Granny as Nanny: some words of caution…

Granny as nanny is a common arrangement in families today, but this set-up is not always as straightforward as it might at first seem, says Dr Deanna Brann.

Granny is providing the family’s childcare. What could be better than that? One imagines that a built-in babysitter who knows and loves your children as much as you is a brilliant option. And, even better, she’s free! But wait a minute. Is this “free” babysitting service really free? No, not really. Just as there are many positive reasons for having your mother or mother-in-law babysit your children, there are just as many (or more) reasons why it can create bigger problems—for you, your in-law or mother, your marriage, and your children.

So, before you decide that granny is the perfect person to babysit your children while you are at work, here are some key things to consider:

Blurring of relationship roles

This is a two-fold problem. First you have the dual role of mother/mother-in-law and caregiver that affects you, your spouse, and your in-law, and then you have the dual role of granny and caregiver, which will affect your children.

Dual role of mother/mother-in-law and caregiver

Firstly, she is your mother or mother-in-law, which can bring its own set of issues into the family dynamics. Even if you get along with each other most of the time, how do you transition from her being your elder, your in-law or your mother and, if you’re lucky, your friend to her being an employee? What are the rules? How does she separate one role from the other? How do you?

Dual role of grandma and caregiver

What about the children? How do they understand the different roles? Yesterday I was playing with her; today she is telling me I’m not allowed to do what I’ve done with her a hundred times at her house. To children this dual role can be very confusing, particularly when the rules at grandma’s Playing with grannyhouse may be quite different (and more relaxed) than at their own home. Can you really expect them to be able to know and understand these shifts in roles (and rules) from one day to the next?

Power struggles

Although you are not paying your mother or in-law to watch your children, in reality, she is working for you and you want things to be a certain way when it comes to your children. You have your ideas about discipline, nutrition, nap times, a well thought-out schedule vs. a laidback one, and so on. However, your caregiver is not just anyone; she is your children’s grandmother, and this is not a role that can be turned off. Challenging her or criticising her choices with the kids may get the initial results you want, but it may have a lasting impact on your relationship with her as your relative. Not to mention the confusing and possibly negative effects this may have on your children.


At some point, you will have to tell your mother/mother-in-law that you need her to do or not do something. You have that right as the child or children’s parent, right? Yes, you do, but your “employee” is also your mother or in-law and your children’s grandparent. She may well resent the fact that you are judging her care-taking abilities (particularly as she has already raised children of her own). This makes it a very delicate conversation that can easily get out of hand.

Control & compensation

When you pay for childcare you have certain expectations. If those expectations are not met, you can switch childcare facilities or fire the babysitter or nanny and hire a new one. When that childcare person is a close relative, this isn’t so easy. Not only that, how do you fire someone you aren’t even paying? The absence of money can make it more difficult for your mother or in-law to feel like your employee. It can also make both the parents and the grandparent more vulnerable to such problems as power struggles and resentments.


Since you are comfortable enough with your mother or mother-in-law to ask her to be your main childcare person, it is safe to assume that there is already a close relationship between the two of you. It also means that, due to this relationship, “granny” may feel comfortable challenging your parenting philosophies, or simply ignoring them altogether.

It is impossible to completely separate the two roles of family member and caregiver and this will cause feelings from both sides and interfere in the overall familial dynamic.

So what can you do to manage this relationship and make it work for all?


Let granny remain granny

Mature mother and adult daughter quarrelling in domestic interioIdeally, it is best not to confuse the two roles if you can help it. Let her help you financially, if possible or necessary, so that you can hire a non-family member to watch your children. If that’s not an option, ask her to watch the children no more than two days a week, giving her specific times so that she knows when she is needed and when her time becomes her own again.

Meanwhile, instead of viewing her as your childcare person on the days that she looks after your little ones, view this time as your children spending the day with granny and let them get on with it with as little interference as possible.

Let granny decide what is easiest for her

She may prefer to babysit at her own house, especially when the children are young, so that she can do things around the house while they nap. Or she may prefer your house because the children have their toys there and are more comfortable in their own surroundings. Regardless, with it being a free childcare service, it should be her choice.

Discuss your expectations up-front

When asking your mother or mother-in-law to babysit the children on a regular basis, it is important that you and your spouse as well as granny sit down and discuss the expectations—both yours and hers. How will discipline be handled? What is acceptable discipline and what is not? Who provides the food, nappies and toys, etc? Are there certain routines or schedules that must be followed or foods that can or cannot be eaten? What are the specific hours required?

All these expectations (and more) need to be discussed and agreed upon before any childcare service begins, if it begins. One or both sides may decide they do not want to move forward. If this happens, do not see this as a personal slight, it may be that either one or both parties simply value the family relationship and want it to remain intact.


Make sure the lines of communication are open on both sides. Both you and your mother or mother-law should feel that at any time you are able to sit down with the other and talk about a concern or issue that has come up without it turning into a row. Find a way to do it that does not place judgment on the other person and look for solutions to the problem without finding fault. This is not a time to blame the other, but, instead, a time to look to the other person for help in finding answers. It is about working together as a team and finding a way that works for everyone.

Reluctantly Related Revisited: Breaking Free of the Mother-in-Law/Daughter-in-Law Conflict by Dr Deanna Brann, Ph.D is available on


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