Q: How do I deal with my critical great-grandmother?

My parents live 1,800 miles away but she moved here last year. She is 76 and comes over often to see our three under five who all like her being here, but my husband and I do not agree with her about parenting. She feeds them candy and lets them look in her purse to find it. She is critical of my parenting, what I feed my kids, bedtimes, how we discipline, you name it.

A: There are two issues here: your children’s safety and your sanity. Safety is always first.

Great-grandma’s purse is not for rummaging by little ones. My own purse (I just became a step-great-grandma!) contains medicines that are dangerous, come in colors like candy, and are not in childproof containers. Visitors’ purses must be safely stored (high up or locked up) in a house with young children. And visitors should always ask parents whether they can feed anything to a child.

Your sanity depends on great-grandma not interfering with nor undermining your parenting.

Let’s revisit Grandparenting 101, starting with the definition. A grandparent is a living ancestor, historian, role model for how to age, teacher, mentor, helper, student (how can we old folks learn about today’s music and computers without our grandkids?), nurturer, crony, pal, playmate, hero, and a source of unconditional love.

What do grandparents provide grandchildren? Very valuable things like love, stability, a sense of family and identity, culture, knowledge especially of the family, exposure to older people, their own individual interests and skills, courage, reinforcement of moral values.

Parents need interactions with their children’s grandparents, too. Grandparents have much to offer parents like occasional or emergency childcare, financial assistance, connections to the past. But I know from both sides that the most important thing grandparents can give the parents of their grandchildren is support and understanding.

Parents are good at worrying about their parenting. I was a fully trained, board-eligible pediatrician when my first child was born. But that did not prevent anxiety about my parenting skills and the awesome responsibility I had for my child.

Parents need to develop confidence in their parenting skills. A grandparent’s words can, without meaning to, harm their grandchildren because the unconfident parent may not be the best parent.

Here are “Dr. Heins’ Do’s and Don’ts of Grandparenting” to help create and preserve harmonious relations between grandparents and parents.

  • Do not criticize the parents or their parenting. Nobody on earth can make a grownup mom or dad feel worse than a criticizing parent or in-law.
  • Recognize that parenting has changed (like hemlines) and that much of the advice today’s parents get from professionals and experts is different from the advice they got. The wise grandparent will browse through a couple of good contemporary childcare books.
  • Before grandparents offer unsolicited advice they should ask themselves three questions. Why do I want to say this? Will it help the parents of my grandchildren to hear it? How would I have felt if my own parents or in-laws said this to me ?
  • Choose your words very carefully even if advice is asked for. But say it right. Make your point without putting down the parent. Bad example: “The baby’s bottles won’t get clean enough in the dishwasher and the baby is going to get sick unless you scrub the bottles with a brush and boil them like I used to!” Good example: “I notice you wash your kitchen floor every time you feed the twins. It seems like so much work. I used to spread newspapers under the baby’s high chair. Maybe you want to try that.”
  • Praise often, parents today need all the praise they can get.
  • Respect the parents. You will always be your child’s parent but harmonious relationships depend on your treating them with the same respect and thoughtfulness you would give a friend .
  • Treat your children and children-in-law like the adults they are to keep the relationship open and make it easier for them to ask for and value your advice. You would not continue a relationship with a friend who checked for dust on your picture frames and criticized the Sugar Pops in the cupboard the same day she brought over candy for the kids.

Of course, there is a dark side to everything, including parenting. There could be a time a grandparent would have to intervene because the grandchild is in danger. But most of the time grandparents will see different, but not bad or harmful, parenting.

Show this column to your great-grandma. Tell her it comes from a fellow GG (as my mother used to be called). I really am on her side and want to help her help the parents of those “three under five adorables.”

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, step-parent, grandmother, step-great-grandmother, and the founder and CEO of ParentKidsRight.com. She welcomes your individual parenting questions. Email info@ParentKidsRight.com for a professional, personal, private, and free answer to your questions.