Just how much is enough?
If it’s a question of Halloween candy, your answer may depend on your age.
But if it’s a question of grandparents’ involvement in family life, the answer is more nuanced … and more complicated.
The question arises following an online hullabaloo when an Australian model told a newspaper that her 2-year-old daughter spent every weekend with her grandmother.
According to the story, Rachael Finch and her ballroom dancer husband, Michael “Mish” Miziner, “are able to laze around in bed until 10 a.m. on Saturday mornings.”
Finch called the arrangement “incredibly healthy for the relationship.”
But the response on social media was less than kind.
“[What is] with this trend of parents using grandparents as part-time parents?” wrote one critic on Twitter.
On Facebook, the response was equally cold: “Why even have a child if you can’t handle them on the weekends as well?!?! I don’t understand some people pawning off their children every chance they can. Sure it’s healthy to get time away, but every weekend, all weekend is absurd.”
One detail missing from the story is that nobody seems to have asked the Miziner’s mother how she felt about the arrangement.
Did she love having her granddaughter every weekend or did she long for a chance to make adults-only plans? Was she comfortable bringing up this issue with her son and daughter-in-law?
And just how long a time period is meant by “the weekend”?
When Is It Too Much?
Kelly Roberts, Ph.D., LMFT, and assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of North Texas, said there’s a problem with judging an Australian couple by norms developed for American society.
“U.S. families are diversifying in structure and function. However, grandparents who spend a great deal of time with their grandchildren, or even serve as a ‘co-parent’ (or sometimes the primary parent[s]) are common in many segments of our population,” Roberts told Healthline.
All healthy families don’t look alike, she added. Multi-generational households were once common here.
“There are all types and styles of families that function in a healthy manner ... who communicate, are flexible, have secure relationships and trust among each other, and who are clear about their roles,” she said. “They choose to grandparent a certain way and they choose to parent a certain way. Above all, a child will be secure in their environment if expectations are clear.”
She said the key was clear communication.
“Grandparents spending time with their grandchildren is a negotiated agreement. And, as long as the parent(s) and grandparent(s) feel comfortable and secure in their agreement, have communicated rules or boundaries or clear expectations when with the children, then it's simply a matter of personal style.”
Still, the frequency of Finch’s arrangement seemed to stick in some grandmotherly craws.
“Taking the grandkids every weekend is over the top,” human resources professional Kim Beeson, herself the grandmother of two, told Healthline. “An occasional visit to grandma should be an exciting break in the kids’ normal routine.”
“A sleepover and homemade pancakes made by Gramps the next day before heading home is a plus for all involved. The parents have a date night, the grandparents get to dote on the little ones, and the kids get a few hours of being spoiled. Other than that, the parents need to be parents and raise their own kids,” she said.
Supporting the Parents
For Pat Trumbull, a retired nurse who regularly takes care of two grandchildren who live close to her, says they know she spoils them, but it’s not a problem.
“The kids are clear that the rules are different,” she told Healthline. “My [mother-in-law] did things with the kids that I didn’t and it never created any problem.”
She saw the arrangement as creating a closer relationship. “I don’t see how [Finch’s arrangement] could be bad … It’s exhausting to be a parent.”
It can be exhausting to be a grandparent as well and it’s exacerbated by poor communication.
Amy Bruckmeier, who runs a Pilates and rehabilitation studio, had a client on the short end of the arrangement.
“One young mother leaves her kids with grandma yet doesn't even have the courtesy to say what time she will be returning that day,” Bruckmeier told Healthline. “In this instance I think that the grandma is doing too much for her daughter.”
Norma Campbell Barnett is both a licensed clinical social worker and a devoted grandmother of three.
“In our case, we’re not doing too much,” she told Healthline. “We like it. Our kids are caught up in jobs and demands. They are more pressured [and work] longer hours. They really appreciate the help.”
“On the whole, grandparents now are much more involved than my parents or my husband’s,” she said. “On the other hand, we didn’t want our parents to be so involved.”
In discussing this issue, Barnett made clear that the key question is, “Is this serving the needs of the child?”
She feared “misattunement and misunderstanding of the needs of a 2-year-old” and the possible disruption of the attachment process.
“For the first 18 months, a child needs a secure attachment to the primary caregiver, something reliable and predictable. A whole weekend is a lot from a developmental point of view,” she said.
Retired teacher Chris Low spends time every week caring for her two granddaughters, both under 2.
She told Healthline there’s a complex list of factors to consider about multigenerational arrangements.
The “priorities of the grandparents, the frequency of weekend grandparental care … the age of the grandparents and their health status, new parents’ values and finances” are among them.
But she was probably speaking for a lot of grandparents when she added, “Personally, I would still want my life.”