Deciding whether to interfere or not is tricky for grandparents.

“In the long run, it’s best for the kids and family if the parents do the parenting — even if a grandparent disagrees with the approach,” explains Carl Grody, MSW, a family counselor in Worthington, Ohio.

While as a grandparent you may feel you have valuable child-rearing experience to offer, sharing this wisdom can backfire if the parent senses criticism. But there are a few times when it makes sense for a grandparent to step in. Check out the following scenarios:

1. Rudeness

As in all relationships, you’re entitled to set boundaries for the way people treat you,” says Grody. If your grandchild is rude to you or to others, you should speak up. You could say ‘It’s not OK to talk to me like that’. However, leave any discipline to the parents. And don’t insist the parent deal with the issue in front of the child or you risk undermining the parent’s authority. Instead, tell the parents about your grandchild’s behavior when the child is not in the room and give details.

2. Developmental delays

Sometimes parents are too close to their children to notice when there could be something wrong. Grandparents have raised children before so often know what to look for when it comes to a child’s development. If you notice your grandchild has a speech delay, motor problem, or difficulty with a social skill, it is important that you speak up. The problem could worsen if left unchecked, and early intervention is often critical to getting kids back on track, urges Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist in Lincoln, Maine.

3. Safety

There is no question about this one. Definitely butt in when it comes to your grandkids being safe—but you can probably only do this a limited number of times. Reminding your grandchild to wear his bike helmet is fine, but badgering the kid’s parent about it is not. In your own home, of course, you are free to set the rules and enforce them. “It’s fine to say ‘Everyone wears a helmet when they ride a bike at Granny’s,’” points out Morin.

And if you’re concerned about a larger safety issue, such as your grandchild crossing the street alone, talk to your adult children when your grandkids are not in the room that way you can have a more open conversation.

4. Nutrition

You want your grandchild to eat well, but wisdom says tread lightly when it comes to food. You can certainly serve green beans and carrots at your own house, but you can’t dictate the menu elsewhere.

“Be sure to give a positive spin whenever you can—and avoid backhanded compliments,” says Grody. For example, if you see that Brussels sprouts are being served, say ‘This looks good!’ rather than ‘Well, I see we finally have something green!’ And if you’re worried about your grandchild’s eating habits or the snacks they are eating, it is perfectly fine to talk to him about healthy choices and give suggestions, but don’t undermine the parents.

5-8. The big stuff

Without question, you should instantly step in and talk to the parents if you notice any of the following:

  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • True neglect
  • Substance abuse by the parent or a mental health issue
  • Imminent harm to the grandchild

Keeping your grandchild safe is your top priority. If the child is in danger, consider contacting your local police department or your local Child Protective Services department. Other resources:

National Child Abuse Hotline — visit their website or call 1(800) 4-A-CHILD
National Alliance on Mental Illness — A resource for adults and children with bipolar disorder, depression, and other mental illnesses. Visit their website. 
Children’s Defense Fund — Aids in keeping kids safe from all dangers. Visit their website.

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Bonus: 3 lessons kids need to learn the hard way

1. You are not the center of the universe

To the child raised in a house where he or she IS the center of the universe, this is a tough one. But the lesson is inevitable. Mom has a second child and suddenly Child #1 is displaced. A family member gets ill and all attention is directed at him. You get the picture. Your job as grandparent is NOT to reinforce the “center of the universe” myth but give a little extra attention where needed.

2. Honesty is the best policy

What little kid doesn’t lie? It’s a natural response toward self-protection. But as children age, they start to learn the consequences of telling too many lies, and it ain’t pretty. Like not being believed when you aren’t lying. Like having to remember what story you told to whom. (It’s not as easy as it sounds.) Though they have to learn this through experience, you can be a catalyst toward honesty by sharing your own adventures in lying, getting caught and suffering the punishment.

3. Life isn’t fair

OK, this is the toughest to learn and most abstract to explain. Why? Because we can do the right thing and get the wrong outcome through no fault of our own. Much of what we do in life is at the subjective mercy of others. That means fairness is often relative. It’s one of the best lessons to learn, and your role — with your wealth of experience — is helping young kids learn to turn unfair situations into opportunities for growth.

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