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Holiday Visits: When Grandma Throws Elbows...


I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Each week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. And today, we want talk about holiday visits with grandma and grandpa. They have a reputation, perhaps undeserved, for spoiling the kids - buying them candy, letting them stay up late, letting them do whatever they want basically. But sometimes, juggling your own parenting rules and the boundaries you've established while you're with your own parents or your spouse's parents can take a holiday miracle.

So luckily, we have a smart parenting panel here to help. With us now are Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of "The Baby Chase" and a mom of three. Lester Spence is an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and a dad of five. And Aracely Panameno is a director at the Center for Responsible Lending and a mom of one. All three, regular commuters to the program. Also joining us, Barbara Graham, editor of the book "Eye of My Heart," which is a collection of stories about being a grandmother. She's a mom of one and grandmother of two. So welcome to all four of you.






GRAHAM: Nice to be here.

HEADLEE: It's nice to have you here. Lester, let's start with you. I know everyone has their own situation this holiday, just like everybody. So your family is traveling to your parents and then your in-laws as well for Christmas. Do you set rules for the kids? Do you sit down with the kids, talk to them or talk to the parents? Is it their house, their rules, or our rules go no matter where you are?

SPENCE: Well, you know, at this stage, I've been in the game almost, what - my oldest is 19. So we've been doing this for quite a bit of time. And at this point, there's kind of a nice, neat pattern that we've settled into. So what we do is we establish our rules, whatever house we're in. And what that means is that the chores that the kids would have in either sets of grandparents home - I mean, or rather the chores that they have at our home are the chores that they have at their grandparents' home. And then the grandparents have the right to actually add stuff to that if they want.

HEADLEE: OK, but, Aracely, I know that you said you had some fights with your own mom about your daughter and maybe some of the choices that you were making when she was younger. What kind of things did you argue about?

PANAMENO: So let me just be clear, if you are either a part of a Latino family by association or biology, parents and grandparents meddle. I mean, that is just the nature of Latino culture, OK? So we're clear about that. But, yeah, it creates tension and friction among relatives, right, when we're together and we're supposed to be celebrating. So I actually learned that if my daughter was staying with my mother for a lengthier period of time at her house, I gave my mother authorization and authority. And I had the conversation with my daughter that it was mom's rules. It was my mother's rules because she was on an extended period with her. If it's just...

HEADLEE: Wait. What's an extended period, Aracely?

PANAMENO: Well, an extended period could be if I was away on travel for business and my daughter needed to be with my mom for, say, four days, a week or longer.

HEADLEE: OK, four days or a week. OK.

PANAMENO: Yeah, but also, this can apply if grandparents provide aftercare for our children when we're at work, right? So for families of color, grandparents are an integral part of the family. So we don't put them away. They are an integral part of everything we do. So my daughter went to my mom's after school while I was at work. So therefore, as long as my daughter was under the care of my mother during that particular period of time, it was mom's rules in terms of disciplining, chores, etc.

And when I got home, my mother was relieved of that role. But her authority was not undermined because she's still my mother, and there is a ranking of authority within our family structure. So but for other gatherings, extended gatherings of all sorts of siblings and cousins, etc., then we have other conversations as to what's appropriate, what's inappropriate, you know...


PANAMENO: In my family, I'm the only woman in a family of all men. So there were always some sort of innuendos that were made that I learned to assert myself as a woman and as a feminist and say, that's inappropriate.

HEADLEE: All right. And, Leslie, we're all speaking very civilly here, but it's not always civil. I mean, I know I have had arguments with my own mother about things that - where I just felt like I had to draw the line, where, yes, we're in her house and her rules go, but there's some things - things she might let him watch on TV, things she might let him eat where I just cannot let that go on. How do you solve those things?

STEINER: Well, in my case, I think that in both - in terms of my own parents and my in-laws, I kind of hit the jackpot in terms of a really rich and diverse family that comes from different cultures and has different problems. And on my side, there's a lot of alcoholism. And this, you know, is front and center in my kids' life. And I found it was useless to talk to my own mother, who's now deceased, about not drinking around the kids. That was not a possibility. She would never stop doing that because she was pretty far advanced in her alcoholism.

But it gave me the opportunity to talk really frankly with my children from a very young age about what alcohol is and why grams acted so differently. And there were times where she got really mean and very rough with the kids. And so early on, we had to be open with them, and we also had to establish a boundary - a family rule that she was never allowed to be alone with them at night when there was the most risk of her being inappropriate.

