Why Your Mother-In-Law Is Crazy: Criticism, A Shit-load of Toys and The Grandmother Hypothesis

Monday, December 08, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Evolutionary Psychology

It's the holiday season. And this year I have already gotten a bunch of emails about how to deal with grandparents. The most common complaints seem to be: 

  1. "Grandma brings over so many toys that we just don't need. Why can't she understand that the playroom is already filled to bursting?"
  2. "I always feel criticized at holiday gatherings. Sometimes it's with a look and sometimes it's more confrontational. Why can't she leave me alone?"

Believe it or not, there might be some good evolutionary reasons for these behaviors. So if you're losing your mind because your children just came back from granny's covered in chocolate, peppermint bark and lipstick, there may be a reason for grandparent spoiling besides to make you insane. The plight of the indulgent grandparent may have root in a mechanism affectionately entitled, "The Grandmother Hypothesis." And her criticism of you might even have a root there as well.

Shake What Your Mama Gave Ya...or at least say, "Thanks"

The grandmother hypothesis claims that women go through menopause in order to help younger generations. By not having more children, ancestral women could siphon their resources into their existing children and grandchildren, an action which theorists assume would have improved chances of long-term health and overall survival. 

Modern day translation: a biological drive to provide an excessive amount of treats and toys. Enter the holiday season when many parents feel like they are drowning in a virtual sea of board games, toys, and candy canes provided by well-meaning grandparents. 

"Please. Not. One. More. Lego."
But it wasn't always about candy and teeny building pieces that act like medieval torture devices at three a.m. In a study entitled, "Testing Evolutionary Theories of Menopause", researchers explain that young tribal mothers who are unable to fend for themselves look to older female relatives for support1 (more on female to female support here). These older generations, with the benefit of experience and without the burden of dependent children, tended to be the most productive members of these tribes, gathering food as well as functioning as caretakers for younger generations. 

Historically, grandmothers were not simply a bonus. They were paramount to survival. Our current view of grandmothers is not nearly as flattering. Instead of unbridled appreciation, we tell jokes like, "Your grandma's so dumb, I told her Christmas was right around the corner and she went looking for it."

To be fair, the yo mama jokes on Thanksgiving might just be me. Luckily, I have tolerant in laws. 

Generational Differences

Fast forward a few years from tribal granny provisioning and we have the added burden of variability in parenting practices across generations. In the past, only certain parenting styles would have worked for survival. Now, there are many choices. Ever seen a Facebook thread littered with curse words and broken dreams after someone dared to mention that they let their kid watch TV...or didn't let their kid watch TV...or let their kid have a mohawk...or sweet crap on a cracker chose to breastfeed or bottle feed or introduce solids early, or sleep trained, or....really anything? Our generation can't even get on the same page as far as what's right for kids, because most of us have different ideas of what normal looks like from early modeling. How the fuck can we possibly expect that we will share the same tactics as generations before us, when "recommended" parenting models change in remarkable ways across time? (Find out more on this here in From Good Babies to Bad Mothers: Behaviorism, "Mommy Training" and Maternal Anxiety).   

There is a great deal of research that supports this notion of generational divides in parenting practice. In a 2008 study, researchers Bengtsson and Psouni found that many beliefs about the biological nature of motherhood are changing2. They noted that:
"Although beliefs about mothering may be anchored in past experiences of attachment and care giving, they are to a large extent negotiated, discussed and adopted in a wider social context that is often not shared by the older and younger generations.”

So we tend to alter our parenting to fit our current circumstances and further change our ideas to mesh with our current social circles, neither of which are as similar to the experiences of thirty years ago as they might need to be to promote understanding across generational divides. 

Uh oh.    

If parenting beliefs are not shared between a mother and her older counterpart, this creates a unique set of conflicts. Convincing each other that your practices are correct is usually not a viable option unless one or the other is open to opposing ideas. For some, embracing new ideas is akin to admitting that the way they raised their kids was wrong. Whether the interpretation is correct or not, those thoughts are very hard to accept.

With ideas that are constantly evolving, for better or worse, the best we can do is try to understand. But even that is a tricky feat because of the tendency for defensiveness and perhaps our propensity to need to "be right" or simply the drive to win during social confrontations. It is this latter drive that may make us especially susceptible to shame responses when faced with older generations who tsk tsk our parenting or our children, sometimes to the extent that mothers feel the need to alter their actions in the presence of these others. That shame, and the worry about their kids behaving in certain ways, can create so much stress on mothers that they shut down completely or move to otherwise abandoned tropical islands. At the very least they dream about palm trees. 

More commonly than isolated sunning on a beach, feuds erupt, leading to decreased involvement on the part of older generations. While this may (or may not) have the effect of reducing short-term conflict, it still results in less maternal (or grand-maternal) support. However, depending on the situation, some mothers find this preferable to constant battling.

Bad news for granny.  Because while we have a drive to do things our way without interference, grandparents, particularly grandmothers, maintain a drive to be more than an unnecessary extra. Being primed to provide assistance does not fare well when you are not needed, or when divergent parenting beliefs separate you from your grandchildren. Perhaps some tendency to be "overbearing" or "intrusive" as our society calls it, is merely an expression of an unmet need to assist and provision.

In cases where this intrusion is creating additional conflict between yourself and your partner, finding ways to create clear boundaries, for yourselves and for your children, may be necessary. Some go so far as to create a clear list of things that are (and are not) acceptable (discussed more here in: Understanding Personal Boundary Styles to Build Better Relationships).

Reframing the situations in more flattering terms might also help.

Instead of:

"Holy shit, she's crazier than Kanye West with his mouth taped shut. Why can't she ever stop nagging me about the stuff I'm doing wrong?"


"Even though we don't have the same ideas on this, we both love the kids and want the best for them." In addition to reframing or thought substitution, keep an open dialogue with your partner and set up boundaries with your extended families to make sure you can maintain your sanity. You might be surprised how far a conversation starting with, "You know, if really hurts my feelings when..." can go. And, if possible, confront it before the holidays instead of waiting until Christmas Eve after Uncle Rob has had three bottles of wine and your mother-in-law is busy trying to put out the great pumpkin pie fire of 2014. 

You don't have to agree. That's not the goal. The ultimate goal is less stress in the form of fewer negative interactions. And complaining that you already have "too much crap" when they arrive with the gifts ain't the way to do that. No matter what else you do, practice your deep breathing, and embrace the fact that the holidays are marked not only be capricious amounts of toys but also by capricious amounts of wine and spiked egg nog. I hear they both go well with peppermint bark.

Related Posts:


1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2291159/
2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18419590

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