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Carolyn Hax: Which in-law is out of line?

(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Hello, Carolyn: Our son recently suggested we start funding a college account for our 3-year-old grandchild. He and his wife spend all their holidays with her family, and her family visits frequently. Both we and her family live far away from our son, daughter-in-law and grandchild.

We have asked multiple times to visit but are always told it's inconvenient. Her family just seems to show up and everything is fine. The one time we were invited, we had to stay at a hotel for five days. They have a four-bedroom house, by the way. We've probably spent a total of 20 hours in the physical presence of our grandchild. Gifts we send are not acknowledged, and he's said they put them in consignment shops, so we just send modest checks, which they cash.

I told him we would think about the college-fund proposal. Do you have any thoughts on this?

— Grandparent

Grandparent: They’re cheeky, I’ll give them that.

Or: It’s the exact opposite, and this is a protective measure, after they have tried for years to give you messages that you have steadfastly refused to receive.

Stay with me here.

One view of the facts you gave is that the wife runs the emotional show in their family, so her parents are in but you’re out. Oldest story there is, so it’s possible. And no sympathy I express will be enough, because it’s also terrible; there’s very little you can do about it besides either play by their unfair rules or quit trying, unless and until your son is willing to engage on the subject. If you want to try, then I recommend talking to a therapist first, to clear emotional mines away before you take a step.

But there’s another story here that’s also common, only less obvious when you see it from this side. It’s like seeing the shadow of an object that itself is out of our view.

When I read stories from new(ish) parents about how certain grandparents are making their lives harder, there’s a general shape to them that’s familiar. The problematic grandparents (PGs, hereafter) make disapproving comments, or load on unasked-for advice. Or they bite back these remarks with stage-y pursed lips and head-shakes. Or they overstay, over-ask, over-expect, overreact to “no.” Or the PGs ignore the parents’ requests not to feed the kids X or keep them up past Y or buy them Z. You get the idea.

Note that all of these things can feel as justified and well-meaning from the delivery end as they feel oppressive on the receiving.

Or there’s long, tough, unresolved history between the two generations, between PGs and their adult children, that predates and carries over to the birth of any grandchildren.

And in these stories there’s almost always some mention of how these parents want the PGs in their lives, but the undermining behavior continues unabated and strains the bonds to breaking.

So what do the parents do at this point? They start putting up boundaries around the PGs, as mindfully of preserving the relationship as they can. “I’m sorry, it’s not a good time.” “We’d love you to visit! Allow us to book this hotel for you.” “Thank you for the gifts, but, um, we don’t allow them to play with Z”; then, “Thank you, PGs, but, please, I wish you wouldn’t waste your money on Z”; then, much silence on continued receipt of Z; then, “When you buy us Z, we now consign it”; then, the grimly unsatisfactory cashing of PGs’ modest checks.

If this narrative fits better than the controlling-and-selfish-daughter-in-law one — it’ll take some hard personal reckoning for you to admit that to yourselves, if true, but almost every (ultimately) liberating transformation starts with a kick to the face — then the best thing you can do is own that fully with your son:

“Message received. We’ve been stubborn and you’ve been putting up boundaries to contain us, and instead of respecting them and improving our own behavior, all we’ve done is try to get around them and complain at being held back. I’m sorry for that. I mean to do better. And yes to the college fund, yes.”

If I had to guess which of these two stories is true, then I’d … stammer out something irrelevant and change the subject. Truly. Each is plausible.

But you know, I bet, or have a good idea. You know what the context is telling you, including how healthy your relationship was with your son, pre-grandkids, and how healthy your relationship was with your daughter-in-law — and you know how well you and your son navigated his past girlfriends going back to grade school. I think everything you need is there if you’re ready to look.

The column, originally published in 2020, was republished for the 25th anniversary of Carolyn Hax’s column. It has been updated. You can read the original comments here.