Parents, meet your parents

Now that you are a parent yourself, how is your relationship with your own parents and in-laws? Of course, they are still your mum and dad but there can be sticking points that make the relationship stressful. Do you feel they do not respect your decisions about how your children should be raised? The fact you are reading this proves that you are taking parenthood very seriously. You probably already have strong ideas about nutrition, safety, health, education and routines. Your ideas are shaped by research and reading and they might contradict sharply with your parents’ opinions. It is a very old conflict – your new-fangled ideas collide with their old-fashioned ones, and you and they can both feel disrespected.

You can probably understand that your parents would still want to hang onto their decades-old ideas (“Well, I raised you perfectly well, didn’t I?”) but what surprises many people is when their once-strict parents morph into soft and indulgent grandparents. Not only do you fear they will spoil your kids, you are jealous – “They are far nicer to my kids then they ever were with me!”

A dose of reality – these tensions happen in most families and, probably, you are not going to fix the problem entirely. It can be even more complicated when there are two sets of grandparents vying for access to their precious grandchildren. Fight the temptation to emigrate and, instead, look for ways to make things better because kids are usually so much better off being nurtured by a wider whānau. Here are some tips.

One way to start improving your relationship is to acknowledge that, as a parent yourself, you now have much more insight into what your parents did for you, and you acknowledge their good parenting. “I appreciate now what you did for me.” “This parenting stuff is hard work! You must have got so tired bringing us up.” “I wish I could remember being this small – I would love to be able to remember what you were doing with me back then.” “She is so nice – you must have done a few things right when you were bringing up my wife!”

The elephant in the room will often be you are doing things differently from the way they did things, even if they do not say it, so you may as well acknowledge it. “Does it seem like we do things much differently from when you were bringing me up?” Then you can ask them why they did things that way. “Where did mums and dads get their advice from back then?” Their sources of authority were probably Plunket, their own parents and trial and error. It wouldn’t hurt to point out that you are fortunate to have access to so much information now and your challenge is to sort out the best advice you can find. “There are just so many baby-care books in the bookshops now, let alone the internet.”

A hugely useful tool for defusing tensions is asking for advice. It allows you to know what their ideas are and the reasons for them – you might learn something genuinely useful and they will appreciate being asked. It then provides a platform for you to put your views across in a way that is far more likely to get a good response. “I’ve been told the best way is to do this – is that different from the advice you got?” “That’s interesting. There’s a lot of research now about car seats (or sugar or sun protection or food allergies etc.) and we have decided that we are going to…”

Discussions like the ones above would allow you to very easily segue into how you require them to look after your child when they have care of him. If they disagree, and the issue is one you consider to be important, this gives you an opportunity to practice a strategy you will find very useful when you have teenagers – “Let’s just do it this way for now. I’ll go back and check that I’ve got my facts straight on this and I don’t mind you trying to change my mind but, for the time being, I insist we do it like this.” The strategy – “I could change my mind but you have to convince me. In the meantime, my decision stands”. It shows that you are being reasonable, willing to listen, respectful of their opinion but you make decisions thoughtfully. More importantly, it also shows that you are confident in your authority as a parent.

See if you can spot these two very common human frailties. The first is rose-tinted hindsight – your parents have forgotten their own struggles and panics, and seem to remember that you were potty-trained by 10 months. The second frailty is paranoia – you will imagine criticism and judgement, even it is never expressed. After you spot these human quirks, in them and yourself, smile and ignore them!

A final thought – even though they might make you feel a little awkward at times, your parents and in-laws will probably be your staunchest allies and a great resource. They probably don’t need much ‘stroking’ but they will certainly appreciate it if you appreciate them. “I’m glad baby has a wider family.” “I can’t remember. Did grandma and grandpa get involved very much when you were bringing us up? Because your help sure makes a difference.” “I really appreciate your help.”

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John Cowan

Writer, speaker and broadcaster, John Cowan shares his insight and opinions about the latest in parenting and family news in New Zealand. Hear John speak on radio stations every week throughout the country and regularly on national TV.  Follow @JohnCowanNZ on Twitter

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