When Grandparents are Less than Grand

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An interview with Amy Goyer

Grandparents. We love them. We need them. But our relationship with them is frequently rife with complications. They are, after all, our parents. Our in-laws. We will always be grateful to them for making us who we are, but there’s a reason we broke off from them way back when and built our own lives, formed our own families. And just when we’ve come to a place of understanding and acceptance with them about how we’ve chosen to carry on as adults, WHAM! We get to revisit the whole childhood experience with them, one generation removed, through our offspring. Multi-generational and family issues expert Amy Goyer offers her advice for easing conflict and tapping into this potentially rich familial resource: Grandparents.  — Gabrielle Pascoe, TMC Web Content Producer

Many grandparents consider spoiling their grandkids an inalienable right. What should a parent do to manage over-indulgent grandparents?

Many grandparents see spoiling the grandkids as their role.  It brings them great joy to be generous to their grandkids and see their faces light up when they are.  If you can, accept a bit of spoiling and be grateful your children have loving adults in their lives.  But if you really feel your parenting is being compromised, parents should talk with grandparents and set boundaries.  For example, let grandparents know about any gifts you really don’t want your children to have. If you don’t want them to have certain electronics or equipment, tell grandparents ahead of time (i.e. “I really don’t want my daughter to have her own cell phone until she’s 14 years old,” or “I don’t think Bobby needs his own laptop.”) On the other hand, grandparents can serve to fill the gap with items the parents can’t afford.

What should  parents do if we find out the grandparents are undermining our parenting beliefs?

So many grandparents tell me that a simple misunderstanding caused problems in their relationship with parents of their grandchildren.

Tell grandparents why you don’t appreciate their behavior and give a special grandparent alternative that is acceptable to you. For example, if you have a strict rule that your children go to bed at 8 p.m., and you find out the grandparents aren’t enforcing that rule when they babysit, then say, “I really want you to stick to the 8 p.m. bedtime when you babysit the kids. However, since your time with them is special, you could read to them for a half hour after they get in bed.”

Most importantly, tell the grandparents it really is a hard-and-fast rule for you and explain why. Sometimes grandparents don’t understand the logic behind things and don’t really grasp the level of importance to a parent. A parent could say, “Keeping the bedtime on a routine schedule is really important to me, because if we don’t do so the kids are tired the next day, and we have behavior problems,” or, “It makes bedtime a bigger challenge the next night.”

Any advice for parents in order to get the grandparents to enforce house rules when they’re watching the kids?

Let’s be honest:  parents should accept that no babysitter is going to do exactly what they do, whether the sitter is paid help or a family member. Prioritize the three most important issues or house rules and emphasize them with grandparents. Explain why they are important to you.

Try to relax and expect some differences — and be grateful you have grandparents who are willing to help out! If the children are at their grandparents’ house, respect the grandparents’ house rules as well, as those rules may not be the same as yours.

Lastly, really examine your motives. Is this a power struggle, and is it worth the misery? Or is it something imperative that affects the safety and health of your children? Pick your battles.

What about grandparents who are a bad influence? Maybe they smoke? Maybe they fight with each other? What approach should a parent take?

Our research indicates that it generally works the other way:  grandchildren have a strong influence on grandparents. Grandparents will stop smoking, swearing or drinking because of grandchildren. Grandparents will focus more on their health because they want to be around grandkids for a good long time. But some grandparents have habits that are so ingrained they aren’t even aware that they affect their grandchildren.

Talk gently with grandparents about the habit or behavior that you feel is a negative influence on the children and explain why you feel it is. For some grandparents, sharing a bit of research might do the trick. For others anecdotes and stories work better.

Remember that these habits have usually been around a long time and may be hard to break. Offer to help them kick the habit, whatever the habit may be. Be supportive, not confrontational. Acknowledge first that you know they love their grandchildren and would never do anything intentionally to hurt them, but alert them that you think some of their habits may have unintended consequences for the children. Also remember that you, as parents, have the most influence over your kids. Some idiosyncrasies may be unpleasant, but children will not necessarily pick up the bad habits of their grandparents — or aunts, uncles, cousins or any other family member. My grandfather cussed every other word, but I have never once heard my dad or mom swear. We loved our grandfather and giggled when he swore, but my sisters and I didn’t grow up swearing like he did. My dad and mom had much more influence.

