Q: I’m a new grandparent, and while it is so amazing to be part of my granddaughter’s life, I find I’m increasingly relied upon for babysitting. I’ve also noticed that my son and daughter-in-law’s style of parenting differs dramatically from how I am used to caring for a child. How can I set boundaries about babysitting without seeming too negative?
Dear new grandma/grandpa (or nana or papa or whatever special nickname you might receive), welcome to this wonderful role bestowed upon you! Being a grandparent means you get the opportunity to be a consistent source of love and learning in your granddaughter’s life, and receive it in return.
But it’s hard to remember this if you’re feeling taken advantage of. This is where your newfound boundaries can help. You allude to boundaries being negative whereas I believe they are just the opposite. They are one of the best gifts you can share with someone in a relationship. Boundaries are to a relationship what street signs are to a road. They give you clarity to know when to yield, accelerate, not enter or prepare for a dead end. Setting boundaries leads to accurate expectations and prevents confusion.
Expressing boundaries is not the same as dishing-out criticism, as long as it’s done tactfully. Recognize that having boundaries does not inherently mean you are creating conflict, just as the avoidance of setting boundaries does not make your relationships conflict-free (although it might indicate you are conflict avoidant). A statement such as, “Thank you for asking, but I need to pass on babysitting this Friday so I can recover from my trip” is not the same as, “You need a babysitter again? You always ask me, isn’t there someone else?” Note the first statement stems from your own needs and is a reflection of self-care whereas the latter is both indirect and a projection about the other person. As long as you express yourself based on your own experience, you can prevent defensiveness or hurt feelings. Too often people are indirect or passive-aggressive in these kinds of situations, and it doesn’t do anyone any favors.
You want to prevent yourself from shutting down in resentment or martyrdom during such a beautiful time in your life with your granddaughter. Gracefully setting your own terms will keep you feeling excited about the moments you do share with her.
Validate your need to set these boundaries. For starters, the current chapter of your life is quite different from your grown children. You may have shifted how you wish to spend your time. You now get to partake in the hobbies you didn’t have time for while raising a family. And you deserve to! In addition, your children may be assuming you’re a “kid person” just because you’ve become a grandparent. They may also be overestimating the amount of energy you have at this age for chasing after a toddler or romping around the playground. Remind yourself that its been decades since you were changing diapers and playing peek-a-boo, and these activities can be tiring. It’s always your right to state your preferences, such as asking to watch your granddaughter at a time of day that works best for you, or having another family member join you to help.
As for the different parenting styles, as long as you keep your granddaughter safe and content, they should be simply grateful. All parties involved need to remember that commenting on another person’s parenting/grandparenting is sensitive territory. It’s best to not chime in unless you’re directly asked for advice. Given the frequency of your babysitting, you’ll have plenty of freedom to interact with your granddaughter as you see fit. Your influence can provide some yin to their yang. It’s every grandparent’s prerogative to be that fun-loving spirit who showers their grandchild with attention, unconditional love, and a style that is different from their mom and dad.
Part of our life’s work is learning to deal with feelings that relationships bring up. This is an important element of the human experience your granddaughter will rub up against just as you have. Model for her that we can be heard and understood when we express ourselves with clarity and kindness.
Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at DrRachelAllyn.com. Send questions to Rachel@DrRachelAllyn.com.