Q. I am the mother of two kids, 6 and 8. My mother’s overprotectiveness and interfering nature drives me nuts. She is a fixer for sure and has even called my boss when I shared problems I was having at work. It’s like she is my children’s parent, and I am the nanny. She tells me what to do and what they need. My parents are hugely helpful as my husband and I work from home and the kids are with them 4 days a week. But they give the kids way too much sugar and buy them things without consulting us. I don’t feel like I can tell them not to because they do so much for us. My husband thinks they don’t trust him to look after us. They are always dropping off things they think we will need. I feel angry and guilty and don’t know what to do.
A. I hope that grandparenting will one day become as popular a topic as parenting has become. Grandparenting is not parenting—unless the grandparent has had to assume that role.
When parents tend toward controlling, believing their job is to take responsibility for their children’s feelings, thoughts and actions and use behavioral tactics (consequences) to maintain that control, there is a deep conviction that the parent knows best and the child cannot be trusted. This parent tends to have a tough time letting go of control as the child develops and will keep strings attached from the empty nest.
Once grandchildren are born, it is a natural progression to re-assume the role of knowing best. When parenting has taken priority for so long, letting go of that role may feel like letting go of one’s purpose in life.
Your mother means well. She wants the best for you and your children. And she has never learned to fully trust you. That “I’m the boss and you do as I say” parenting style that comes in many flavors, puts the parent in a hierarchical position that may be exhausting but keeps the parent/grandparent feeling important and necessary. Her help is therefore what you must always need from her. If not, she has no purpose.
The trick is how to create boundaries where none exist. (Read my article: “The Difference Between Limits and Boundaries and Why It’s so Important” for simple action steps to develop excellent boundaries). When your parents don’t establish good boundaries, which your mother hasn’t, you are left with the job of learning what they are and creating them from scratch, so you don’t continue the pattern with your children. The lack of boundaries is the reason you feel guilty and unable to raise these concerns with your mother.
A parent’s job is to support their children in whatever they choose in life. That includes how they choose to raise their children.
When support rather than control is the priority throughout child-raising, the child learns competence and resilience through natural consequences. Problem solving replaces punitive control measures and teaches children how to think for themselves. Trusting the child’s age-appropriate capabilities, rather than leading with constant direction, results in the child trusting himself. The result is a confident, competent eighteen year old leaving home. Parental influence is far more likely to be followed, and children will probably be raised much the same.
When good boundaries are in place, grandparents make suggestions and offer opinions. But directing their child’s parenting has no place.
I hear in your question that you feel undeserving of managing your own way. There is likely fear that you will hurt your mother if you tell her what you want and don’t want.
You are not responsible for how your mother feels, thinks, or behaves. You are 100% responsible for everything you feel, think, and do.
Creating a boundary does not mean being nasty, dismissive, or mean. It means saying what you mean and meaning what you say. It means listening to yourself and asking for help when you need it.
It sounds like help is there in spades for you. You want your mother to back up so you get to say what you want and ask for the help you need. You are not obligated to allow your mother to remain in charge. That is not the role she should have.
Try beginning with:
Mom, I’m so lucky and grateful to have your help with the kids. And I know you want the very best for them as I do. I am working hard at finding my own way in parenting. What I need from you the very most is your support in my doing that.
Then get more specific:
For instance, asking me what I think first before stepping in with new purchases, more candy than we approve of, and letting me find my way with discipline. I want your opinions of course, but I would like the opportunity to discuss things first.
Then more specific:
For instance, I am working on giving them more choices before telling them what they have to do. That gives them the opportunity to find their way of doing something.
I’m also working on not reacting in anger and learning not to take things personally. I must find my own way of doing that, so when you tell me to stop yelling, I feel guilty and worse. I want to ask you to give me time and space.
If you want to buy something for us, would you ask us first if that’s something we want?
If your mother seems hurt and reacts with guilt-tripping comments, first know that that is about her and not you. You are not responsible for how she feels when you speak respectfully to her. You are creating a boundary.
Then repeat with something simple like, I’m asking for your help in what feels supportive to me. Period.