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Candy-toting Grandma is spoiling my kids!

Unless things go too far, give an indulgent grandmother — and your children — a break over special treats, says Dr. Gail Saltz.

Q: My mother-in-law is coming to visit for the holidays. She’s way too permissive with my kids, letting them pretty much do what they want and eat tons of candy. How can I make her back off?

A: Don’t forget that a grandparent-child relationship is very different from a parent-child relationship.

Grandma (and Grandpa, too) gets to indulge the kids. If a grandmother doesn’t visit often, her presence is a fun, special treat for them. It’s fun for her, too — and she gets to hand the kids back to you.

Parents, on the other hand, have a more ambivalent and complex relationship with their children. As the primary nurturers, they are the ones who set limits and enforce rules.

There’s another twist. You might be envious of your mother-in-law’s easy and loving relationship with your children, and the way they so obviously delight in her presence. But you should remember this: She already played the disciplinarian with her children (including your husband). Now it’s your turn to do that.

What’s more, she might be feeling a twinge of envy herself since you have the leading caretaker role in your children’s lives, along with the prerogative to do things your way.

Certainly, it’s tough if your mother-in-law is undermining your household’s rules. But this can be discussed and negotiated (not in front of the children, though). You and your husband should let her know you are willing to be flexible if she is.

Suppose bedtime is 9 p.m., but Grandma lets your kids stay up until midnight. This isn’t helpful if they must get up for school the next day. But it’s rarely a problem on a weekend or vacation night, so it’s no crime for you to indulge your mother-in-law on this. Or you can compromise on a bedtime, like 9:30 p.m. during her stay. (And if she’s doing this to give you a night off with your husband, that’s all the more reason to give her a break.)

Or suppose you allow the kids two candies a day, but Grandma lets them eat all they want. A few days of candy won’t rot their teeth or ruin their health. It’s not so terrible to let them eat more candy than usual when Grandma is in town.

Of course, if they are too sleepy to get up for school, or if they eat so much candy that they’re more revved-up that the Daytona 500, that’s something else. In these cases — where bending the rules leads to negative consequences — remind your mother-in-law (in as nice a way as possible) that the rule exists not just because you say so but because there are reasons for it.

In other words, don’t punish either the kids or their grandmother for having a fun, warm relationship. Give all of them the okay to do some things differently. You can have two sets of rules: the usual rules for when she is not visiting, and more flexible rules for when she is.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her new book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was recently published by Riverhead Books. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2004 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.