Dear Mr. Dad: Grandma spoils our preschool twins to death! Whenever they’re with her, they seem to get free run of the house—with no rules. When we pick them up, they need an attitude adjustment to bring their whining and rudeness under control. How can we get my wife’s mother to supervise them more appropriately?

A: The old saying about grandparents is true—they get to spoil the grandkids, stuff them full of treats, and then send them home to Mom and Dad. Fortunately, the “damage” usually isn’t too heavy and it’s relatively easily corrected. But sometimes the effects last a little longer, especially with kids who are at the age when they disagree with parents over just about anything (which could be toddlers and preschoolers or teenagers—amazing similarities between the two groups).

Back to your mother-in-law. Is her spoiling the kids a new problem, or has it been happening for a while? If it’s new, there could be something going on in her life that’s causing it. Is she forgetful? Could stress be distracting her? Has she recently been diagnosed with a health issue? Thyroid problems, anemia, and nutritional deficiencies are fairly common in older women and can contribute to less-clear thinking and reduced attention span. This might be a good time for you or your wife to spend some time with the kids at her mother’s house watching Grandma and grandkids interact. The visit could give you some important clues as to what’s going on and what needs to be done.
If your mother-in-law has always spoiled the kids, you need to have a chat with your wife to see whether she agrees with your assessment. If not, that may be the root of some of the problem (or the perceived problem). Once you and your wife can agree on your expectations and desires from Grandma, you can let her know about them before taking the kids for their next visit.
You could start with something like, “We’ve noticed the twins are more rambunctious lately, Mom. Do they seem that way to you when they’re here?” That kind of innocent question may open a conversation that will encourage Grandma to think about the kids’ behavior while they’re with her. If she seems not to have noticed, fill her in on specifics and explain what you would like her to do, in support of your tactics at home, to correct their behavior. Hopefully she’ll agree and follow through.
If, however, she gets defensive or simply refuses to back you up, you have a couple of choices. First, you can take a deep breath and accept the situation—but make sure the kids understand what your parental values are and that they’re expected to follow them at home. You also can remind them that unacceptable behavior after a visit to Grandma’s will result in some consequences. Even preschoolers can grasp the idea that there are different standards of behavior in different places (preschool vs. home, restaurants vs. home, and so on). This will work best if visits with Grandma are short or infrequent. A second option is to limit visits with Grandma to times when you and/or your wife can be there, or another responsible adult can be around to help keep an eye on the kids—especially if your mother-in-law lets them run the neighborhood or play outside, unsupervised.
Whatever you do, remember that kids benefit in many ways from regularly spending time with their grandparents. And those relationships—even if they aren’t exactly the way you’d like them to be—are definitely worth supporting.