HEADLEE: All right, if you're just joining us, our parenting panel is talking about visiting grandparents over the holidays. And I'm joined by Barbara Graham, Aracely Panameno - sorry about that, Aracely - Leslie Morgan Steiner and Lester Spence. Barbara, let me go to you because you are a resident grandparent here. I feel like we're talking about grandparents, let's at least hear from one. You actually moved from the D.C. area to San Francisco to be closer to your grandchildren. So how has that relationship either gotten better or gotten worse by being closer?

GRAHAM: Much, much better because I'm able to see them in a casual, easy way. Before, I was living on the East Coast. They were living in Europe. It was very complicated. So now we're all here. And so it's more casual, and yet there's a bigger family constellation. So when I saw them before, it was myself, my husband, my son and the two grandkids and his wife. Now there are three sets of grandparents here. So we do a lot of juggling. And so it's both wonderful and complicated and requires different kinds of sensitivity than it did when I was long-distance.

HEADLEE: But, Lester, what do you do with things that we were talking about earlier, with things that are just not - you will not allow your kids to do - stand next to a smoker, for example, take a sip of beer if an uncle offers it? Do you take that to the parent - or to the adult to discuss that, or do you address that with your kids?

SPENCE: So what I did earlier when we were a lot younger and the kids were a lot younger, we would talk with our children but in a way that wasn't disrespectful. In a couple of cases, we actually had conversations with our parents. And in this case, the fact that both of us kind of - we knew that - no mock on our parents, both sets of parents - but we knew that we were better parents in some ways than what our parents were. So when we've had conversations with them, sometimes we've actually brought up, you know, our own childhood and how we're raising our kids in some ways better than what we experienced. And that dealt with some of it.

But in the cases in which we just couldn't come to an agreement but we knew we were right, we just withheld access to the kids because that is a - that's a privilege. It's not a right. So in a few cases, we were just like, oh, well, no, you know what, we can't visit this weekend, or, no, we're not going to stay that long, or, we're not going to stay with you. And over time, they got the picture.

HEADLEE: That sounds tough. Leslie, I mean, that honestly - having that kind of conversation, here's where you were terrible parents and we're better, that is rough. And I know that you have to deal with in-laws now who want to be very involved with your kids' life. How do you have these conversations with them?

STEINER: Yes, well my husband comes from a very small family. He is the only biological child of both of his parents. So they're really, really involved in our lives, and it's wonderful and amazing. But there are also times where our values are very different. And I respect my in-laws very much, and I don't want them to be any different. And so I would never tell them that they had to be different. But I talk very carefully with my kids about the ways that I disagree with some of the things that their grandparents say and do. And I think one of the easier ones is that my mother-in-law just excels at what I think of as the feminine arts.

She's beautiful and thin and a great cook and a great housekeeper and comes from a culture that very much believes that women are here - that the greatest joy in a woman's life is to take care of her family and particularly to serve men. And it's not what I value. And I've talked very frankly with all of my kids - my two daughters and my son - about the fact that it's not - the most important thing in the world is not being thin, it's not, you know, jumping up from the table to get, you know, everything that the men at the table want. And it's been hard for my kids because it's confusing. But I - you know, my in-laws are wonderful. And I want to respect them and where they come from and teach my kids that, at the same time saying, I don't believe in that value. And that's the tricky part.

HEADLEE: Well, Barbara, let me bring this to you then. Have you had - has anyone come to you with this conversation? Has anyone ever said to you, hey, I don't - this is not my values? Or have you had a kind of conversation we're talking about?

GRAHAM: Not so much about values or lifestyle, but really about - I think every generation raises their children differently. The rules change. You know, when my son was little, we didn't use seatbelts. I mean, you know, we stuck kids in the back of the car. There were seatbelts, but there were not car seats. So the rules change. Now you hear a lot about helicopter parents. My mother thought I was really loosey-goosey. My sort of rule of thumb is to try to defer to the parents to the degree that I can. I realize I am now the grandparent. Sometimes we disagree. Communication is great. I think communication is number one, not necessarily in front of the kids.

But, you know, in "Eye of My Heart," there's an essay called "Grandmothers Should Be Seen and Not Heard." And, you know, it's meant both humorously, but also when you become a grandparent, it's a little bit shocking to go from being the parent who has direct control to really - I compare it to being - going from being a member of the starting lineup on a baseball team to being a player on the bench. You are there as, you know, loving, to hold the family, but you're one step removed. You're not in charge. And I think it's really important to remember that and to the degree possible, to honor the rules of the parents and the way they do things, even though you might disagree. And believe me, you will sometimes.

