the latest arrival, another little girl. She visits often and is entrusted with their care when the parents are away on business, an arrangement which is great for all parties involved. Sure, she’s a little sad that she didn’t get to rock her granddaughters — but she makes up for it with extra hugs and kisses.

Susan Adcox is a writer specializing in grandparenting topics. She is the author of Stories From My Grandparent: An Heirloom Journal for Your Grandchild.

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