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The parenting perks and challenges of living with grandparents

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For the first time since the Great Depression, the American household is changing its structural norm as more and more people are living together as intergenerational families. The number of households that also include grandparents has increased by 33% and now counts 1.2 million in the D.C. area alone. There are multiple factors behind this dramatic cultural change: parents are forced to move back in with their parents because of underpaid jobs or unemployment, they resort to this as a temporary measure to get back on their feet after a divorce, they have their elderly parents move in with them because they cannot afford the costs of nursing homes or don’t trust such establishments. Or, they simply love the idea of their kids growing up in a big, happy, extended family.

When kids, parents and grandparents all live under the same roof, parenting can become much easier and seamless. Grandparents have a unique role in children’s emotional development and they create a tight family bond that links generations. However, intergenerational households can also come with a set of challenges, especially for those parents who didn’t grow up with their extended families: more fights, financial issues or even authority clashes between parents and grandparents. Balancing these perks and challenges is essential for creating a nurturing, supportive and harmonious home for everyone.

Why living with grandparents can be a good thing

The idea of having your parents or in-laws live in the same house can be a bit stressful if you’re used to being independent and doing things only your way. However, intergenerational living can be a beautiful experience and solve many of the problems that parents are usually faced with:

  • Grandparents who are still active can help out with chores and raising kids, making life easier for single-parent households or parents who work two jobs and don’t have a lot of free time. This way, you don’t have to go through the difficult processes of finding a babysitter or leaving your child under the supervision of someone whom you don’t fully know and trust.
  • Grandparents can provide financial help in times of distress. According to a study conducted by The American Grandparent Association, grandparents are spending about $32 billion on their grandchildren’s education, $11 billion on clothes for the kids, $6 billion on toys, and nearly $700 million on diapers.
  • Growing up with grandparents can make children kinder, more patient and more tolerant. Being a part of an intergenerational family helps them cherish their relatives more, show empathy towards the needs of the elderly, understand the importance of family traditions and form bonds that will shape their personality. Grandparents can be their companions, playmates or mentors. They’ll always have someone to talk to, someone who shares their joy and curiosity and can also teach them important life lessons.

Setting roles and achieving balance in multigenerational families

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As beneficial as multigenerational families may be, having grandparents live in the same house with you can pose some challenges. The biggest one is, without a doubt, setting boundaries. Especially when it happens quickly, the transition from being the family authority to sharing this authority with someone else can lead to arguments and distress, so it’s very important to have an open discussion with the grandparent to clearly define their role within the household. Without being harsh and critical, put themselves in their shoes and acknowledge that they want to help, not take over. Establish what rights and responsibilities each of you has and be very firm on boundaries. Don’t try to win the argument for the sake of pride, but for the sake of your child. If one of you forbids the child not to eat snacks at night and the other one lets him do that, you’re sending mixed messages and starting bad habits.

It’s also a good idea to divide chores and costs from the beginning, depending on the grandparents’ physical and financial abilities. Setting a house cleaning schedule or a monthly budget plan comes in handy and it will help you avoid misunderstandings.

Things can get more complicated if grandparents moved in because they are no longer able to care for themselves and need close care. In this case, it’s essential to teach your children about responsibility and establish some clear boundaries as to what they can and cannot do with their grandparents. Living with aging parents who are struggling with mental illness or serious chronic conditions with high risk of accidents often calls for professional caregiving. Since sending the elderly to a nursing home is not an option, you might want to consider hiring a part time caregiver or investing in a medical alert system that informs you when they fall or become unconscious.

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And finally, when children and their grandparents live under the same roof, parents’ unsolved emotional issues can get in the way of happy family life. When between you and your older parents there is a history of neglect, abuse or conflict, think about how your relationship could affect the child. If you believe the grandparent’s presence would be emotionally crippling, then perhaps looking for another option would be better. Or, at least try to handle this transition with maturity and don’t let your relationship get in the way of a happy childhood.

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