Q Like a lot of people, I was shocked when watching the RTÉ sugar crash programme. I am pretty cautious and careful about what what my four- and six-year-old eat at home – small portions, confining small treats, avoiding added sugar, and so on. However, the kids are minded three afternoons a week by my parents-in-law who don't seem to have the same food concerns.
They are absolutely devoted to the kids which is lovely, but they invariably reward them with bags of crisps and biscuits during their time together.
While I am very grateful for all their support (and cost-free childcare), I feel all I can do is hint that I like the kids to eat healthy and mention childhood obesity in passing.
My husband and I feel his parents would be hurt if we took a more direct approach, banning treats at their house altogether. I just feel with what they get at their grandparents along with attending other kids' parties and visiting friends, it all adds up to a lot.
I would be most grateful if you had a diplomatic solution.
A I appreciate the delicate situation you are in. It is hard to raise parenting issues with your parents-in-law, especially when you depend on them for minding your children and when they have different ideas as to how best to raise children.
In thinking how to proceed, it might first help to try to understand their perspective and where they might be coming from.
When they were parenting, unhealthy treats were rarer and there were almost no concerns about childhood obesity. They might now equate giving treats to your children as a sign of how much they care for them.
In addition, there is a tendency for grandparents to spoil their grandchildren and to simply lavish attention without the responsibility that parents have for rules and routines, and so on.
Alternatively, they might have a sense of the problems with treats but find it hard to change habits or to stand up to your children and make the necessary changes in the routines. They might want to avoid the tantrums or “falling out” with your children. However, there are a number of possible ways forward.
Different house, different rules
Many parents establish routines around eating, homework, and so on
, for their children in their own home, but then allow things to be different at their grandparents’ house.
Children can generally tolerate “different rules in each house” and if they are there for only a relatively short time and the treats aren’t excessive, then this could work. You might try to reduce the amount of unhealthy treats they get there (by using some of the tactics below) but basically you decide to accept that they will get them. If your children push for a treat in your house, you can remind them that this only happens in granny’s house.
Raise the subject directly
You can try to raise the subject directly with your parents-in-law and try to change the habit of giving food treats when your children are there. It is best to pick a good time to raise the subject, perhaps in a one-to-one conversation with the grandparent who is mainly in charge of the treat-giving.
In raising the subject, make sure to praise them for all the help they provide and how they care for your children. Also, rather than directly asking them to do something, which they might take as a criticism, you can ask for their help in making a positive change for the children – “I’ve become very worried about the children eating too much sugar. Can you help me make a change and get a better routine established?”
As they are his parents, it might be best if your husband took the responsibility for this conversation. He should know how best to raise it and it might be best coming from him.
Indirectly raise the subject
Alternatively, you might also choose to raise the subject indirectly. For example, you could discuss the sugar crash programme with your parents-in-law or watch it together online. You could also show them the healthy eating information from school by asking the children to show them their homework on the food pyramid, and so on.
You could involve them in any healthy eating project the children are doing in the school, or set one up. You could also comment on the many adverts on healthy eating such as those run by Safefood and ask them what they think. There are useful videos and information on safefood.eu that you may wish to view.
If your parents-in-law are open to changing habits, make sure you help them with this. Remember that making routine changes can be hard work and it is important that you take the lead on this. For example, you might do up a detailed routine chart with your children on when, where and what they can eat. For example, lunch, then homework and then a small healthy treat. Ask your parents-in-law to help you with establishing this routine and ideally explain the chart to the children with them present.
In addition, you could offer to help your parents-in-law with a healthier regime by offering to pre-make the food the children have at their house and to help them think of better rewards.
Remember that small changes can make a big difference. For example, if your children get other non-food treats, such as an extra story, or have a much smaller food treat, one small chocolate square rather than the bar, or have these treats less frequently, then this will address most of the problems.
It also allows your parents-in-law to continue to be in the role of rewarding the children rather than just implementing rules. This is something that I am sure they would appreciate.
If you have a parenting query, send your question to email@example.com
Dr John Sharry is a family psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus programmes. He will be delivering courses on Positive Parenting for teens in in Cork on Saturday, March 12th, and Helping Your Teenagers Overcome Anxiety in Dublin on Monday, April 11th. See solutiontalk.ie for details.