If you have your own deep issues with your in-laws, is it possible to foster the grandparent/grandchild relationship while keeping a personal distance?

Absolutely! But parents in this situation will have to be adults and should accept that they will have to be around the in-laws at times in order to nurture that relationship. Be a role model for your children. Throughout their lives they will have to interact with people they don’t care for. It’s part of life, school and work. Show that you can be polite, diplomatic and mature in the situation. With a little grace, a parent can invite the in-laws to important events in their children’s lives, such as school programs or sports events or to babysit, allow the children to stay at the in-laws’ house, and initiate phone calls or video calls but step aside while the children talk with their grandparents so that relationship can grow unfettered.

Showing a child the importance of family in general is more important than nurturing your loathing for your in-laws, but you don’t have to cozy up to them either. Be polite and encourage your spouse (your in-laws’ child) to facilitate the relationship as much as possible. If s/he isn’t doing so, then do your best. Remember that the priority is what’s in the best interest of the child — always.

Amy Goyer is the AARP’s family expert, and has been involved in aging and inter-generational issues and programs at the local, state, national and international levels for more than 25 years. She has written, lectured and served as a media spokesperson extensively about multi-generational and family issues, including family care giving, grandparenting and inter-generational relationships and programs as well as aging and home/community based services.  You may follow her on Twitter at @AmyGoyer.

The Mother Company is on a mission to Help Parents Raise Good People. We do this with our children’s Emmy-winning television series, Ruby’s Studio, a series of preschool and early educational picture books, free teacher guides, music and more, all about social and emotional learning, and with TellStella, a digital service that connects parents to parenting experts via text and talk for one-on-one support and guidance around all parenting topics for kids 0- 18+

Posted in: Expert Advice, Family, Learn

Comments (76)

  1. ed dugan

    I live in Florida and tell my grandkids I live in Montana. They get a nice trip west and I don’t have to put up with a visit. I don’t speak their language and don’t care to. They do not have a clue about my generation and the only thing we have in common are my children, their parents. I raised mine and they can raise theirs. Baby sit? Not on your life!! I also suspect that I will find out the public schools have turned out yet more functional illilterates.

    • Ed

      I’m sure you probably have no need to discourage them from visiting. Kids are quick to spot worthlessness and will disconnect from it pretty quickly if adults just let them be. Usually one visit and they never want to come back.

  2. Christina Stauffer

    What if you’re the grandparent and the disconnect is the new in-law? My daughter in law has some issues left over from childhood and my husband and I were as completely accepting and understanding as we could be. I’m sure we fouled up occasionally but one sided relationships are difficult. She stood between us and any relationship with our grandchildren, gradually achieved a distance between us and our son and managed to turn all our efforts to accept and love into grievous sins. We’ve stepped back……all our olive branches are disregarded….and we miss them all. We raised 3 great kids and vowed to respect and learn to love their chosen partners….but some people you can never reach. Have any recommendations on this?

  3. Alana

    my husband, their son died suddenly over 5 years ago and since then they dont bother much with my daughters and now they are ignoring theur great granddaughter, very sad

  4. Amy

    What do you do when the relationship you had with your own mother, now the grandmother, is not the same as it used to be? I love my mother, but she and my husband pretty much hate each other and not I just feel as though she just wants to try and make me feel bad about the situation, instead of helping with her grandson when I ask.

    I just don’t know what to do, as she has even said some very harsh things to me, as I have to her, but I feel as though I am always supposed to be her child and she just doesn’t seem to realize that.

  5. Sarah

    My granddaughter’s father and his parents insist that whatever clothes she happens to be wearing when she comes back to my daughters be returned. They see her every week. She stays with them 2 nights a week. It is compulsive requests. They don’t see her clothes as hers but instead their items by the way they act. They are teaching selfish behaviors to a little girl who just wants to be a part of everyone’s life. Advice welcome.

    • Anonymous

      Depends on who bought the clothes, if the inlaws of your daughter bought them, than it is ok. If you bought those clothes for your granddaughter or your daughter bought those clothes than it is wrong for the inlaws to keep those clothes, it’s not up to inlaws to hand down or pass on clothing to other grandchildren of theirs. Unless the inlaws of your daughter bought them. If I were your daughter I’d buy from good will, or any thrift store, and a few new clearance outfits to put on my daughter that are strictly play clothes. I wouldn’t allow spending the night anymore. I’d go through all my daughters clothing there and switch her good stuff for the inexpensive stuff. Then I’d send my daughter to them with the gently used clothes, and Id ask that her clothes be returned to me. If there’s a problem I would make arrangements for her to stay somewhere else.

