I read your recent column about the sanctimonious sister with interest, because I too have a sister complaint. My boys are one and three-and-a-half. I will be visiting our parents for a few weeks soon during our cross-country move. My sister is a single mom of a physically imposing five-and-a-half-year-old tyrant, and she lives in the same town as our parents and depends on them a lot for child care. She drives me nuts, because she never disciplines or follows through with her son even though his behavior is outrageous. He behaves like a two-year-old at the table – eating with his fingers, growling and roaring at everyone, spills everything. Still, my sister does nothing. Of course, my three-year-old sees this, and guess what?
I’m often busy with the baby when it starts, but when I do see what is happening with my guy I say things like, “Were you raised by wolves? Use your fork, please.” Or, “Let’s use indoor voices at the table.” And, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak lion. Please use your words.” I always hope my sister will clue in that you’re supposed to raise your children to behave at the table. My parents are afraid to say anything. My sister is a social worker and presents herself as an expert at everything.
So, do you have any advice about how to gear myself up for another visit to hell? Oh yes, and her guy tends to bully my guy – using his size and roaring ability to scare the daylights out of him. – Dreading the Visit
It’s pretty common for family members to have different styles of parenting. It’s also common for other issues to get tied up in the way siblings judge each other’s choices, parenting or otherwise. We’re getting a teeny whiff of some emotional baggage in your description of your sister’s situation. You may want to examine your feelings about your sister in general when you think about how you feel about how she raises her kid. You and your sister might have very different ideas about child-rearing. Or maybe you just have very different kids and circumstances. Maybe she doesn’t care as much about table manners as you do. Maybe her child has a difficult temperament. Or maybe she’s just given up this fight, because in the context of her life as a single parent, it’s a battle she’s decided isn’t worth the trouble.
Do you get a sense that your children are in actual danger, or are your worries more about your nephew as a “bad influence”? If it’s the former, by all means, you need to talk to your sister about keeping your kids safe. But if it’s the latter, your answer is in your question. Even a visit to hell is still just a visit. You’re not talking about moving next door to your sister, but about an occasional, brief family vacation in her neck of the woods. Is this really going to have an impact on your kids’ lives in the long run? Probably not. A few weeks’ visit to a different way of doing things will not undo all that you’ve done to teach your kids to behave. Anything they glean from this so-called tyrant can be quickly nipped in the bud once you get home. It’s probably not worth getting into a critical confrontation over something that doesn’t really happen that often, and doesn’t have much effect in the end. This may even be a good teaching opportunity for you, if you’re able to do it in a way that doesn’t totally trash your sister or her offspring. Learning that different rules apply to different circumstances (and that not all families follow the same rules) is not a bad lesson. If your contact is minimal, your best bet may be to grin and bear it, and explain to your kids accordingly.
If you do decide to talk to your sister, we urge you to try to do it from a supportive place rather than attacking her choices. Asking your child, “Were you raised by wolves?” when he imitates her son may not be the best route to productive communication. Your sister sounds like a thoughtful person, whether she’s raising her son in a particular way on purpose or just struggling with parenting alone. You’re much more likely to get through to her with a real discussion than a nasty sideswipe at the dinner table. A time may come when someone sees your child as a bad influence. (There’s only so much a parent can control.) We suspect that you’d want to be treated with respect in that situation, rather than feeling judged – be it by a stranger, or your sister.
Have a question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org