It’s Not About The Cookie

Dr. Karen L. Rancourt, Ph.D., recently released her second book, Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts. The guide sheds light on building healthy multi-generational family relationships and gives tips to new parents, from dealing with in-laws to setting parenting boundaries, drawing from real-life accounts and Rancourt’s advice columns on and GRAND magazine. We recently caught up with Dr. Rancourt and asked her to share some of her secrets for happy and peaceful parent and grandparent relationships.askdrgrammakaren_vol1

What’s your own extended family life like, and how many kids and grandkids do you have?

My husband and I have one married grown daughter; we have two grandsons, one 13, one 9. My extended family is huge! My husband and I interact regularly with 20 relatives on my side, 12 on my husband’s side, and 15 on my son-in-law’s side. All three of these family branches know each other, and various sub-groups of them get together on a regular basis, especially around holidays. We do have fun and we’re together by choice.

You cover a large range of topics in your book.  How did you decide which material to choose and which to leave out?

Every situation I have ever received falls into at least one of these areas: (1) boundaries; (2) communication; (3) assumptions and expectations; (4) power and control; (5) values, beliefs, and principles.

The basis for most of my advice is helping someone figure out what he/she wants to do about the relationships they are dealing with, especially how relationship decisions impact their children or grandchildren. I try to focus on what is in the best interests of the children/grandchildren involved. Sometimes one basic question can help snap things into perspective: What are you willing to do to make this situation the best it can be for your children/grandchildren?

What are some of the most common parent-grandparent problems that you see in families, and how do you think these could be avoided or remedied?

My thoughts on this can easily be distilled to two main parent-grandparent problems.  First, grandparents are often too eager to share their wisdom and experience and use a lot of shoulds. Second, new parents, already feeling overwhelmed and insecure about their parenting, are quick to assume they are being judged and/or criticized by the grandparents.

Grandparents need to wait until they are asked for their advice and opinions; new parents need to be less sensitive and reactive.

You quote Mr. Rogers a few times in your book.  Who would you recommend other parents to listen to for advice?

There are tons of parenting and grandparents books, magazines, CDs, webcasts, and the like, available. To help sort through this abundance of resources, I advise parents and grandparents to use the tried and true word-of-mouth. That is, ask parents they know who seem to have parenting practices and philosophies that are effective and practical, what specific resources they would recommend. I say, find out the one or two books or websites or podcasts they have found to be instrumental in shaping their parenting and why they like these resources. In turn, grandparents can ask expectant or young parents what resources they, the new parents, can recommend. This is a way to get everyone on the same page!

New issues surface with the introduction of new technology, like the distracting overuse of cellphones. What is the best way for parents to bridge the generational gaps in raising their kids?

I am a big believer in written contracts between parents and kids for activities that have the potential to be risky or cause injury–for example, driving a car; using technology, such as an iPhone and iPads; using social media. There is value in developing a contract from scratch and/or taking an existing contract and modifying it. Either way, there is an intergenerational dialogue about what is acceptable and responsible behavior, and what is unacceptable.

The act of signing the contract by all parties involved formalizes the importance of the dos and don’ts listed, and it adds to the seriousness of the commitments.

Should new or expecting parents discuss with their own parents what they think a role of a grandparent entails? Is it best to set ground rules from the get-go?

It can be difficult for first time parents to establish the “rules of the road” with grandparents because the new parents often don’t have the appropriate experience to know what kinds of boundaries may be appropriate. In this case, it can be helpful if the new parents get a commitment from the grandparents that they, the new parents, be empowered to initiate open and honest communication when they would like the grandparents to stop or start doing various things.

It can be hard for grandparents to be in a more passive role – that is, taking marching orders from the young parents when they, the grandparents, are used to issuing the orders. But young parents need the freedom to address these new roles and shifting relationships as they emerge, and new grandparents need to be flexible and responsive to the young parents’ requirements and do things according to their rules.

A ground rule I suggest for grandparents is to ask young parents, “What can I do to help?” instead of taking it upon themselves to just go ahead and take matters into their own hands. A ground rule for parents is to reach out to grandparents and say, “This is how you can be helpful,” and then be specific about what they need.

If grandparents are adamant about laying their own rules on their grandkids, how much of their influence is acceptable and when should the parents start to say ‘no’?

The reality is that grandparents spend time with their grandchildren at the pleasure of the grandchildren’s parents, so if they want to have access to their grandchildren, they need to abide by the parents’ rules and regulations. They need to remember that there are many ways to raise great kids and that they need to pay attention to and follow the ways their grandchildren’s parents have decided to get the job done!

The rare exception to this is when a grandchild’s health or safety is at risk. Then, of course, a grandparent would be expected to do whatever the situation requires, even if the needed action goes against the wishes of the parents.

If a parent-grandparent relationship continues to be rocky, what is the best way to communicate and overcome the obstacle, or is it better to ignore the issue at large?

No one should be communicating anything until there is some genuine soul searching and an understanding of what is really at the heart of the rockiness in the relationship. My standard example is the grandparent who gives an extra chocolate chip cookie to a grandchild when the parent has specifically has him/her not to do this. The parent gets angry with the grandparent, and the grandparent in turn tells the young parent to stop being so petty.

This is not really about a cookie. It is about a parent who feels disrespected, whose rules are being ignored, who, in effect, is indirectly being told that his/her parenting is wrong, that he/she doesn’t know what he/she is doing. It is about a grandparent who feels his/her judgment in being called into question, who believes giving an extra dessert is no big deal. From each party’s point of view, there is a lack of trust: The extra cookie is symbolic of underlying issues in the parent-grandparent relationship.

Sometimes the parent and grandparent can cut through the symbolism and get to the point where they understand what is really bothering each of them. Other times they get stuck on the cookie, in which case they can benefit from a third party helping them get to the true underlying issues.

I try to help my readers get to the core issues so that they have a clearer idea of what is causing the rockiness in their relationship and specifically, what they kind of relationship repair is needed – be it an apology, an acknowledgment that they have behaved disrespectfully, or a commitment to doing things differently.

In short, I try to help people answer the question, Is this really about a cookie? In not, what does the cookie represent? From here, the real relationship work can begin.

To learn more about Dr. Gramma Karen, visit!