When Your Kid Likes One Set of Grandparents Better

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When grandparents feel competitive about spending time with their grandchildren. Raven Snook and her husband, daughter, and her two grandmothers. Photo: Courtesy of Raven Snook. 

The words “Grandma” and “Grandpa” conjure images of doting, gift-giving, cookie-baking relatives but there’s one controversial subject that commonly arises among grandparents: Feeling competitive over the love and attention of their grandchildren.

Recently, reports have emerged claiming that Prince Charles is upset with his son Prince William, because his grandson, Prince George, is spending much more time with his maternal grandparents, the Middletons.

Whether or not that’s just gossip, the issue is very real. I can relate — as the only grandchild on my side, my mother was practically a daily presence in my daughter’s life when she was a toddler, but I wasn’t as good about making plans with my mother-in-law, even though I considered us close. It wasn’t until I noticed my kid display an obvious preference for my mother that I realized it was an issue. She didn’t love my mother more, she just felt more comfortable with her because they had spent so much time together.

"How a very young child feels about their grandparents has everything to do with the parents’ own relationships with their parents and in-laws," Elizabeth Cohen, a child clinical psychologist, tells Yahoo Parenting. “When we have a preconceived notion of, ‘my daughter likes my mom better than your mom,’ we make more plans with the ‘favorite’ grandparent and start unconsciously brushing the others aside.”

STORY: How to Keep Gifts from Grandparents In Check

Cohen adds that daughters and mother-in-laws often have complicated relationships. “The paternal grandmother may feel pushed out by the maternal grandmother,” she says. “As the adult, we need examine what influence we might be having on the relationship and take ownership of our feelings versus our kid’s. For the grandparents, it’s terrible to think that your grandkid doesn’t want to spend time with you.”

It does happen that as children get older and begin to form their own opinions, they may actually favor a particular grandparent, or, at least, have markedly different relationships with each one. “My parents spend time with my kids, playing and talking,” a mom-of-two who prefers to remain anonymous, tells Yahoo Parenting. “My in-laws on the other hand, think that giving my kids gifts is a symbol of love. However, when they visit or call, they make no effort to talk to my kids. I know that when it comes down to it, my kids have already figured out how to use my in-laws for gifts, and my parents for a loving relationship.”

Many moms I know expressed similar sentiments, though no one wanted to go on record. (As one quipped, “This is a loaded question. First names only, fake names, no names, doesn’t matter. Those grandparents will find you!”) While it may be a heated conversation that evokes deep-seated issues, Cohen believes that talking to the grandparents is the only way to improve the situation. “The most important thing is for kids to feel connected to their grandparents,” she says. “It has to do with the quality, not the quantity, of the time spent together. Grandparents who feel left out need to find a way to have a closer relationship with their grandchild. There are lots of different ways to be with kids: picking them up at school, drawing together, throwing a ball around, or just sitting on the couch and talking and laughing.”

And getting alone time with grandparents is also key. “Space, activities and personality all play a role in one set of grandparents being preferred over another,” Nancy Freeman-Carroll, a clinical psychologist-psychoanalyst and mother of tween twins, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Kids need time with, and gradually without, their parents around to evolve their own relationship with grandparents, to be relaxed in their presence and with their rules. When visits to grandparents always involve a lot of family, food and formality, then kids really don’t have time to warm up and get to know them, so the relationship remains superficial.” 

Of course, as with all relationships, the ones between grandchildren and grandparents ebb and flow. My daughter, now nine, recently told me that she thinks she enjoys spending time with her “abuela” (my mother-in-law) more than “grandma” (my mom) because “grandma’s around all the time, so it’s not as special.” But shhh, don’t tell my mother.

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