  6. Stacey

    I am wondering if anyone else ever had or heard of this issue. My fiancées children are being taken to his mothers house by their mothers without involving him. Him and his mother have not interacted for years due to mental and physical abuse she put upon him growing up. Now his own sister who abuses her 2 boys is living there. She has had her boys taken twice by DCFS and has had 27 complaints turned in against her. My fiancée has tried to express that he does not want his children exposed to this environment but the kids mother keeps taking them there. The kids do not want to go. Is there any legal steps to take?

  7. Vanessa Díaz

    Well in the Waldorf school where my daughter goes, they tell us always that when we talk with children about this kind of issues just said the punctual things,not to explain everything, not to give a lot information.Good luck!

  8. Lindsey

    My husband had a falling out with his parents and they are not involved in our lives. My four year old daughter is at the age where she is starting to recognize that her Daddy doesn’t have a Mommy and Daddy like her Mommy does. How do we explain this to her?

  9. Sheri

    I have a problem that I think most people would not understand or even have a answer for it. Since February of this year we found ourselves in a bad spot and had to move in with my I laws until we get back on our feet. Well you would think that my children would love their grandmother but no they hate her! They do love their grandfather though that’s a good thing. She is very rude and says hateful things to them at times and if they say anything to her she will respond with its my house and if you don’t like it leave. Even has threaten to spake my 8 year old son with a belt because he didn’t come when she called him, because she wanted to know what he was doing which turns out he was playing with his Legos!! He can’t stand to be around her and I’m scared to go back to work in fear that something might happen my husband said to just yell back but that’s not my way and its his mother not mine! Any thoughts out there!!

    • Anonymous

      I’d not go to work, I hope it worked out for you, but she is abusive to your kids Child protective services will take your kids for their grandmas treatment. I hope you are out of there.

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  11. Roscoe Hall

    What can be done if you know the mother-in-law have spoken negatively about you as a father and negatively about the my ex-wife, the mother who is her own daughter to the grandkid. She made statement like “my son would be better off if he had the right parents”. Currently may son is a 4.0 (some honors classes) student. He will be a Sophomore. We just finished a college (Yale, Princeton and Havard) visitation trip. Looking for advice.

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  14. Grandma is a bad influence |

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  15. Peachesncream

    This article is for people who are dealing with normal in-laws and grandparents, not toxic, dysfunctional, abusive grandparents, who also happened to be toxic, dysfunctional, abusive parents.

    In the case of the latter, you can pretty much toss this article out the window, as being respectful and having boundaries do not exist with such types. Trusting your children to the care of such people can endanger them. Parents who knowingly endanger their children can be prosecuted. As you say, put the child’s safety and welfare first at all times (regardless of anyone’s “hurt feelings”).

    A “sick” family is not something to be cherished and promoted. No family at all is better than one that is willing to harm your children, mentally or physically. Protect your children from harm, always.

  16. atmywitsend

    My MIL moved to our state last year and her plan (before moving here) was to stay with us for a month and then get her own place. 8 months later she is still in my house and she causes me daily anxiety attacks. She will NOT leave and makes excuses left and right. I do not know what to do. My husband does not have the balls to make her get her own place. We fight over this daily and it is ruining our marriage. MIL is very manipulative and ive caught her lying and being sneaky behind my back. I could write a book on why her living here is a bad idea. Plus the agreement was only for a month. Then it turned into only 4 months. She wont move out!! Im literally at my wits end with severe anxiety over this woman. What have others done?

