Grandma's Babysitting Boundaries

Be there for the kids when you can, but only when you can

By Wilmoth Foreman

Grandmas adore babysitting. So much so, that it doesn't matter when you're called upon, or for how long. A whole week, maybe two. No problem. Right?

Not so fast. While you relish the extra playtime with the grandbabies and like pitching in, 24/7 nanny duty might, well, hinder your active social life. Without setting boundaries with your adult children early in the game, you run the risk of well-meaning intentions turning into a dreadful hem-and-haw every time you're asked — again — if you'd mind watching the kids.

If you're lucky, it all works out. Case in point: Annie Daniel, grandmother of eight, says she rarely says no to sitting requests. "I've been available and willing. And, I've enjoyed every minute of it," she says.

Without a blink, she reels off her grandkids' ages — 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 3, 1. For Annie, watching the kids has never felt obligatory. Instead, she sees it as a chance for the grandkids to get to know their grandparents as people. "The little ones are my only hope for sitting these days. I jump at keeping them every chance I get," she says wistfully. "It's hard to say you don't want to be part of something that won't last very long." Annie hastens to add, though, that her grandkids' parents have never overstepped their bounds or "put her on the spot."

Babysitting Gone Bad

This is not always the case. A lack of granny-nanny guidelines can also lead to sticky situations. And before long, it may feel like you're being taken advantage of.

One grandmother (let's call her Zelda) reached that point, of feeling under-appreciated and just plain used. It got to where, as she puts it, "You dread the phone call. You answer it and say, 'Oh, sure, I'll sit' only to hang up and think, 'What did I just do?'"

It started out innocently enough.

"I was asked to keep my only grandchild for an hour while his mother shopped for groceries," she says. "Naturally, I was eager to help."

Two days later, the phone started ringing again. Then, more phone calls. Babysitting requests started piling up.

The calls were spontaneous, says Zelda, who admits to being caught off-guard by the onslaught. "While still in the conversation, I'd be juggling two little voices," she says. "One voice would say: 'I want to serve, and not be selfish with my time.' But, an equally urgent voice silently piped up: 'Yes, but I thought I had this whole day to paint.'"

One way to avoid getting stuck in this predicament is to outline for your children how much free time you have for babysitting. You may even lightly strike up the conversation before your grandchild is born. Also key? Consider how far in advance of sitting time you'd like to be approached. If you prefer day-of requests be off-limits — except in case of emergency — tell your children that.

"Setting limits early-on will help you steer clear of misconceptions and unrealistic expectations," says award-winning children's author Karyn Henley. The grandmother of two cautions: "If you say 'yes' every time, even when it means changing your schedule, the parents will probably ask you first, every time."

In Zelda's case, there were two warning signs she missed. First, she was being asked to sit more and more frequently. Second, the extent of care she was being asked to provide for her grandson was expanding.

A simple 'can he spend the night?' would balloon into, 'since he'll be there tomorrow morning, would you mind taking him to his doctor's appointment?'

Then, Zelda began questioning the reasons she was being asked to sit, which usually sounded something like: 'My husband has a chance to go out-of-town and really wants me to go with him.'

Sure, sounds like a nice outing; but, is it something Zelda should feel compelled to devote a big chunk of her time to making sure happens?

"Before I learned to set limits, a resentment — that I never talked about — had built up," she admits. "I finally realized that, by being a doormat, I was causing myself the problem. So I took steps to change that."

Things are different now. The new Grandma Zelda weighs her decisions to babysit against the reason the baby's parents require a sitter (what are their plans?). An important job interview gets a 'yes' much faster than a massage at the Y.

And, Zelda now keeps a calendar by her telephone. Even if she has nothing scheduled on the requested day, she's perfectly comfortable saying, "No, I have plans," which may very well mean 'I plan to not take care of your child. I'm reserving that day for me'.

Henley agrees. It's okay to say, "No, I'm sorry but my schedule is full" without giving specifics. For times when sitting is not convenient, she suggests offering an alternate sitter. You may try this: "If you're in a pinch, call my next door neighbor. I've kept her grandchild, so she owes me big time!"

This doesn't mean you're accepting responsibility for finding a sitter, stresses Henley. "You're there to help. But, you're not obligated. If I can't sit, I know my daughter-in-law will find someone, or change plans, or they'll have to work it out as a couple."

A Granny Nanny with a Plan... or Three

Carolyn Schulz and her daughter, Karen, found a unique way to avoid misunderstandings. After Carolyn and her husband retired, the two moved back to the town where they had raised their family. This was also where her daughter and son-in-law were building their own business.

Carolyn asked outright, "How can I best help the business?"

