When Grandparents spoil the kids…

You have worked hard to establish health eating habits for your children but grandma and grandpa insist on spoiling them with “treats”. You cringe, but politely smile, not knowing exactly what to do, and watch over the next 20 minutes as the sugar reaches their blood stream and their behaviour gets interesting.

Its awkward, and despite your attempts to prevent it from happening again, they see it as a way of showing affection or love and continue the indulgence. You bite your tongue because you are grateful that they are in your child’s life and willing to help out. The cycle continues.

I have heard and seen a hundred variations of this, so what do you do?

The first thing to work out is your number one priority.

  1. Is it to make sure you have a reliable (and free) means of daycare for your child?

  2. Is it to save face and keep the peace at all costs?

  3. Is it the longterm health and happiness of your child?

This blog addresses #3, but if done with care, you can satisfy all 3 outcomes.

First, let's first look at the definition of “spoil”:

1. diminish or destroy the value or quality of. "I wouldn't want to spoil your fun." synonyms: mar, damage, impair, blemish, disfigure, blight, flaw, deface, scar, injure, harm; More

2. harm the character of (a child) by being too indulgent or lenient. "The last thing I want to do is spoil Thomas." synonyms: overindulge, pamper, indulge, mollycoddle, cosset, coddle, baby, spoon-feed, feather-bed, wait on hand and foot, cater to someone's every whim, wrap in cotton wool, over-parent, kill with kindness.

“They’re my grandkids, I want to spoil them”

“They’re my grandkids, I want to spoil them” is a comment usually said with honest love but its meaning is often in the best interest of the grandparent, not the child.

A study published in the International Journal of Obesity showed that kids looked after by their Grandparents part-time were 15% more likely to be overweight for their age and 34% more likely if they were looked after full-time by grandparents instead of parents. When challenged about the type or quantity of food being given to the child, the argument that usually gets returned is “it’s only a little bit” or “it’s not like we do this often”. 

Where do we draw the line and how to do we not become the “bad guy”?

I could probably go on for an entire book about how backwards our thinking is around “treats”, sugar, association of love to sugar, other unhealthy “decadence”, and why the poor innocent vegetable has been so maligned, but I’ll save that for another day.

One of the most important things to understand about the effect that this pattern has on kids is what I call the “unraveling effect.” The unraveling effect happens in 3 main ways: 

A.)  Sugar, “treats”, food chemicals, and most take-away or fast food cause the tongue to become desensitised. When the tongue is desensitised it continually requires a ‘bigger’ hit (of sugar, chemicals, msg, artificial sweeteners etc.) to be satisfied.

The downside is that it can also no longer appreciate the more subtle sweetness and flavour of a carrot, an apple, or beetroot for example. The more desensitised it becomes, the less likely this person will enjoy green foods either, as they fall into the ‘bitter’ category. This downward spiral happens RAPIDLY and can only be reversed by re-sensitising the palette and removing the culprit foods from one’s diet. Remember that sugar has been found to be 9 TIMES more addictive than cocaine in the brain!

Children are even more susceptible to this as they lack the ability to understand action-and-consequence naturally until their mid-20’s, when the frontal lobe of the brain becomes fully developed.

B.)  They learn to associate Grandma or Grandpa’s love for them with treats (“unhealthy food”). This seemingly innocent association gets imbedded in their delicate little subconscious brains. Guess what they reach for or crave whenever they need love or attention as a teen, or as a adult. It is this very association that is responsible for emotional eating and it is the reason why many of us put on unnecessary weight, even later in life.

Breaking this association cannot be done verbally though, it needs to be felt and experienced between the child and the grandparent. Instead of treating with unhealthy foods, help the Grandies reward with experiences, such as going to kick a ball together at the park, or playing a game. You could even start collecting a particular series of books and encourage them to gradually complete the collection as rewards for the child instead.

