Most Saturday nights I can be found passed out on the couch with a half-eaten spoon of peanut butter somewhere near me, and my dog trying to get access to it. But occasionally, my wife and I actually muster the energy to go out. And when that happens, we can tap into a resource that makes babysitting free: two sets of grandparents that compete to see who can dote on our kids more.
The price can’t be beat, but even though we don’t have to dig into our wallets at the end of the night, using grandparents as childcare costs us in other ways.
No matter whose parents are on babysitting duty, we can count on almost every rule we set getting thrown out the window the moment we leave. Sometimes, the violations start before we even step out of the house.
A healthy dinner? Forget it. Our parents sugared us up throughout our childhood. Why should they treat our kids any differently?
No hand-feeding the kids, since they’re old enough to use table manners? “But we did the airplane game with the fork until you were nine,” my mom offers in her defense. “I know, Mom,” I respond. “I talk about it in therapy often.”
Encouraging the kids to clean up after themselves? By the time we return from our date, the house looks like Santa came down the chimney and shook open multiple sacks of toys in every room.
Bedtime? With our parents, bedtime is a meaningless construct. My son has discovered that my mom will keep reading him books until he says he’s ready to turn in — meaning he stays up until he collapses in her arms.
We also have a rule against rushing into the kids’ rooms when they just make a little noise. We’ve learned not to panic over every little peep. But our parents, who must have supersonic hearing, tend to sprint in the second either kid so much as rustles a pillow.
When it comes to the spoiling and coddling, should we try to crack down and insist that at least some of our rules be followed? Or is this just the price of ‘free’ childcare?
On this, parents passionately disagree. In one camp: This short break from rules probably won’t do any harm. Plus, it’s helping our kids form lasting bonds with their grandparents. In the other: All this bending of rules could undermine parents and the values they’ve spent time establishing.
What does science say? Researchers from the University of Glasgow found that grandparents may inadvertently have an adverse impact on their grandchildren’s health, especially in the areas of weight and diet . Another study recommended that grandparents should follow strict rules about screen time, and another suggests that grandparents need a safety tune-up. Of course, a lot of this has to do with how much time the grandparents get with their grandkids. If those visits are rare, it makes sense to be much more lax.
With this knowledge in hand, are my wife and I doing anything to rectify the situation? Not really. For all the drawbacks, there are science-backed benefits to having grandparents nearby, such as giving kids a support network and building resilience by fostering an appreciation for family history.
Every now and then we do attempt to reinforce the rules before we hand off the kids. But we know what a great thing we’ve got going. When we have dipped a toe into the world of teenage babysitters, we’ve discovered that they’re now paid—and negotiate—like CEOs, which cuts into our date night budget. We also can’t guarantee that the sitter won’t spend 90% of the night looking at their phone. And then there’s the awkward drive home. How do those of us who aren’t yet TikTok-fluent even begin to make small talk?
With our parents, we know what we’re getting — for better or worse. So Ma and Pa, Mimi and Poppy are a godsend, not just compared to the alternative, but for everything else they bring to our lives.
The moment they arrive, we dash out of the house as fast as humanly possible. Driving away for a few hours of freedom feels like the beginning of a mini-honeymoon, even if we’re just going somewhere nearby for dinner. It’s often the first time in weeks that my wife and I notice each other’s appearance (hopefully we haven’t aged too much in that time).
And while we’re away, we know that our kids — though maybe riding a sugar high and awake well past bedtime — are not only cared for but are also making memories with their grandparents that they’ll cherish long past the last “airplane fork” full of food that zooms into their mouths.
This story originally appeared on Apparently.