Do Grandparents Have the Right to Spoil Grandchildren?

Ignoring parents' wishes can cause conflict

grandchild gifts and spoiling the grandchildren
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Grandparents often joke that their job is to spoil the grandchildren and then send them home, but some grandparents take their right to spoil grandchildren seriously. What type of behavior constitutes spoiling, and does such behavior put grandparents on shaky ground?

What Constitutes Spoiling?

Spoiling means different things to different people. Grandparents can spoil their grandchildren in a good way, by showing them just how special they are to them. This does not mean encouraging unhealthy eating, piling on the gifts or letting the grandchildren rule the roost. But those are the behaviors that we most strongly associate with spoiling. 

If you tend to indulge your grandchildren with sugary treats, lots of toys or permission to bend the rules, you should know that this behavior can have serious consequences. Read on for a fuller explanation and some quotations from parents about how they feel about grandparents spoiling grandchildren.

Super Shopper Grandparents

When grandparents enjoy shopping and giving things to the grandchildren, parental reactions may range from appreciation to outrage. Here are some of the ways that grandparents may go wrong when giving gifts:

  • They buy too many things for the grandchildren. In addition to other objections, parents may not have room for the number of items purchased by the grandparents. "My son's closet and five storage containers are bursting at the seams!"
  • They buy inappropriate items. They may buy items that are too old or too young for the grandchild in question, or items that are unsuited to the child's tastes and interests. This is especially problematical as it indicates that the grandparent doesn't really know the grandchild. "Half the time the toys bought by my mother-in-law are not age-appropriate. They are for an infant or for a 6-year-old, and he is 16 months!"
  • The grandparents' gifts outshine the parents' gifts. This can be an issue during the holidays. "We told the grandparents that we were restricting Christmas gifts to four items, and we asked them to cut back as well. My mother-in-law showed up with seven gifts."
  • They buy expensive items for the grandchildren. Sometimes the parents don't want to be burdened with safeguarding an expensive item or being blamed by the grandparents if it gets damaged. Sometimes they are just philosophically opposed to large amounts of money being spent on the children. "Gifts from my parents end up in the top of my closet because I know otherwise they'll get broken and I'll be treated like an irresponsible parent."
  • The things they buy for the grandchildren don't reflect the parents' values. Items that parents may object to include video games, movies, toy guns and toys with a strong gender bias. "My in-laws try to buy the grandkids' affection by giving them expensive electronics when we would rather that they have toys that encourage them to be active and creative."
  • The grandparents spend money on the grandchildren that the parents would rather have placed in savings or put to other use. Perhaps the parents would prefer a gift of cash or a contribution to college savings. Maybe they would like for the grandparents to finance music lessons, summer camp or sports activities such as travel teams rather than spending money on toys. "Experiences are much more valuable than a closet full of toys, so give the gift of experience."

The best strategy is for grandparents to talk to the parents before they buy and to be sensitive to the nuances of the parents' reactions. Sometimes the parents may be reluctant to say no, but their hesitation will be obvious to a grandparent who is listening for mixed messages.

Goody-Giving Grandparents

Why do some grandparents have a strong urge to give their grandchildren sweet treats? It probably goes back to their own childhoods and how love was demonstrated to them. This is a serious enough problem that several studies have examined whether grandparents make their grandchildren fat. (There is some evidence that this is true.) If you are a goody-giving grandparent, you may need to practice showing your love in other ways.

Generally speaking, most parents won't mind if grandparents give the grandchildren occasional treats as long as they promote healthy foods for the most part. They will probably object to the kids being loaded up on sugar right before they go home or right before bedtime.

Some parents, however, have stricter rules about food, and grandparents must be especially careful to stick to the rules. Giving a grandchild a forbidden food is a serious breach of parental authority and is likely to result in family conflict. It doesn't matter whether you agree with the parents' dietary rules. You must uphold them. "Of all the ways of spoiling grandchildren, I have the biggest problem with food, because the grandparents are ruining my daughter's healthy eating habits."

Permissive Grandparents

Conflict is often generated by grandparents who refuse to uphold the parents' standards for behavior. This conduct is unacceptable, especially if the grandparents instruct the grandchildren not to tell their parents. This type of behavior makes cute memes: "Grandma's House, Grandma's Rules!" "What Happens at Grandma's Stays at Grandma's!" But in reality, this practice is distinctly unfunny. Such behavior goes far beyond "spoiling." It is instead teaching the grandchildren deceitfulness and lack of respect for the parents. 

Another way that grandparents may go wrong is by comforting children when they are being corrected. Grandparents and parents often have different ideas about how best to discipline children, Parents get to make the call, however, as long as the discipline does not veer into abuse. "When my mother-in-law is around, my son screams when I reprimand him. Then she jumps in to save the day, making me the bad guy."

Occasionally grandparents don't intend to break the parents' rules but are unsuccessful in getting the children to cooperate. For example, the parent says to put the grandchild to bed at eight, but the grandchild resists falling asleep, and the grandparent is unable to make it happen. In such cases, the grandparents get an A for effort, even if they are not wholly successful.

The Bottom Line

For every parent who complains about grandparents spoiling grandchildren, there's a parent who wishes that the kids got more attention from the grandparents. Families with uninvolved grandparents miss out on a lot.

If you are a loving grandparent who occasionally makes a mistake, you are sure to be forgiven. If giving the grandchildren toys, treats and privileges just gets you in trouble, consider other ways of showing your love. The best grandparents don't give a toy and watch the grandchildren play. They play with the grandchildren. They give their undivided attention and unconditional love. That's one type of spoiling that no one can object to.