C.)   Monkey See Monkey Do. Different to the love association, your children also look up to their grandparents as role models. They learn by example and then become confused when Mum or Dad do things differently. Grandma lets them eat lollies but Mum doesn’t. This confusion often makes you out to be the “bad guy” and creates undue stress on the child as they attempt to figure out the world. Their belief/grounding in “this is how we do things” becomes shaky and can then make way for picking up on other ‘bad’ behaviour at school or in their future workplace.

How to Stop The Unraveling!

To prevent the unraveling effect, let’s get to the practical point of it all with some strategies you can implement straight away. These are the top 5 that have been shown to work for over a hundred of ‘my’ families.

  1. Communicate. Take a moment, without your child around, to discuss this concern with your parent(s). Develop their understanding of the work you are doing to ensure that your children lead happy healthy lives for the long haul. Explain to them that times have changed since they were a child and food is DRAMATICALLY different now. It is laden with chemicals that we know so scarily little about and that you don’t want your child to be another experiment. Tell them that even sugar is not the same today as it used to be. Chocolate bars and lollies are no longer made with plain old cane sugar, it is now heavily processed, likely GMO, high-in-fructose, grown with more chemicals etc.

    That is if you’re lucky. Many are now made with artificial sweeteners which are even more dangerous than real sugar – (avoid anything that says Low Fat, Sugar-free, Diabetic-friendly). Open those lines of communication and ask them if they are willing to understand. You may even suggest a few key documentaries for them to watch so they can hear it from sources other than you too. I would recommend “That Sugar Film”, “Fast-Food Baby”, and “Food Matters” to start.
  2. Provide Food or Fill Them First.  Get in the habit of sending a healthier ‘treat’ for everyone to enjoy when they see the grandparents. It may be a small slice, a few cookies or muffins you’ve made, a couple raw dessert pieces from the freezer, or even something they LOVE that isn’t a sweet, such as beetroot hummus and crackers or popcorn.

    If the grandparents are coming to you then let them know not to bring anything as you will have food there. If they bring it anyways, then you may need to do some more work with the other strategies here. If used in combination with Strategy #4 below, you can also just ensure that your child has a healthy and substantial meal before they visit the Grandparents so they are not having to say no to their favourite X while starving. If they are satiated with nutrition they are less likely to be tempted.
  3. Cook Together whenever possible - you, the grandparent(s), and child(ren). Main meals are usually easier to incorporate healthier choices than snack times or visiting in-between meals. Getting everyone in the kitchen together can be one of the most rewarding experiences for the child especially.  Choose meals that the child can get excited about showing Grandma or Grandpa that they know how to prepare/help. Have the recipe casually available for them to take home if they like. Baby steps count.
  4. Teach Your Children how to listen to their bodies. Teach them to think about how they are feeling after a meal and to associate the link between food and feelings. Commend/recognise/praise them, sometimes over and above, when they make healthier choices. Help them understand the difference that it makes inside their body and how it will help them not get sick, or make their muscles strong, or make their memory works better etc. Put it in terms of the outcome and language that makes the most sense to them.
  5. Implement Consequences. If all of the above fails to show improvements then things need to get a little more clearly laid out. Your number one priority is the health of your child. If you are currently putting up with consequences of their actions, via the behavior and health concerns of your child, then a little more balance is in order. It may feel uncomfortable to stand in your power and tell your own parent how you would or wouldn’t like your child to eat but it may be all that will get through to them. I call it boundaries.

    If they continue to go against your wishes then their time with the kids will be reduced. End of story. Tough love sucks – and it works. Try everything else first, and go about this with loving intention instead of threatening anger. Make them aware first and then make no exceptions. If this doesn’t work in itself, it will usually only take once of you saying no to time with the kids for them to understand your boundaries and respect them. I wish you the best of strength if it gets to this and I feel for you, I see it all too often.

Start with these steps and please let me know how you go. If you have any other suggestions that have worked for you please also share them so we can help as many people deal with these situations in the most win-win way for all.

If the Grandies are open to learning something new and exciting, send them my way!