An old joke says that the reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have an enemy in common. Grandparents love to give, children love to receive, and parents may seem to both of them like the enemy of gratification. Mom becomes the one who says, “No,” grandma the one who says, “Yes.” Or so it seems to the parents.

The mother of a 2-year-old spoke to me about feeling stressed by a visit from her husband’s parents, and I was struck by the universality of her complaints. Working with parents over many years, I recognized familiar words and themes. But as a grandmother myself, I have also experienced and heard from other grandparents the other side of that same set of feelings. As a friend said, “The grandchildren are wonderful; it’s their parents who are the problem.”

What I hear from mothers is the feeling of being undermined and criticized by grandma. The mother I refer to above was angry that grandma gave her daughter soda and let her watch TV, two things mom did not allow. When the grandmother later said to the child, “Mommy says no,” the mother felt she was being made the bad guy, and her authority undermined. The implication was that grandma would allow it — it’s mom who won’t.

Mothers and grandmothers each feel judged and criticized by the other. And maybe they are.

But what is this really all about? The generational conflict runs deeper than the conventional wisdom that grandparents like being indulgent, while parents have the real responsibility of daily life, and speaks to the more profound changes that are taking place.

Having a child becomes musical chairs in which everyone moves up a place. The child is now the PARENT. Instead of being the child of your parent you are now the parent of your child. Our own feelings of dependency are challenged by having someone who is dependent on us.

Responsibility for another life becomes central.

The idea that one is no longer the CHILD is difficult both for new parents and for their parents.

Grandparents may feel that their experienced words of wisdom should be heeded. But when they expect the parents to listen to their advice they are making them children again — which can be unnerving when you are trying so hard to be a parent. New parents are working hard to win their parent credentials, while grandparents may be trying to hold on to their own.

Grandparents want their children to learn from their (the grandparents’) experience — just as they wanted them to when they were growing up. Parents often are trying to correct the things they think were wrong in their own upbringing. Grandparents get this, and may take it as a criticism of them. Both parents and grandparents often use the same words in talking about being made to feel incompetent by the other.

Parents are learning how to be parents — just as their parents had to learn. And grandparents have to learn how to be grandparents. That learning is the hardest part. What grandparents can’t stand is feeling that the parents are learning at the expense of their grandchildren. What is hardest for parents is what feels like a lack of respect for their role as parents.

Perhaps the important lesson for grandparents is to let their children learn in their own way. For parents who have fond memories of their relationship with their own grandparents, perhaps they can derive comfort from knowing that their children may also have such memories in the years to come.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.