  17. Julianne

    My mother-in-law watched my eldest daughter for a little over two years and her younger twin sisters for about 3 months after I returned to work. She suddenly decided that she didn’t want to watch them anymore because she “had to find a job.” Two years later, still without a job mind you, she wants only my eldest daughter to come over and stay the night with her. My daughter (who is nearly 4) comes back saying “I don’t want to” every time I ask her to do something along with “Grammy lets me argue with her” and “Grammy lets me do whatever I want to.” She becomes very demanding, throwing fits if I don’t meet her demands right then, and I am honestly at my wits end. When I take my children to my husband’s grandmother’s house, where his mother lives, both my mother-in-law and my grandmother-in-law directly contradict my reprimands in front on her. Then they tell me that I neglect her and need to spend more time with her. I have learned that my daughter has become manipulative telling people that “nobody loves me” in order to get attention and sympathy. My mother-in-law is known to say things like that so I wonder where she got it from….I work full-time and have a second job in direct sales, but I am the one who takes care of all three children outside of my working hours. My husband works 2 jobs and is not home during 99% of our girls’ waking hours. I have 3 children who I have to take care of, not just one. I always make sure that my eldest and I have special time together after the twins are in bed, so I don’t know how I neglect her…I don’t give her everything that she wants, but what kid really needs every toy they see on TV? How do I keep my mother-in-law from completely undermining every boundary and rule that I set with my daughter? I am to the point that I will no longer allow her to spend the night or even visit without my direct supervision. But as I mentioned they don’t hesitate to contradict me in front of the kids anyway…

  18. Miriam

    Sandy why is your husband doing this? Finding that out may be a key to getting him to stop. Cathy, I know this is hard to hear but I have one child, a boy and I am
    Also very close to him. Ii would not cut off contact with him unless he was the one being horrible for a very long time. Just be nice, polite and block her texts. This partnership cannot last and when it fails he will need you.

  19. cathy

    I will become a first-time grandmother in several days. I am very close to my son. He is engaged, not yet married, to an older, controlling, manipulative woman, who hates me (although I have consistently been very polite to her) and, unfortunately, is the mother of this unborn child. I have told my son that I want no contact this woman, even if this means no contact with their child. This woman has been very nasty to me, texting me nasty messages whenever they fight, and refuses to apologize to me. I am heartbroken because I love my son, but I cannot stand the woman who is controlling his life now. Suggestions, anyone?

    • Nancy

      Dear Cathy.
      I don’t think you are going to like what I have to say. But, trust me, I have your best interests in mind. Ideally, I believe you would like to continue your close relationship with your son, and develop a close one with the new babe. I believe you can. But you have to start looking at things differently.
      For starters, your boy is about to become a parent. That means you instantly drop a notch on who is the most important person in his life. Obviously, his baby is a priority over his adult mother. This is the part you really aren’t going to like; the mother of his child is also more important of a priority for him then you. He has to maintain an amicable relationship with this woman for at least the next 18 years if he wants his child to not grow up in a war zone. Yes they may split, but it’s very important that things remain civil.

      Secondly, I really have to question how honest you are being with yourself. You are very close to your boy, and yet he mates with someone who has no redeeming qualities? She is perfectly horrible to you and you are perfectly polite? I don’t think you were lying to everyone in your text, I think your lying to yourself ( maybe a little bit?)
      I seriously doubt that this woman feels you are being perfectly polite, even if you are saying all the proper things, it is probably blatantly obvious to her that you despise her.
      You also have to remember that this woman is pregnant and has raging hormones. Something said nice-y nice-y to her by you when she knows you hate her, could send her into a pretty justifiable rage.
      This woman is going to be the mother of your grandchild
      This woman should be the most important woman in your son’s life
      You are making your son’s life hell by getting into a power struggle with his mate.
      For some reason, your son has a relationship with this woman. Are you unable to see some good in her?

      Also, your text was very much about you and your needs. Your son is about to embark on the joyful life experience of a nuclear (sp) family. This should be about him and his, not you. Asking your son to choose between his mother and the mother of his child is just plain cruel.
      And manipulative
      I think you need to take a few steps back and look at things differently.
      The reason she calls when they are in a fight, is because they are fighting about you. You are putting your son in the middle. Especially when you start making ultimatums.

      How is this fixable?
      For starters, this is not all your future daughter in laws fault. You have to take some ownership of the situation yourself. And what role you are playing in it. Her refusal to apologize to you, is probably because she feels she is actually due an apology from you.

      Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying its all you. I’m sure she is responsible for some nasty behavior too.

      But both of you aren’t children, and you need to suck up your pride, bake a peace offering, and try and make this right. You don’t have to love her. But you do have to be civil.

