Childrearing conflict: Does mother-in-law know best?

I am a first-time mom who is preparing to go back into the workforce. My mother-in-law will be taking care of our son until space opens up at our chosen day care. Unfortunately, our childrearing ideas differ greatly and she thinks that I spoil him. I understand my son's need for independent growth and encourage it while present in the same room, and don't feel that I'm spoiling him. How can I convince her to follow our chosen practices?


Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

You may be about to enter a quagmire. Your mother in law is an authority on rearing her own children. But you and your husband are the parenting authorities for your child. The stakes are high here. There is potential for conflict and competition between the two of you that could spell trouble.

Motherhood is charged with primal feelings. It is possible that your mother in law will feel that you are criticizing the job she did with her own children. And you may also be vulnerable to hurt feelings if she does not support and show respect for your point of view.

It may be helpful to thoroughly explore your expectations with your husband to determine whether or not it is a realistic endeavor to use your mother in law as your primary childcare provider in the first place. Alot may also depend on the nature of your current relationship with your husband's mother. Do you feel the two of you have worked out differences in the past? Is there room for varying opinions in your interactions about other things than children?

The good news is that this is a time limited situation from the start. Grandma knows that her place is to fill the stop gap until Jordan's place opens up at his childcare center. As a "temporary fill in"and she may be less likely to take offense if you ask her to change. She may also welcome the opportunity to get to know her grandson and be available to adjust to your needs, even if she would not have raised her own children in the same style.

The key questions to answer in order to determine the probability for success in this endeavor are: 1) Will your mother in law be open to respecting your authority? and 2) Given your differences, is she likely to be able to change enough to meet your expectations even if you do work it out? If after talking with your husband you both feel that your mother in law respects your authority as parents and can defer to your parenting requirements even though she may have a differing opinion, by all means talk with her. But do not do it alone.

Approach her as a parental team. Her bond with her son predates your relationship with her. She will be better able to hear your needs and requests if they are coming through her son as well as from you. If you have already begun this caretaking arrangement, it is definitely your job to have this discussion as soon as possible. Express your concerns in a respectfully gentle but firm manner.

Ask your husband to let his mother know that the two of you very much appreciate her loving care of your son and that you want to go over the parenting strategies and styles that you have developed together. Establish that your goal is a consistent and smooth transition for your child. Make this goal a shared one between the three of you. Speak in a cooperative tone and ask for her suggestions and feedback along the lines of your stated goal. If the discussion begins to develop conflictual overtones simply acknowledge differences in child rearing and bring the topic back to the main purpose of making it the "smoothest transition" possible for your son.

During this discussion, be sure to admire the ways she is good with your son and any "special" qualities that exist in their relationship. She must love him to want to give of herself in this way. Express appreciation for her generosity of spirit, but do not shy away from giving her guidelines to follow regarding his care. It is likely that she will respond to him and mold herself to meet his needs in the way he has been accustomed to in your parent-child relationship.

Explain the ways your son is used to being cared for. Do not avoid the conflicts that you know exist between how she parented her children and your own parenting style, but do not dwell on them. Simply accept that these are different times and different choices. Do not invalidate her views, but do clarify your child's needs as you see them to be true.

It is your place and your responsibility as a parent to communicate in the best interests of your child. Do not fall short of giving her clear directives about his care. Bring her the "tools " she will need to help her provide the kind of care to which your baby is accustomed. For example, if you carry your baby in a sling or baby carrier, help her try it on and get used to it, so she can use it if she finds it necessary.

She may be more open than you think to doing things differently for your baby as she may quickly recognize that this is an easier choice than attempting to change his ingrained expectations.

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