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Parents, Grandparents Disagree on How Grandchildren Are Raised, Poll Finds

Issues around discipline, food and screen time cause disputes

Two adult female are having disagreements with upbringing kid at home.

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En español | When parents and grandparents disagree about how grandchildren are being raised, those disputes often center on discipline, food and screen time, according to a new national poll. The result of those disputes can mean that parents limit the amount of time grandparents get to spend with their grandchildren.

The C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health surveyed 2,016 parents with children under 18 and asked them about the role of grandparents in their lives and in the lives of their children.

The most common source of conflict between grandparents and parents when it comes to grandchildren is discipline. The survey found that 57 percent of parents who reported disagreements said they resulted from behavioral issues. Forty percent of parents who reported disagreements said they stemmed from grandparents treating children too leniently, while 14 percent said grandparents’ tough love caused disputes.

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New views on discipline tactics — such as spanking and other types of corporal punishment — as well as new research on child safety, like using a booster seat or letting children stay home alone, can spur conflict.

Researchers found that when grandparents didn't support or comply with parents’ requests about how to raise grandchildren “parents were likely to limit the grandparent's time with the child,” says Sarah Clark, who codirected the national poll, based at the University of Michigan. “We think this has a negative impact for children and grandparents."

Generational differences can be an issue

Discipline, Snacks Top List of Disagreements

Parents reported their most common areas of disagreement with grandparents about grandchildren, according to a new poll: 

• 57 percent said discipline

• 44 percent said meals and snacks

• 36 percent said screen time

• 27 percent said manners

• 25 percent said health and safety

• 22 percent said treating some grandchildren differently than others

• 21 percent said bedtime

• 10 percent said sharing photos and information on social media

Among parents who said their child sees at least one grandparent regularly, 6 percent reported major disagreements with one or more grandparent about their parenting, and 37 percent reported minor disagreements, the poll found. In addition to discipline, other issues caused problems, including conflicts over food and screen time. 

Kay Hickey, 86, of Amagansett, New York, says differences in parenting expectations may be caused by the age gap between parents and their children. “The most important difference is the cultural difference between my era and theirs,” Hickey says of her two children and four grandchildren.

Respondents to the poll said smartphones and the internet have presented parenting challenges that their own parents never faced. “I think that children today are absolutely immersed in their iPhones,” Hickey says. “I see them wherever they are, and I think it's horrible.”

Privacy concerns surrounding social media are also a common cause of disagreement.

"More parents are realizing that everything posted about a child creates a ‘digital footprint,’ “ Clark says. “As children get older, those cute photos or stories may become a source of embarrassment. [Those] situations can cause intergenerational conflicts.”

Parents place limits on grandparent time

Fifteen percent of parents said disagreements have had a negative effect on their child's relationship with grandparents, and the same number noted that they place limits on the time their children spend with grandparents.

The poll found that such restrictions are most common when grandparents do not abide by parenting choices. According to the survey, about half of grandparents adjusted to align themselves with parents’ preferences when asked, but some also flatly rejected such requests.

The outcome in those cases were significant: 42 percent of parents limited time with grandchildren if grandparents refused to change their behavior when asked.

"The biggest thing we found in this study is that grandparents should try their best to comply with parent requests to change their way of interacting with grandchildren,” Clark says.

Norman Dreyfuss, 77, of Edwards, Colorado, has taken a noninterventionist approach when it comes to helping raise his six grandchildren.

"My philosophy is to stay out of it unless” advice is requested, he says. “We've never been that intrusive with our children or grandchildren."

Should you change your behavior?

Lenient parenting by grandparents can make adult parents feel their authority is being undermined. Preventing grandchildren from doing things allowed by parents also can create disagreements.

Grandparents should consider changing the way they interact with grandchildren if asked by parents. The National Poll on Children's Health found that 43 percent of parents have asked a grandparent to change their behavior to align with the parent's preferences. Among those parents, 47 percent  said the grandparent changed their behavior, while 17 percent said the grandparent refused requests to change.

The most effective strategies to avoid intergenerational conflict center on communication and empathy, says Sarah Clark, codirector of the poll.

  • Parents should give grandparents space to develop a relationship with their grandchildren.
  • Grandparents should heed the advice of their children when it comes to parenting grandchildren.

"Children benefit when parents and grandparents are on the same page, so make an effort,” Clark says.