Ask Miriam | Rule-Breaking Grandma Presents Parenting Problem


Dear Miriam,

My husband and I are raising our two young boys to respect boundaries and to expect other people to respect their boundaries. We have a very clear “no means no/stop means stop” policy around hugging, tickling, etc.

My mother-in-law thinks this is nonsense, and she goes out of her way to willfully ignore these boundaries. While I find this extremely aggravating, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can’t change her, and that the more attention I call to it, the more she pushes back.

My question isn’t about how to get her to respect my family’s rules. Rather, I’m wondering how to talk to my children after a visit with her ends about why these rules still and always apply when it comes to the four of us, and, hopefully, everyone else.


No Means No to Everyone Except Grandma

Dear No,

This is difficult, and, as I’m sure you know, your mother-in-law is totally out of line. I would love to push back on your assertion that there’s nothing to do about Grandma’s willful ignoring of perfectly appropriate boundary-setting, but it sounds like you’re experiencing enough pushback these days, and I believe you that you’re totally stuck.

You need to have some serious conversations with your boys before these visits in addition to after. Tell them that you always want to listen to them and make sure their bodies feel safe and that they are enjoying any affection or rough-housing. Tell them that not all adults are used to listening to kids but that you always, always will listen and respect when they say no. Tell them that if Grandma doesn’t listen, they don’t have to play with her.

If you want to take it one step further, have them practice saying, “I don’t like when you do that,” “I told you stop,” “Don’t do that,” or even screaming “No” at the top of their lungs if you think they won’t employ that last one too often.

During these challenging visits, I would encourage you to let your husband manage the bulk of the interactions with your kids that involve this kind of boundary-pushing. Since you know she’s already ignoring your wishes, remove yourself from the situation, both to remove the satisfaction of her getting to see your discomfort, and preventing yourself from seeing your children in that situation.

After the visit, when your kids temporarily stop respecting each other’s boundaries, remind them kindly but firmly that even though Grandma doesn’t follow your rules, they need to. Remind them as many times as necessary until they unlearn the bad habits from the time they’ve spent with her.

As difficult and unpleasant as this situation is, they will learn much more from your parenting and the way you talk to them than they will from their grandmother’s disrespect.

Be well,



  1. Miriam-

    Are you suggesting that bubbe can’t hug her grandkids? Maybe the children’s mom has taken her “boundaries ” to a preposterous level if the children can’t get a hug or kiss from their own granny.

  2. Yes, Jane, that is exactly what I’m suggesting! No one, not even Bubbe, has a right to a hug or kiss from someone who doesn’t want to give or receive a hug or a kiss. The children can get the physical affection if they want it – as long as Grandma wants it, too – but when they say no, that’s what it means.


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