Intergenerational Relationships

Nannies versus Granniesby Ruth Nemzoff via SitterCycle

May 6, 2014—As much as grandparents might hate to admit it, nannies may actually be more crucial to the family’s well-being than they are. Parents cannot get to work, and therefore can’t keep their jobs, without a reliable nanny who keeps their children safe. The nanny is holding up the house of cards for working familes with young children.

In Hong Kong, nannies try to avoid jobs where the grandmother lives with the family: too much conflict, too much overseeing. For American grandparents who fly in or visit their grandchildren sporadically—or even regularly—the relationship with the nanny can also be tricky. Unless the grandparent is the full time caretaker of the children, the parents are dependent on the nanny for the welfare of their family.

Grandparents often find it difficult to admit that they don’t want to be full time caretakers. Many grandparents feel they have done their time and want to enjoy the freedom that they have earned.  Others can’t take on this responsibility because they are also working, or are geographically distant. The may not have anticipated the result that some stranger (non-family member) may take precedence over them in the lives of their grandchildren.  This in turn can cause upset when a child prefers the nanny’s company and comfort over that of the grandparents.

By the same token, when the children run to their grandparents, the nanny may feel a tinge of jealousy, or that they are declaring she is not a loving caregiver.  These antithetical and common emotions complicate the relationship between grannies and nannies. Yet, if managed carefully, the nanny and the grandparents can be valuable resources for each other.

The grandparent is a visitor in his or her child’s home. It might be hard for the grandparent to admit that this is their child’s castle, not their own. The roles are now reversed. The parents and the nanny rule the roost, and the grandparents are an addition.

Here are some tips to creating a good relationship between the nanny and grandparents:

  • When grandparents do enter the scene they should be careful not to disrupt the routine. Ask the nanny how they can be helpful. It is important to build trust with the nanny.  Remember, for the nanny this is her job, her income, she may be supporting her family and therefore it is very threatening to have a third party seeing her every move. To the nanny, the grandparents’ loving presence may feel like a human “Nanny Cam.”
  • If the grandparents want to get along with the parents they must get along with the nanny. Kindness and polite gestures are always a good beginning. Bringing the nanny a small gift, or sending a holiday card or email can help smooth the relationship. The nanny can make the grandmother’s favorite food or ask her to help with an activity she enjoys.
  • The nanny should stay out of family conflicts. She can be a sounding board but should not attempt to intervene or comment. Family relationships are complex and rarely understandable to an outsider.
  • Like any good guest, a grandparent should not criticize the nanny if a disagreement arises with the nanny’s methods. Perhaps she props the baby’s bottle and the grandparent finds this intolerable. Grandparents should discuss these concerns with the parents. The nanny may have good reason for her actions. The child may have reflux, or perhaps she needed to both feed the baby and chase the toddler.  The nanny can be helpful in these circumstances by talking aloud about what she is doing and why.
  • The grandparent can offer assistance and can help if the offer is well received, but is not the master of the house. The nanny should give clear and specific instructions to the grandparents about how they can be helpful, this will lessen tension.
  • Grandparents and the nanny should be open to discussions about changes in parenting trends and the environment.  The more the grandparent understands the parameters of the family environment, the more s/he can be a person the nanny might want to consult. For example, while the grandmother may have limited her children’s’ TV time, the parent and nanny are managing a much more diverse array of screens and their potential dangers. Nannies and grandparents can discuss these issues, but not dispute each other’s opinions.

Adults will differ on what they consider the best way to navigate any child-rearing issue. None of us knows the absolute best way to bring up a child. Everyone makes frequent decisions on the continuum between discipline and mercy, between routine and spontaneity, and between keeping the peace for the moment and teaching a lesson for the future.

Nannies and grandparents must use sensitivity and put themselves in each other’s places. Both are supporting actors and essential to the wellbeing of the children. The grandparents will do well to assure that they are not villains who enter, take center stage, create turmoil and leave. The nanny, like all good actresses, must play her part but leave room on the stage for the grandparents as well.


Oh sure, there are the obvious reasons to look forward to March. That’s when most of us start having thoughts of spring (here in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), and if we live in frozen climates we may begin to cherish hopes of an imminent thaw. But there are five new reasons to look forward to March here on Mom Psych and it all begins with the fact that Dr. Ruth Nemzoff will be hosting our new blog, Grandma Psych. Why are we so excited about welcoming her to the Mom Psych family?

1.  Her research focus: A resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis and former adjunct assistant professor at Bentley College, Dr. Nemzoff is the author of two books focusing on communication and family dynamics.

2. Her education focus: After earning a degree in American studies from Barnard College, Dr. Nemzoff went on to pursue a masters degree in counseling from Columbia University and another in Social Policy from Harvard University, where she also earned her Ed.D.

3. Her public, professional, and service experience: Dr. Nemzoff has served as a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, a grass roots organizer, a counselor, and as a professor. She has served on multiple boards, including that of NH United Way, NH Business Development Corporation, Boston’s Jewish Family and Children’s Services and of Newbury College. She worked with the NH Governor’s Commission on the status of Women, and Commission for the Handicapped. She founded a nursery school, a counseling service, and the National Women’s Legislative Lobby.

4. Her communication experience: A seasoned writer and public speaker, Dr. Nemzoff’s latest lecture circuit takes her to Asia. In addition to her two books, (Don’t Bite Your Tongue and Don’t Roll Your Eyes) she has published multiple journal articles about environmental advertising and women in business and politics. Her papers are archived at the Schlesinger Library, Harvard University. She is also a seasoned blogger.

5. Her personal experience: Dr. Nemzoff is rich in intergenerational relationships, with many in-laws thrown in for good measure.  Her life experience and natural personal warmth combine with an innate ability to translate the academic to the practical in an easygoing style. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for that: you can see for yourself as you enjoy the following interview with Dr. Nemzoff on Mom Psych’s Red Couch Sessions: