Family Almanac

Every Generation Gets Its Turn at Discipline

By Marguerite Kelly
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 23, 2007

Q. My adult daughter and I get along well, but I have a more tentative relationship with my son-in-law, partly because of the way he disciplines their 4-year-old son, my only grandchild.

Neither he nor my daughter spanks him or uses other stern discipline, but the father sometimes will cancel the child's once-a-month overnight dates with me. He says he does it because the boy had a toileting accident that day or because he didn't finish his lunch or was naughty in some other way -- as little ones often are -- but I don't think the punishment fits the crime or that the little fellow benefits from it.

These sudden cancellations are disappointing to both my grandson and me, since we plan them for a week or more and have such fun when we're together. I pick him up, we go out to eat or have dinner at my house and then we play games, read, watch television and eat popcorn together.

Why deny him time with his grammy? And how do I handle this situation?

A.You can't handle every situation the way you'd like to handle it and this is one of them.

Unless your grandson is in danger -- and he's not -- you would be wise to accept the discipline he gets with grace because discipline is the prerogative of the parents, not the grandparents. You have no more right to tell your son-in-law how to rear his child than your parents, or your in-laws, had the right to tell you how to rear your daughter when she was a little girl. It's their turn now.

The more you criticize your son-in-law, the more he will resent it and the less time he will want you to spend with his son.

However, you may be able to modify his behavior if you praise him when he disciplines your grandson well, dresses him easily or plays with him lovingly and bite your tongue when he makes a mistake. This is probably the same technique you used with your daughter years ago and it can be effective with grown-ups, too.

You might also be a little more forgiving. Parenthood may have been easy and natural for you, but most of us make dozens of mistakes before we know what to do, and even then we often stumble. And this really is okay. Just as a 4-year-old may wet his pants or skip his lunch because he'd rather keep on playing, so may a tired or busy parent discipline his child too harshly or too foolishly sometimes.

These errors are natural, inevitable and commonplace and not a sign that your son-in-law is a bad parent. He may discipline your grandson too strictly sometimes, but you can bet that he does it out of love and a need to keep him safe and not to prove that he's in charge.

Even if your son-in-law did have a bad motive, your grandson -- like all grandchildren -- is undoubtedly quite resilient. He may cry and get angry; he may say that the punishment is unfair or he may stamp his feet and say, "I'll never treat my son like that!" but he will almost always forgive his daddy -- and so should you.

You also need to respect your son-in-law's parental instincts, even though they conflict with your own. As much as you want to spend time with your grandson, perhaps this little fellow does need more discipline than he's been getting. Without it, he will never learn to discipline himself and the older he gets, the more he will be at the mercy of the fads and fancies of his friends -- and the more you and his parents will be at the mercy of some pretty unpleasant behavior.

To learn more about discipline, read "No" by David Walsh (Free Press, $23), which teaches parents -- and grandparents -- how to say no, and why. It's a book your son-in-law should like, as long as you tell him how much you are learning from it, and not how much he still has to learn.

Questions? Send them toadvice@margueritekelly.comor to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company