I’ve been cheating on my mother with cheeseburgers.
Mum follows a mostly vegan diet for religious reasons, and recently asked me and my 13-year-old son to observe a no-meat diet; not only in her home, but for an extended religious occasion.
Of course, I agreed, despite us being rabid carnivores; and despite my child’s diet being my responsibility alone. But I respect my wonderful mother.
It’s one of the few ways I’m a “good” Indian daughter. It’s earned respect, too — Mum has raised four children and she’s been a general practice family doctor for 40 years; she knows what she’s doing.
I’ll admit I’ve usually deferred to her opinion when it comes to my kid.
That doesn’t mean Mum and I always have the same views on parenting. And I can’t always do what she feels should be done — hence the cheeseburger cheating.
The context we parent in changes from generation to generation
Screen time is another example. Mum’s concern is for my son’s eyes and development.
But as his parent, I also need to balance the fact he’s a 13-year-old kid in 2020. It’s unrealistic to expect him to have the level of screen time she would like him to.
As I pointed out to Mum recently, we’re the first generation to really have to deal with this issue, and it’s a lot harder than it looks.
I’m not alone in having to navigate differences of opinion in how to raise a child. After all, the world has changed dramatically between generations — and even since March 2020.
According to Relationships Australia CEO Nick Tebbey, conflicts between different generations of parents on how to parent are common, especially during times of high stress.
So how can parents best manage differing intergenerational parenting opinions?
“Choosing your battles is key, especially in situations where there are cultural conflicts,” Mr Tebbey says.
The cheeseburger cheating was an example.
“In this case, respecting your mum’s no-meat wishes was important to her at a very vulnerable time. But, with explanation to your son, you’re teaching him compassion and why you’re balancing his desires with your mum’s.”
Communication between generations is key
Preserving the relationship between the parents and the older generation is important, especially during challenging times together.
It’s one reason Relationships Australia developed a dedicated Senior Relationships Service, Mr Tebbey tells me. The service offers information and counselling.
“It began as a support for victims of elder abuse, but then we realised we could use it to address other family issues, such as intergenerational conflict.”
Mr Tebbey acknowledges that such issues can be amplified during times such as shared isolation.
“Remind yourselves it’s a difficult time for everyone,” he advises. “There’s pressure on families. It’s OK to feel challenged.”
Mr Tebbey says it may sound trite, but communication is key.
“Sit down and communicate the issue. Strive for good, respectful and open communication, and listen to the other person’s concerns. Once you understand each other better, it’s easier to work out a way forward and set expectations.
“Do it early to avoid frustration.”
Disagreeing over spilt milk
Such conflict resolution is something which Polly*, a mum of three from Melbourne, feels she’s initiated too late.
“My 81-year-old father-in-law came to stay with us during the first lockdown, because there’s no other family. He never really left after that, and now we’re all together for the foreseeable future,” Polly explains.
“He is Scottish and raised my husband with an ‘iron fist’, as he likes to call it. My husband doesn’t agree with that way of parenting for our kids, but absolutely respects his dad for how he was raised.”
Polly says that disciplining her boys, five and eight, is the main issue.
“My husband lets his dad take control of a situation.
“The other day, Grandad sent my son to time out for spilling his glass of milk. My husband, who’d normally just call it an accident, just sat back while his dad told my son he was ‘careless’ and could come back to the table ‘when [he] could prove he should eat with grown-ups’.
“I was so astonished at this old-fashioned approach, I didn’t know what to say. But then I also feel it’s really up to my husband to say something.”
Consistency for children should be the focus
According to Trupti Prasad, a paediatrician in Melbourne, remembering the child should be the focus of any situation is key for everyone — but especially the grandparents.
“It is very important to respect the boundaries that have been set by the parents of the children,” she says.
“In a time of increased uncertainty, as in lockdown, it is important to maintain consistency in a child’s life. Mixed messaging from too many adults can cause children to feel unsettled, and conflicted.”
Dr Prasad says this needs to be addressed before things escalate and unsettle the children further.
“If there are disagreements with the way situations that affect a whole household are being handled, these discussions should take place without the children present, so that the decisions of the parents are not being undermined,” Dr Prasad says.
“Although grandparents are acting with the best of intentions, it is critical that the children know that their boundaries are consistent and firm.”
This doesn’t mean the older generation can’t play an important role.
“Grandparents can give much support to their families by providing a listening ear to both their children and grandchildren, free of judgement or unsolicited advice. This allows a safe space that is sorely needed by all.”
*Name has been changed for privacy.
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