Her daughter's response: "By being a 'gopher' for our girls."

Translated, this meant that Carolyn would be available, sometimes on short notice, for whatever needs arose for her granddaughters, then ages 7 and 10.

Carolyn and Karen worked out a timesaving code that's proven to be effective.

If Karen makes a request and Carolyn responds with a Plan A that means: No plans, no problem!

Responding with a Plan B indicates that Carolyn has plans and Karen should try her other sitter options.

If Karen's request is a Plan W, that translates into urgent — usually signaling a business predicament. In this case, she's exhausted all other options and will have to seriously alter her plans if Carolyn cannot help.

"The arrangement works out splendidly from my end," says Carolyn. "I'm usually available to help, but I've turned down requests."

As for Zelda? "Setting and communicating reasonable boundaries is hard," she says. "But I've realized that the world doesn't fall apart when I say 'no'."


Excellent advice!

Thursday's Child on 2017-08-23 15:50:21

My son and his girlfriend had a baby when they were 19 and 18. The baby is almost 2 now and I'm still parenting a child who is in his teens. I'm also still working. I'm also the one who puts my head in my hands when the phone rings. I love my grandchild fiercely but don't want the responsibility of caring for her for hours at a time when I'm also expecting my own child home from school and am exhausted from work. I never see my son or the child's mother except for pick up and drop off of the baby. They make a short visit on Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas, maybe an hour.
When I had my kids I was home with them and my mother visited, had tea, spent time with them at my house and only babysat 4-5 times during their entire childhood. They stayed over her house twice, once for two nights when I was sick and my husband was away on business.
What happened to seeing the grandchildren socially with their parents? I want to go back to that and think I will. I'm just tired! on 2015-09-30 16:18:01

My son and his girlfriend have a 1 year old and a 3 year old from her previous relationship. They both were working the same schedule which they went in early in the morning. The kids had to sleep over 3 nights a week, which I had them most of the afternoon until they came home. It was difficult because I changed my hours at work for them and only worked on the days I didn't have them. They didn't sleep well during the night, which left me exhausted.
They just switched their hours so he is home with the kids in the am, and she has them pm. This is causing a problem because they only see each other on weekends. I was under the impression that they did this so that the kids would be able to be home in their own beds, and now my son told me that they changed it because I wasn't dealing well with them being here so much. Am I being selfish not wanting them to sleep over 3 nights a week? on 2014-11-13 18:57:25

My daughter is 29, divorced, and has 3 daughters, 12, 9, and 4. I divorced 13 years ago, and I've been helping my daughter and her children all this time in some capacity. The 12 year old's father is emotionally neglectful, but pays a little child support, and his mother see her some weekends. The 9 and 4 year old's father abandoned them 3 1/2 years ago. I've been the primary bread winner. I have a good paying job and I'm 56 years old. My daughter does better each year, but she is a very angry, bitter young woman. A year ago, she got a good paying job working Thursday nights, Friday and Saturday nights. She was able to secure a 2-bedroom apartment, only blocks from my house. The girls are in a very school system. I have been taking care of all three granddaughters since last December 2012, every Thursday, Friday, all day Saturday, Saturday night, and until about 1:00 p.m. on Sundays. The two younger ones have ADHD. The older one of the two is on medication and does very well on that. The 12 year old is gem and is very helpful. I work Monday thru Friday and I'm off work Saturday and Sunday. I've had about 2-3 weekends off since last December. I collapse on Sundays afternoons and recover at my job on Mondays and Tuesdays. There are no strong, helpful men in my life or my daughter's life. There are no brothers, no uncles, no grandfathers. It's been me helping my daughter and grandchildren for 12 years. This last weekend, I tried to go back to church Sunday morning. I have not gone to church (which I love) for over 4 months, because it was a chore going to church with 3 kids, the 4 year old would RUN every time we went to church and I had to take them to 3 different buildings. After church I'd prepare lunch. It was too much for me. So I tried again this last Sunday. I was one block from church and I had a melt down from the bickering in the back seat between the 9 and 4 year old. I turned around and went back home. Their mother came to pick them up at 1 p.m. I've been very depressed and crying off and on. I work 40 hours at my normal job, and have week nights to get all my chores done, which includes maintaining my house and yard, 2 dogs, and a one cat. I love my granddaughters and I love caring for them and cooking good meals, but it's taking it's toll. My daughter cannot afford childcare. I'm spent, I'm getting worn out. I can't continue doing this all on my own, and I don't know how my daughter can work, unless I care for her daughters. She has not been a good daughter to me. I do what I do for my granddaughters.

notime4me on 2013-09-16 11:23:45

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