GG & Me: Are You Spoiling Your Grandkids?

Shopping for the kids is your right. But how much is too much?

By Georgia Witkin, Ph.D.

Georgia Witkin, Ph.D. ("GG" to her grandchildren) is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City , the author of 11 books on stress and parenting, and contributing editor at Grandparents.com. Kimberly Pauley, her daughter, is an attorney, professor, parenting columnist, and mother of GG's grandsons, Jake, 8, Ty, 5 ,and Nate, 9 months.

Dr. Georgia Witkin: Here's the problem: In an AARP survey, 80 percent of grandparents said they worry that their grandchildren don't know the value of a dollar, but the same percentage admitted that they spoil the kids. So why do they do it? Their number-one response was "it makes me happy."

Kimberly Pauley: I think most parents understand that and even get a kick out of seeing their parents so eager to please their children. The problem is that what happens at Grandma and Grandpa's usually affects what happens at home. The kids want to stay up past their bedtime the way they did at Grandma's, eat in front of the television, and watch cartoons in bed while having popcorn for breakfast. When parents try to get their kids back to a "normal" routine, the kids are so overtired that they melt down. The question becomes whether two days of babysitting is worth the melt-down aftermath.

How can parents have the pleasure of leaving their kids with grandparents — without the headaches?

GG: First, steal a technique from family therapy, and instead of debating grandparents, agree with them. In fact, overstate their position and make it yours. For example, say, "I've been thinking about what you said about the kids not knowing the value of a dollar, and you're right. In fact, it's worse than you thought." Then, make your case.

There's no need to scold grandparents for overindulging their grandchildren; they know they're doing it. Instead, ask them for help. They've been through this before; get their advice about how to un-spoil the children. As you talk, they may even decide to change their own behavior, to an extent.

I say "to an extent" because many grandparents feel that they've already raised you carefully and conscientiously; now they want the fun of pampering your kids. They've been the disciplinarian, the car-pooler, the homework monitor, and the bedtime patrol. Those are your jobs now. Theirs is to be the spoiler. Understanding that, and letting them know that you understand where they're coming from, will make the discussion easier.

Candy and Other Contraband

KP: Okay. The sleepiness and bad eating habits go away after a couple of days back home. But all the gifts of toys and candy sent home with the kids are a different story. For example, when my son Jake visits you, you always take him to the candy store, where he stuffs bags full of every kind of candy that I do not allow him to eat. He then comes home with these bags of candy and I am put in the position of saying "No" to those special treats. If the toys and candy are things that are not allowed in the house, they should not be brought home because the parent is put in the position of being the bad guy — although I do stay up eating the candy after he goes to bed; I wouldn't want it to go to waste!

GG: I guess no more trips to the candy store, then. I'd suggest that parents ask grandparents to clear all big purchases for kids (like a bike or the Wii) with them — as well as big offers (like a road trip or extended sleepovers) — before making any promises to the children. 

KP: Even for small purchases, grandparents should talk to parents first. Don't put us in the position of having to say no to something after a grandparent already said it was okay. The dreaded phone call goes something like this: "Grandma said I could have my tenth soda of the day, but only if it's okay with you." Being ambushed like that stinks.

GG: If grandparents really are unstoppable gift-givers, parents can use those gifts as incentives and rewards. Grandparents will still get all the credit for buying them, but if children feel they have to earn those special things, they are more likely to toil than get spoiled.

KP: Absolutely. I use a weekend with you as my biggest reward!

Can't Buy Love; Don't Even Need to

GG: I'd tell parents to reassure grandparents that they will be loved by their grandchildren even if they don't spoil them — and then prove it. Set a one-month gift or candy moratorium, and ask grandparents to just play with the kids instead of shopping for them. Or just read to them, or teach them something they could never learn from anyone else, like the tap dance you learned at age 6 or your old school song. Let grandparents see that they are valued and loved even if they don't bring gifts.

KP: Parents shouldn't limit the time kids can spend with grandparents — just the time they spend shopping and spending. Our children know the difference between parents and grandparents. They know grandparents let them get away with more TV, snacks, and games before bedtime, and that time with grandma is just a temporary break from vegetables and homework. If they don't adjust immediately when they get home, they're milking it or faking it.

GG: Bottom line, parent: Insist on a few rules and make the grandparents part of an "un-spoiling team." Then when grandma takes the kids, relax and enjoy the time off! Your children — and their grandparents — will thank you.

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