Bite Your Tongue. Hard. Please.

Dear Mr. Dad: My mother-in-law has an opinion on every conceivable parenting topic. The problem is that those opinions are usually unwelcome and unhelpful. Besides that, every time she’s at my house, she insists on telling me (and my wife when she’s there) how we should raise our children. What can I do before I snap?

A: I know this is going to hurt, but try to think about things from her perspective. Like every other human being, your mother-in-law has a wide variety of life experiences. But does she have any reason to feel that her advice is better than anyone else’s? If, for example, she is or was a child psychologist or a professional in another parenting-related field, she may feel that her training and experience make her advice especially unique and important.

[Read more...]

Whose Kids Are These, Anyway?

Dear Mr. Dad: My son has two young children and a few years ago married a woman who has two children of her own. My son and his wife are having some financial troubles and my wife and I have volunteered to help them out with babysitting whenever they need it, which is quite often. My son’s children are pretty well-behaved when they come to my house. They help set and clear the table, say “please” and “thank you,” participate in mealtime conversations, and so on. They’re not perfect, but who is? My daughter-in-law’s kids are a different story. They’re rude, disrespectful, refuse to help out, criticize the food we prepare for them, and generally act like they’re living in a hotel. It’s gotten so bad that I’m about to tell my daughter-in-law that her children are no longer welcome in my house, but I’m afraid that might end up hurting my son’s marriage. His wife truly believes her children can do no wrong. What should we do?

A: Ah, welcome to the wonderful world of grandparenting in the age of blended families. You’re absolutely right to worry about throwing a wrench into your son’s marriage. But you also need to be concerned about how his stepchildren’s behavior might affect your relationship with him. There’s also a serious risk that as your biological grandchildren see what their stepsiblings get away with, they’ll start imitating them. So you’ve got to put an end to this problem right away. Unfortunately, no single approach will work every time, so here are a number of strategies that will allow you to attack this problem from several angles at once.

  • Do NOT talk directly to your daughter-in-law, at least not alone. From your description, she’ll just get defensive and will end up painting you as the bad guy. That will put your son in the awful position of being in the middle between you and his wife.
  • Treat all four children the same. If anything you do comes even remotely close to favoritism, again, you’ll be branded as the bad guy.
  • Talk directly to all four kids at once. Tell them—without singling anyone out—that there are some behaviors going on that are simply not acceptable and that if things don’t change in a hurry, you’ll make a report to their parents.
  • Call a family meeting; you, your wife, son, daughter-in-law, and all four kids. Tell them that you have certain rules in your house and that rude, disrespectful behavior will not be tolerated. Ask the kids to create consequences (don’t use the word “punishment”) for breaking the rules. Chances are they’ll come up with things that are harsher than anything you would have. The added bonus is that when they break the rules they won’t be able to gripe about the punishment.
  • Talk with your son and his wife. Tell them that you often have trouble with the kids and that you need their help establishing some rules. Be very careful that you don’t single out your daughter-in-laws kids. It’s critical that she and your son support you by telling the kids that when they’re in your house, they play by your rules. And that violating those rules will result in serious consequences. This is critical. The kids have to hear from their own parents that you’re the supreme authority in your home.
  • This one is hard but it has to be done. Tell your son and daughter-in-law that if the behavior doesn’t stop, they will have to make other childcare arrangements.

Grandma Hates Babysitting

Dear Mr. Dad: I have two grandchildren, ages 4 and 6. I love them dearly but really don’t enjoy babysitting. They run around, climb on the furniture, break things, and generally wreak havoc in my house. It takes me a good hour to child-proof the house before my daughter drops them off and then another hour to put everything back. I’m exhausted! How can I be a good grandma and enjoy time with the kids?

A: Let’s start by defining “good grandma.” I’d say that taking two little terrors into your house and keeping them entertained for hours on end without getting paid for it—more than once—is a good start.

Another important ingredient is the desire to be a regular part of their lives. The foundation you’re laying now will hopefully blossom into a close, nurturing relationship as your grandchildren get older. The trick is to find a way to turn those frustrating and infuriating visits into something more fun—for you and for them. They can definitely feel how tense you are when they’re around and they probably aren’t much happier to be at your house than you are to have them there.

One solution is to do your babysitting at your daughter’s house instead of yours. That way, you’ll save a few hours on the childproofing, and any property damage will be covered by your daughter’s homeowner’s policy, not yours. The downside is that children usually like spending time at their grandparents’ house. The rules there are often more lenient than in their own home, and they get to do things they wouldn’t do with mom and dad around. There’s something about sharing that feeling that helps strengthen the grandparent-grandchild bond.

You’ll need to establish some simple ground rules. Your grandkids are old enough to understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. For example, at grandma’s house, there’s no jumping on furniture or touching things without asking first. Explain to them that you have to repair anything they break or damage, and that’ll cost you time and money. Remember, though, that kids sometimes break things accidentally, so keep anything valuable well out of reach. You can’t reasonably forbid them from touching everything in your house—that’s just not realistic.

As a workaround, do you have a room in your house that you could designate as a play space where the kids won’t have to worry about breaking or destroying anything? It doesn’t have to be fancy: a few pieces of child-friendly furniture, a table, some chairs, and a good assortment of age-appropriate toys, coloring books, arts and crafts supplies, blocks, and so on. If money’s an issue, you can probably get most of these items used at garage sales or on Craigslist.

Before each visit, think about what you’ll do while they’re there. Build in a good mix of indoor and outdoor, active and quiet, group and solo activities. Give them some choices, but don’t forget to include activities you enjoy. For example, my mom loves to draw and paint and she makes doing art a regular part of many of her visits with her grandchildren. My 7-year old’s maternal grandparents are avid bird watchers and they’ve taken her on many backyard outings. Do this now. It’ll be a lot harder to convince a tween or a teen to go to a museum with you if they’ve never done it before. But if it’s been a regular part of their routine, you may actually be able to get them to stop texting for a few minutes and enjoy the artwork.

Grandma Spoils the Grandkids

Dear Mr. Dad: Grandma spoils our preschool twins to death! Whenever they’re with her, they seem to get free run of the house—with no rules. When we pick them up, they need an attitude adjustment to bring their whining and rudeness under control. How can we get my wife’s mother to supervise them more appropriately?

A: The old saying about grandparents is true—they get to spoil the grandkids, stuff them full of treats, and then send them home to Mom and Dad. Fortunately, the “damage” usually isn’t too heavy and it’s relatively easily corrected. But sometimes the effects last a little longer, especially with kids who are at the age when they disagree with parents over just about anything (which could be toddlers and preschoolers or teenagers—amazing similarities between the two groups).
[Read more...]