      The way I see it, you can either do what I suggest, or grow old and bitter about this woman and how she is the reason for all your heartache. And you’ll be lonely too

      Take some ownership. Be an adult. Sorry this was so long, I wish you success

      • Stephanie

        This was such an amazing, intuitive and mature response! Very insightful and educational. It has left me speechless with awe that someone can read into a situation from a text. Bravo! Amazing advice! I hope you are a counselor of some sorts because you would be able to help so many people with you clarity of mind and ability to sort the truth from the mess. Well done:)

  20. sandy

    I have my 4 year old grandson living in my house 4 days a week. I am at my wits end with my husband. He is constantly screaming and belittling this child no matter what he says or does. It reached the point that now my grandson just. Yells back. I keep trying to tell my husband that he cannot keep doing that to the child but he refuses to stop. What can i say or do to get him to stop hurting this precious childs feelings alreafy.

  21. Miriam

    My mother is, according to all her grandchildren, the perfect grandmother. My son adores her, justifiably, as do all her other twenty grandchildren. My mother-in-law is a very different story. She has never had much time for our son and my husband and I have learned to accept it. The thing is after ignoring him for most of his childhood she expects a relationship with him now that he is a young adult but he has zero interest. She lives three hours away and visits about four times a year and has actually seen him more than my own mother but she was only really ever interested in talking to her son, my husband, when she visited. Relationships are earned not a right and I have told my son he has to be polite, respectful and kind to her when she visits but I understand that he is not interested in spending the same amount of time with her that he does with my mother when she visits and that is fine. In the end it is quite sad for her. My son is very funny, kind and interesting and had she put a little effort into getting to know him when he was younger she would have a great friend in him.

  22. Alicia

    HELP!!! My inlaws keep picking up my 9month old twins by their arms and I am strongly against this. They are not doing it out of anger ( but I am afraid they will one day), but if they can’t reach them from where they are at they lean over and grab them up by one arm. I have asked nicely not to do that and every time they have an excuse which I reply with I don’t care I don’t like them being picked up like that! I have no idea how to handel this and I am afraid they are going to do it on a bad day and I will go off, which I am very close to doing! I need any advice I can get on this please!

  23. Elizabeth

    I am sorry but trying to be firm and teling my parents the rules or boundaries regarding my house and the rules falls on deaf ears. I have tried to tell them “why” for 17 years now and they still tell me that “as long as they are my parents they will continue to do what they want regarding my children” so talking nice doesnt work. My daughter is 17 and graduates this year and is going away to college and I have started making her do her own laundry (preparing her for dorm life) and I was just told yesterday that I was a horrible parent because she wasnt “reminded” to do her laundry this weekend! I have been told “Im a horrible parent” for 17 years. If me teaching my daughter and son responsiblity regarding budgeting, chores and grades makes me a crappy parent then call CPS. My kids are involved in the community, church, volunteer at a children’s hospital, my son is on the swim team and my daughter is a cheerleader and a competitive dancer so I am in no way depriving them of anything but if they are told no they can’t do something of have those $150 pair of Miss Me jeans then I am a horrible parent. I am at the breaking point and my next step is severing all ties to my parents unless someone can tell me what to do when explaining the rules to grandparents falls on deaf ears. I apologize for being harsh but I am VERY frustrated right now since another fight happened just last night.

  24. Linda

    Our situation is one where I am my wits end with my inlaws. My sister inlaw and inlaws all reside in the same town. Our children are all around the same ages (ours are adopted) My inlaws go to every Hockey game of their grandsons ( my sister inlaws kids) and they do tractor pulls together all summer. They also travel to all their away games. Our kids play soccer and the field is less than 2 miles from the grandparents home. They do not attend – I have printed out schedules, brought chairs for them to sit in and so on. My mother inlaw told me this summer if we wanted them to attend a soccer game I needed to call prior to the game to remind them.. Because, they are old and forget ! ( they are 65 ) They attended one soccer game last year and sat in their car and watched never getting out. This summer they attended one of our childs games and they were late and proceeded to tell us how they thought soccer was “dumb.” The other night the inlaws kept our daughter (11) as we had some plans, mother inlaw states in front of us to our daughter “Your wish is my command, whatever you want to do” … Great 🙂 Our daughter came home and said she asked Grandma if they could go to the movies and she told her “No, they were going to her cousins Hockey games.” It has gotten just plain cruel. I am at the point where I do not want my children around them. I desperately need some input _

