Q: My husband and I need your advice. We are parents to one adult daughter who has three children ages 10, 7, and 4. They live about three hours away and up until two years ago we saw them fairly often. Our visits were often very uncomfortable, however, because she and her husband do not discipline the children. As a consequence, they are rude sassy, and disrespectful.
They have no respect whatsoever for adult authority, something the older kids' teachers have also commented on. Our daughter and her husband are in denial about the problem, maintaining that the kids are misunderstood. When we finally worked up the courage to say something, they both blew up and have refused to let us have the kids by ourselves ever since. We feel we're a good influence in the kids' lives, a better influence than their parents, in fact. What should we do?
A: If my mail and conversations are any indication, your problem is shared by many, many grandparents nationwide. In no small number of American families today, a huge and sometimes insurmountable disconnect exists between grandparents' versus parents' expectations concerning child behavior. In its worst form, which you describe, the disconnect has caused significant intergenerational conflict and in some cases, alienation.
I'm a grandparent and a member of that generation that was raised to respect adult authority. From the get-go, we were taught proper manners and expected to obey. That child-rearing ethic began to unravel in the 1960s. Paradoxically, we were the last generation of children raised the "old" way and the first generation of parents to raise kids the new way. We let the foot of disciplinary laziness in the door, but by the time our kids were grown, most of us had realized our mistake.
So you have a generation of grandparents who clearly see the mistakes many young parents are making and a generation of parents many of whom have no experiential basis for understanding that they are making mistakes. It should go without saying that there are lots of exceptions to this dynamic, but it's a commonplace one nonetheless.
The fact of the matter is that when the intergenerational disconnect in question exists, grandparents can't win for losing. If they want to see their grandkids, they must endure lots of discomfort and not give advice unless the parents specifically ask for it.
That was your mistake, apparently: You gave advice and commentary without permission to do so. In so doing, you crossed a line, and your daughter and her husband reacted with anger and defensiveness.
So I understand where you're coming from and I understand where they're coming from as well. But since you stepped over the line, it's your responsibility to make apologies and do what needs to be done to heal the divide.
Your grandchildren need your influence, and so you need to be able to be alone with them, to take them on vacation with you and the like.
In short, I recommend that you eat some crow here. Everyone will benefit.
John Rosemond, a family psychologist, answers parents' questions at rosemond.com.