How to handle grandparents who overstep boundaries disciplining grandchildren

How to handle grandparents who overstep boundaries disciplining grandchildren
Lakeside Love: Maggie Dent enjoys some quality time with her grandchildren.

In decades prior to the 1990s, physical punishment of children was viewed as an unpleasant necessity of the child-rearing process. 

Foul mouths were remedied with soap. Backsides became smacked hides and household items like wooden spoons and belts moonlighted as useful tools for an attitude adjustment.

Over the last three decades, the weight of child psychology research indicates that the tried and true methods of child disciplining from yesteryear have the opposite effect of what they were intended, but many of today’s grandparents still stand by the methodology.

With the ever-increasing cost of living thrusting parents back into the workforce, grandparents are now even more likely to be assisting with childcare duties than in years gone by.

This dual-parenting dynamic can have profoundly positive effects on the well-being of both children and their grandparents, but it can also present a number of challenges when a child’s parent and grandparent subscribe to different methods of child discipline.

Acclaimed parenting author and educator Maggie Dent has tackled the issue of the shift from punishment to discipline in a number of her books, and can also be heard offering advice to parents on how to traverse contentious parenting conundrums as host of the ABC’s Parental as Anything podcast.

Earlier this month, the woman dubbed the ‘queen of common-sense parenting’ chatted with HelloCare to offer some tips to help diffuse the child disciplining discrepancies between parents and grandparents.

Defining the deal breakers

Anyone lucky enough to have a close relationship with their grandmother or grandfather understands just how important that bond is, but defining the role of a grandparent is actually quite difficult.

The wisdom that comes with age can liken them to a teacher, but it’s the unconditional love without the responsibility of acting as a disciplinarian that can make a grandparent feel like a child’s best friend.

In situations where grandparents have been asked to perform childcare duties, parents can find themselves in a position where the grandparents overstep the mark with discipline or undermine their best wishes.

“When these sorts of conflicts arise, it’s important to approach things calmly, listen to one another and work out a common space of agreement. Then you need to have a conversation about what your deal breakers are,” said Maggie.

“It’s absolutely OK for a grandparent to raise their voice if their grandchild is misbehaving, but parents should be putting a line through things like smacking and shaming their grandchildren.”

Physical forms of punishment like smacking may initially deter a child’s bad behaviour, but these actions also send conflicting messages about self-control and using violence to deal with emotions.

Experts also believe that these methods can have long-term mental health effects.

“When I became a parent, I made a conscious decision not to parent as the ’50s and ’60s parents did, which was shaming, hitting, hurting, excluding, shutting down. Therefore, it’s not something I’m doing as a grandmother either,” said Maggie.

“But, it can be really challenging because it’s wired into us. And for all those parents back then, my parents included, that is actually what was recommended for you to do to raise a healthy and respectful child.”

She added, “I had to sit at the table till I finished my peas because I hated peas. And I fell asleep in the peas at about 10.30-11 o’clock at night, but it didn’t work. And that’s what the science of child development is now showing”.

While most of today’s parents are keen to avoid physical forms of punishment for their children, grandparents are more likely to see these methods as an effective tool for controlling bad behaviour.

According to Maggie, this increases the likelihood of grandparents reverting back to using physical punishment in times of anger or frustration – even in instances where those actions go against a parent’s instruction or a grandparent’s own better judgement. 

“When you are triggered as a parent, nine times out of 10 you channel the voice or actions of your own parents when they were faced with the same situation,” said Maggie.

“Tender, loving parents and grandparents who know all the information about the importance of having a safe relationship with kids can have the same shaming and hurtful words of their own parents come out of their mouths. It’s unconscious wiring that we remember”.

Standing up to a pushover

Grandparents are renowned for their ability to flout the rules of convention to accommodate a child’s immediate urge to overindulge.

Isolated incidents that involve a surplus of sweets or a crumpled $5 note stealthily delivered to the palm of the child may not be a cause for concern, but grandparents who continually enable overindulgence can create problems for both the child and the parents.

As a grandmother to seven adoring grandchildren, Maggie utilises a technique that she has dubbed ‘the 80/20 rule’ to strike the right balance between authoritarian and agent of chaos.

“I have a nanny biscuit jar, but I know that it’s one biscuit and it’s a homemade biscuit with less sugar because I like to be mindful of those things. The occasional treat is fine, but if you’re giving a kid a whole bag of lollipops for the afternoon, that’s not OK,” explained Maggie.

Maggie’s 80/20 rule is simple. If the child is adhering to the ruleset laid out by parents 80% of the time, then the remaining 20% of time spent together should provide a little bit of wriggle room for both child and grandparent.

“I know how exhausting childcare can get, so if there’s the occasional day when they give them more sugar or let them watch an extra cartoon, I think we need to let that go,” shared Maggie.

“But if these sorts of things are what is occurring 80% of the time, it’s not good for children or the relationship between parents and grandparents. You need to have a chat.”

New tricks for old dogs

With the negative side effects of physical punishment and shaming now more well known than ever, Maggie reveals that many grandparents have begun seeking advice for alternative methods of discipline.

“I actually have a lot of grandparents who listen to the podcast because they want to hear, ‘OK, if [smacking or shaming] aren’t OK, give me some suggestions for what does work,” said Maggie.

“The research is overwhelming regarding how valuable a healthy connection to grandparents is. It’s unbelievably life-changing. So when it’s time to have a chat, you need to help grandparents realise that there are grey areas, but certain things are deal-breakers – and these are the things that are on that list.”

The old adage that ‘children are to be seen and not heard’ can have a serious long-term impact on a child’s sense of self when put into practice. Research also shows that children who are unable to express themselves are also more prone to addiction.

Sadly, there are many grandparents across the country who are completely estranged from their grandchildren because they were not able to move away from the way that they view the world.

“I think we all can see that we’ve got to come around to a very different way of looking at how we raise our children, but it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have boundaries,” said Maggie.

“We still need parents and grandparents to have those boundaries and know that there are days when the children are not going to like you. It’s a balance between firm and loving. They need both, but they can’t have too much of one and not enough of the other.”

“It’s also important to note that children are not trying to be naughty but they don’t have a fully developed pre-frontal lobe to help them reason. They’re not intentionally misbehaving, they’re just inquisitive. Climbing, jumping on things and throwing food is just them developing a sense of autonomy. They are trying to figure out life.”


Maggie Dent is one of Australia’s favourite parenting authors and educators, and host of the ABC’s Parental As Anything podcast, available on the ABC Listen app or wherever you get your podcasts. You can find her at maggiedent.com and @maggiedentauthor on Facebook and Instagram.

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  1. I was hit with a jug cord as a young Teenager and I still have respect for my parents I have respect for elder people I have wonderful manners and it didn’t hurt me at the time it hurt my pride but it made me the person I am today I have a lot of grandchildren and when I mind them and they’re in my home it’s my way and my rules I don’t have to hit them but they get a smack every now and then if they deserve it and they’re not listening I think we’re bringing up a bunch of little brats because they think they can just do what they like and they have no respect for anything or any anyone

    1. You say it didn’t hurt you, but it did and you’ve just showed us exactly how – because you are continuing to use violence to solve your “problems”. You are passing this on to the next generation.
      Hitting in all forms is not okay and not in any way necessary.
      I’ve have 3 children and needed to change my parenting style for my second child who has autism and laughed at me if they were smacked – it was absolutely and totally ineffective for them. That was when I realised that there are much better, smarter and easier ways to parent and it just takes some thinking outside the box.
      A parent/grandparent who hits is a parent/grandparent who has completely and totally lost control. Let that sink in…

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