  25. christy

    My inlaws came to my house yelling at me and my husband for disciplining their grandaughter. She is 10 and she pushed her 3 yr old half brother off the couch hurting his neck and giving him gooseegg. Thank goodness not serious. I sent her to room and no swimming that eve when her dad got home. Mother n law yelled cussed called us names and ridiculed my education and profession. She hasnt wanted anything to do with my 3 yr old and its very obvious she likes original grandkids over mine. She is also friends withmy husbands ex…how do i deal with that

    • christy

      I forgot to mention she did her yelling and name calling in front of all 3 kids. I took my 3 yr old in house as he did not need to see or hear that. He is also not allowed to see her for now

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  27. Anon

    My mother wants very little contact with her grandchildren whereas my Mother in Law is very present. I have two sons and although she gets on well with one of them, she is noticeably distant and cold with the other, not allowing him to stay overnight with her. We had a discussion about this but she is very focused on her own feelings and does not realise how damaging it is for the children. I am very hurt and angry. She was a good mother to me although has always been difficult and a bit self-absorbed. It has made me feel differently about her. I live abroad and when I go back to the UK, I cannot stay with her any longer because she finds our visits too stressful. Be grateful for grandparents who are present and who love your children as if they were (almost) their own. I would love a third – I am not sure that I will manage to get pregnant – but I know that it will probably mean almost no more contact with my mother.

  28. Lisa Rose

    Thank you for tackling what is for many of us a touchy subject. My girlfriends and I have discussed these issues for a long time and tried to sort out our individual relationship kinks with our parents and in-laws. Sometimes we’ve just vented because there are no simple solutions. Thank you again.

  29. Rebecca

    What do you suggest for grandparents who undermined parents with issues involving safety and personal space (children’s)?

    We are trying to work with my in-Laws, but safety isn’t something we will compromise on and talking about it so far has only resulted in either being ignored or fighting.

    Thank you for this article. Its not often people have positive approaches to real issues.

    • Amy Goyer

      Parents do need to be clear about what their “deal-breakers” are – and safety is one thing that can’t be compramised. Grandparents would agree of course – the problem comes when grandparents and parents don’t agree on what IS safe and not safe for the kids. What kinds of safety issues are you having problems with?

      When it comes to personal space, that’s a tough one, as some children have different needs and personalities around personal space, and grandparents who are affectionate and want to be involved can feel oppresive to those kids. It’s especially hard for grandparents if none of their own children were like that so they don’t have experience with letting kids have some space. Grandparents can generally “get” this better with teens, because pretty much all teens need more space! Try couching it that way, and emphasizing that your child has a personality that is comfortable with certain types of interactions and you know the grandparents want to be close with them but for their personalities they need to be given room to warm up to them. Try to make it a “we’re in this together” thing by telling them about the times you’ve struggled with it yourself with your child. If they feel you’re just telling them they are “wrong” about how they interact with the grandchild they will certainly be hurt and feel rejected or defensive. If instead you approach it as your child just has his own personality and we all have to allow that and sometimes we struggle with it too but we find he reacts better if we…(fill in the blank.)

      Hope this is helpful! Glad you are trying to work with your in-laws – your kids will benefit!

      • Rebecca

        Thank you! That is helpful.

        Mostly our issues are we (and I think most sane people) think something is unsafe and MIL doesn’t agree. Therefore she feels its fine to do whether we say no or not. It is getting better, but overall we don’t feel we can trust her judgement and cannot depend on her trusting ours. Part of the difficulty is I (the DIL) is the first person in her life to stand up to her after not respecting my NO. My husband is on board entirely, but its still been a hard road. An example of this is her one dog who is unstable and bites (often). We don’t want the dog near the children or out when we are there. She has continually trying to force this issue, and swears the dog wouldn’t hurt anyone. (We now just leave if the dog is taken out)

        Quite often I wonder if its worth it. But for all the craziness she loves them. However, I couldn’t ever leave them with her alone until they could care for themselves. So its been difficult to foster a relationship.

  30. Sue Robinson

    Love this. I struggle with my relationship with my in-laws and their roles in my children’s lives. Thanks for giving some great tips.