HEADLEE: I'm sure you will. Aracely, when it comes to discipline, what if one of the kids says something that a grandparent interprets as disrespectful? Is the grandparent then allowed to discipline that kid, or, I mean, do you feel like they need to come to you?

PANAMENO: So, you know, again, it depends on what the situation is. So I am pretty much in agreement with what Leslie has shared. But I also think that for families of color or for a single parent, for example, the situation is significantly different. In Latino families - and I know in many African-American families - grandparents have a greater role than just being seen and not heard. Sometimes, they actually play the role of parents, and they end up raring in raising those grandchildren.

And so, therefore, the issue of the discipline and what the rules are, you know, gets a little bit blurrier. So in that regard, I've had the conversation both with my mother and as my daughter was getting older - my daughter is now almost 25. She'll be 25 at the beginning of February. And so I've had both conversations, right, with my mother and with my siblings as well and also with my daughter as to whose authority was at play and at what point the authority or the punishment was not necessarily the appropriate punishment. If, you know, there is a belief in spanking - my mother was born in 1930. And so, you know, you spank the child to discipline the child. That was just the rule. It was the Board of Education, if you will. And that was even applied in schools. So...


PANAMENO: ...That's the culture that I come from. Now I am of a different, you know - I am now a different type of person. I've been raised differently. I have acculturated to the United States. I believe an authoritative way of rearing my child so I have a lot more conversations with my daughter in seeking understanding as opposed to, you do this because I said so, else I'm going to spank you. That did not fly. But there had to be a lot of negotiations.


PANAMENO: Now I believe that if there is a young child that doesn't have enough reason, I can't seek to enforce the rules by having a conversation with a minor child...


PANAMENO: ...That doesn't have a greater understanding...

HEADLEE: Of course.

PANAMENO: ...So, therefore, I would have the conversations with the adults.

STEINER: Yes - and this is Leslie now - I have had times where my kids have behaved very badly in their grandparents' homes. And I back the grandparents. If it's their house, it's their rules.


STEINER: And they may have rules that are different than ours, but I support it. And there was one time where our daughters were visiting their grandparents in Florida - you know, a very treasured, special trip - and my mother-in-law said, look, I don't want them to come back if they're going to fight like that. And it was a - you know, just a time in their life when they were fighting all the time. And I took it right to the girls, and I said, this is a privilege, and if you keep fighting, you're not going back.

And even though they were young - I think they were about 8 and 10 at the time - they listened to that. And I think that you can't - you - sometimes, you really have to back the grandparents. So I think I have both. There are times where I go with my values, and there are times I go with the in-laws' values. And it's just - it's a judgment call. And there are just - there are great lessons for kids in learning how to draw their own boundaries and listen to other people's boundaries. And in my case, it's - the problem is that the grandparents love them so much...

HEADLEE: Yeah, of course.

STEINER: ...And what a great problem to figure how to deal with it - how to set boundaries even with people who just kind of love you too much.

HEADLEE: Well, let me bring this back to you quickly at the end, Lester, which is, in your situation, where you've had to have these discussions with the grandparents, what about times when you have to, as Leslie was describing, back the grandparents? How does that work?

SPENCE: Well, it's very simple. I mean, we parent differently, right? We were parented differently, and we parent differently. But we have a shared set of values. So when it appears as if our values and our parents' values actually coincide with the practices, I support them fully. But it's funny, though, because I am far more authoritarian now than the grandparents are. So I actually...

HEADLEE: Oh, yeah. Of course.

SPENCE: ...Have the reverse issue. Like, I did spank my children until my youngest turned about 6 or 7, right? There is a stage in which I spanked all of them, right?


SPENCE: So I was fighting against them. In certain cases, I was fighting against them because the grandparents were too lenient. So as everyone else has said, it's really complicated. But it's important to understand access to kids is a privilege, not a right.

HEADLEE: And an ongoing negotiation, it sounds like.


HEADLEE: That there is Lester Spence, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, a dad of five. He was with us from member station WEAA in Baltimore. Also, Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of "The Baby Chase" and a mom of three, with me here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Aracely Panameno is a director at the Center for Responsible Lending, mom of one. She was at member station WNCU in Durham. And Barbara Graham is editor of "Eye of My Heart," a collection of stories about being a grandmother. She's a mom of one, grandmother of two and joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks to all of you. That is our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin will talk with you more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.