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Regular version of the site

Nanny versus Granny?

Family conflicts about child rearing can affect a mother's confidence and prompt her to hire a nanny.


Elizaveta Sivak, Research Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Childhood Research, HSE Institute of Education.
Yana Kozmina, Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for Leadership Studies in Education, HSE Institute of Education.

Many grandparents criticise the ways in which their grandchildren are raised. Such criticism can affect a young mother’s confidence and satisfaction with her role as parent and cause depression. Faced with such conflicts, many parents choose to reject older relatives' help with child rearing and either hire a nanny or switch to full-time parenting and seek advice from peers in online parent communities. These are the findings from Sivak and Kozmina's study published in the paper "Does Disagreement over Child-Rearing Rules Affect Parental Self-Efficacy?" Self-efficacy refers to one's confidence as parent and self-assessment of one's parenting skills.

Conflict of Generations Can Cause Depression

Mothers and grandmothers often disagree on parenting: according to 20% of surveyed mothers, family and friends have criticised their parenting style, while 30% admit to having problems with other family members around childrearing issues. It can lead to conflict, where accepting help from other family members often makes young parents' lives anything but easier.

Here are some of the implications of such inter-generational conflict: 
  • The greater the differences, the more they tend to affect a mother's confidence in her ability to deal with childrearing challenges. As an illustration, one respondent said, "When I was faced with such behaviour ... from my parents, it had a negative effect on my self-esteem and my ability to cope with all kinds of situations."
  • Such differences can lead to depression and irritability. "We used to have very painful conversations," recalls one respondent referring to her relationship with her father and her child's grandfather. "I would start telling him something, but he ... would just refuse to hear me ... I was terribly upset, it felt really bad." According to another respondent, family members' advice was just "annoying noise" that she wished she could just shut off.
  • Mothers can choose to limit the time their child spends with older relatives; one-quarter of the women surveyed admit to doing so. "I believe it is okay that they see each other every now and then, he can do [the child] no harm," one respondent said concerning the grandfather-grandson relationship in her family.
  • Older relatives can be excluded from caring for the child. "We have grandparents on both sides, but choose to hire a nanny because we cannot use [older relatives'] assistance – too many conflicts around... childrearing," said a mother of many children. The family prefers hiring a nanny, as "you can require that she follows your policies in dealing with the children."

Burden of Hyper-responsible Mothering

Reasons why relatives disagree on childrearing can differ, as the ideas of what constitutes the right approach to parenting tend to change from generation to generation. Young families today often say they would like to raise their children differently from how they were raised by their parents. This may be due to childhood trauma (some respondents recall being humiliated by parents) or ideas gained from books on childrearing or from online communities based on certain theories of raising children.

One way or another, young parents today feel greater pressure than earlier generations. The concept of 'intensive mothering' – often used to describe the current trends in parenting – requires that the parent is constantly available and prepared to make substantial emotional and financial investments in the child’s development.

A few factors have contributed to the popularity of this approach:

  • the perceived importance of early child development;
  • the idea that a mother is responsible for everything that might happen to her child;
  • a dangerous environment surrounding children; and
  • reliance on external knowledge in a belief that mothers cannot raise their children properly without expert advice.

As a result, young mothers often feel as if they are walking through a virtual minefield where any wrong move can be fatal.

Many respondents, remembering their own difficult childhood, wish to protect their children from psychological trauma. "If only my parents could have helped me by showing that they could deal with such situations effectively, without using humiliation, descending into panic and terror, without shaming, disgust and self-blame, then perhaps I could have made better use of all those years that I have spent clearing this mental garbage," one respondent said. "Today, I don't want my child to carry this unnecessary burden around."

Parents Resist Being Challenged

Young parents' adherence to certain theories of childrearing can contribute to differences with older relatives. More than half (54%) of mothers surveyed mention one or more books on childrearing which have influenced them and report being subscribed to online communities promoting a particular approach to parenting.

Typically, such communities draw a strict line between what they believe to be the 'right' and 'wrong' parenting methods. No 'dissent' is accepted. Parents subscribing to such ideas often differ in opinion from people around them.

Parents who believe in a certain childrearing theory are less likely to accept family help with raising their children. On average, they report lower levels of assistance from the child's grandparents (e.g. just 22% report being helped by grandmothers, as opposed to 31% of those who do not adhere to a particular approach to parenting).

By limiting contacts with older family members, young mothers participating in online communities try to avoid challenges to their confidence and skills as parents.

Working Mothers Disagree Less

Women with prior parenting experience often find it easier to agree with older relatives about help with childrearing. Working mothers are also less affected by interference from the child's grandparents – perhaps, because they are more in need of assistance and thus less likely to object to other childrearing styles or better able to negotiate their requirements with the grandparents. On the other hand, women working outside the home can feel more independent, which may influence their self-esteem and the way they relate to other people, including family members. "Now that I am a breadwinner ... I feel like I am in the right place ... because now we have a normal relationship as partners," as one respondent put it.

The study is based on data from online surveys and interviews (670 and 50 respondents, respectively), involving mothers of children aged between one and seven and conducted in 2014 and 2015. All respondents were married or partnered urban residents with university-level education and comfortable incomes.

November 16, 2016