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.

The Trouble with Other People’s Kids

Dear Mr. Dad: Is it ever appropriate to discipline other people’s children? My 7-year-old daughter often invites one of her classmates to our home. I don’t mind, but this girl is a terror and does things (like jumping on furniture) that my child is not allowed to. I spoke to her mom about it but she just laughed and said, “Allie is a very lively girl.” How can I handle this situation without depriving my daughter of her friend’s company?

A: There’s a difference between disciplining children while their parents are present, and a situation like yours, when a child is dropped off at your house and left in your care.

Generally speaking, if a parent is present, it is up to him or her to ensure that their children are not misbehaving—and to discipline them if and when necessary. There are, of course, some exceptions. Say another child is acting aggressively at a playground and pushing yours off the swings or slide. In an ideal world, the offending kid’s parent would immediately react and remove the child from the playground. But what if the parent is ignoring the child’s behavior? At that point,, you certainly have the right (and, in my view, the responsibility) to step in and do what you need to do (without hurting the other child, of course), to protect your daughter from harm.

The same would apply if a child was doing something to harm another kid—not yours—at the park or anywhere else. When someone is in danger of harming themselves or anyone else, as a responsible adult, you must step in. Think how bad you’d feel if something tragic were to happen that you know you could have prevented.

It’s a pity that Allie’s mom laughs off her daughter’s behavior, missing the opportunity to teach her child some basic lessons in courtesy and respect. I’m betting that little Allie has very lenient (if any) rules at home, and hasn’t learned how to behave in other people’s homes. At seven, though, she should certainly know what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t.

It goes without saying that in your home, Allie should follow your rules. (It’d be the same with adult visitors: If you have a non-smoking household, you have every right to demand that your guests either respect your rules or leave.)

The next time Allie (or another child) comes for a play date, be very clear about what the rules are. Of course, you don’t want to be overly strict (after all, she’s there to have fun), but the children’s safety and your comfort should be your priority. It’s absolutely reasonable to expect that visitors—whether they’re kids, adults, or pets—not jump on your furniture, yell, make a mess (without cleaning up afterwards), or turn on the TV without asking first.

If Allie keeps breaking the rules, you have every right to discipline her by telling her that this kind of behavior is not acceptable in your home, and she has to stop. Be calm but firm. But never shout at someone else’s child. You might also want to include your daughter in the warning if she’s involved in the activity too.

If you ‘re consistent in reminding Allie what the rules are, chances are she’ll start to follow them, even if they’re different from what she’s allowed to do in her own home. Of course, if she continues to misbehave—especially if she’s endangering or harming your child, or damaging your belonging—it might just be time for your daughter to find some other, better-behaved playmates.

It’s not fair! Plus, Mr. Dad Seal of Approval winners

Dear Mr. Dad: My older children—ages 11 and 12–are constantly complaining that things aren’t “fair” when it comes to the rules in our house. They say it’s not right that that their younger sibling (age 7) gets to enjoy many of the same benefits as they do, even though they’re a lot older. For instance, bed time in our home is set for 9pm on weeknights, which I feel is appropriate for the older and younger kids; but they don’t agree.

A: “It’s not fair” is probably the most played card in the family deck. Part of the reason is that kids often see the word “fair” as a synonym for “the same,” when, as most adults well know, there’s a big difference between the two. In most cases, the kids are wrong about whether something is actually unfair or not. But in this case, I think they’re making a good point. Bed times should be based upon age and the amount of sleep that your children need to function properly the next day. Most 10 and 11-year-olds don’t need as much sleep as a 7-year-old, and scooting their bedtime as little as 30 minutes later could go a long way toward reestablishing their rightful place at the top of the food chain. It would also give you some wonderful extra time with your older kids.

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Inconsiderate adult child moves home

Dear Mr. Dad: My 24-year-old daughter just moved back into my home, which I also share with my 80-year-old mother. She recently quit her job as a nurse and is working as a bartender instead. Many nights she doesn’t come home at all, and rolls in at 6-7 a.m. the next morning. I don’t ask questions—she’s an adult. But I have asked her repeatedly, just out of common courtesy, to let me know if she’s going to be out all night. First, this is so I can go to sleep and not worry every time I hear a noise. Second, her dog keeps me up half the night with his pacing and whining and won’t stop until my daughter gets home. Still, she refuses to let me know. How can I convince her to check in—for everyone’s peace of mind?

A: You said it perfectly: she’s an adult. And at 24, she should start acting like one—treating people with the same level of respect she’d like from any guest in her home. It’s perfectly reasonable to tell your daughter exactly what you wrote: that she’s causing you and your mother to worry and that her dog is keeping you up at night. If she’s going to stay out all night, she needs to a) let you know well in advance, and b) make arrangements for someone else to take care of the dog. It’s your house and you’re entitled to set the rules (and those are pretty easy rules to live by). You’re happy to host her for as long as she needs, but only if she’ll stop acting like an irresponsible—and inconsiderate—teenager. If she refuses to go along with the program, tell her she’ll have to find another place to stay.