Establishing boundaries for spoiling grandchildren.

The adage “The more things change the more they remain the same,” is as true for grandparenting as it is for so many facets of family life. Despite societal changes and advances in health care and technology that are allowing grandparents to take a more active role in the lives of their grandchildren, some facets remain the same. A prime example is the tendency for grandparents to spoil their grandchildren.

There are a variety of ways to spoil. Perhaps the most common is for grandparents to be a bit more lenient with their grandchildren than parents are. While this is usually harmless, a more risky form of spoiling is to give grandchildren more toys, more clothes or more devices than they may need or want. This tendency is understandable, but can stem from a number of different underlying motives, acting alone or in concert.

One such motive is the desire for grandparents to give grandchildren the things they were unable to give their own children, or things that they never had in their own youth. Such giving comes from a sincere wish to give their grandchildren a more joyful childhood than they or their own children experienced.

In other cases, the motivation for spoiling may be a way to vie for attention. In some families, grandparents may compete as to who gives the grandchildren the most. Such giving often reflects an effort to win the affections of the grandchildren and to be favored over the other grandparents. As with “compensation” grandparents, the “competitive” grandparents want their grandchildren to enjoy childhood but are also looking to fulfill their own needs for love and affection.

The last major motivation for spoiling, and one that is probably involved in the other dynamics as well, is guilt. Many grandparents who live far removed from their grandchildren, or who are enjoying their retirement with travel and recreation, feel they should really be spending more time with their grandchildren — getting to know them better and playing a more significant role in their lives. Spoiling helps to relieve some of the guilt because, doing so, grandparents believe they are both influencing and improving their grandchildren’s lives.

When spoiling goes wrong
While all three of these motivations are deeply human and understandable, they often do not have the desired effect. Spoiling may have unexpected consequences. One example is the “what have you done for me lately syndrome.” Children who have grown accustomed to receiving many gifts may come to expect them and feel that they are entitled to them. Should, for any reason, the grandparents be unable to buy the expected gifts, the grandchildren may feel not only disappointed but also angry and resentful, rather than appreciative of what was given earlier.

When sets of grandparents are in competition for buying their grandchildrens’ affections, they leave themselves open to manipulation. Many grandchildren are very aware of the competition, and some may use it to their advantage. If they want something in particular that may be expensive, they may suggest that the other grandparents are unwilling to buy it for them. Or they may mete out their affections according to which grandparents are the most forthcoming.

When children sense that grandparents are feeling guilty about their absence, they may ask for things they would not otherwise think of requesting. To be sure, many grandchildren would never think of manipulating grandparents, while for others it just comes naturally given
the right circumstances and the right temperament.

The best way to evaluate whether your spoiling is crossing a line is to have an open, candid conversation with their parents — your children. It’s healthy to establish clearly defined boundaries so that your good intentions don’t lead to undesirable consequences. Listen for cues even in casual conversation when they talk about your grandchildren. If you hear them say something like, “The kids have so many toys that they never even play with,” that presents an opportunity for you to see if there is a potentially more productive and beneficial way you could be investing in your grandchildren. Although the risky type of spoiling is a natural and quite human tendency, it can have negative rather than positive consequences. In truth, the greatest gift grandparents can give their grandchildren is that of unconditional love and acceptance. It is a gift grandparents can give in person or at a distance. Love never wears thin, never goes out of fashion and is never unwelcome or unneeded.

David Elkind, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. He was formerly Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Education at the University of Rochester. Dr. Elkind is perhaps best known for his popular books, The Hurried Child, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, Miseducation, Ties that Stress, Parenting on the Go, Giants in the Nursery, and most recently, The Power of Play: Learning what comes naturally.