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On Other People’s Parenting

Mar04

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Hi Amy!

I love your various blogs and pieces, so much so that I have all sorts of views on child rearing that someone in their mid-20s with no short-term child intentions prooobably does not need to have. Which brings me to my question! About my partner’s 4 year old niece.

Now this kid is great, we all love her to bits. She’s super full of life and funny and engaging and loving, and ohmygod she is given no boundaries whatsoever. Examples? Sure! When not being amazing, she punches. Kicks. Spits. Uses cutlery as a weapon! Which you know, DUDE. That’s a steak knife. Please don’t swing it aggressively at my face.

At family gatherings/dinners, her parents reliably let her eat a packet of twisties before dinner then plead for her to eat (literally) about 4 pieces of meat – which doesn’t happen, because she’s crawling around under the table pinching people. But then hey, it’s dessert time, so you can now have two ice creams or cake instead. She goes to bed whenever she wants, which is usually about 11. She refuses to sleep in her own bed – ever – and still evicts one parent from their bed most nights. So yeah, most of this doesn’t really gel with my views on how a kid should be treated, and behave.

Which is really none of my business! It’s not my kid! They like her going to bed late because it means they can live flexibly. Whatever. However, this family is super close, so we all get together at least once a week. So while I love her, and certainly don’t blame a 4 year old for doing whatever they like (when they have repeatedly been shown that that’s completely acceptable), the end result is that this sweet, lovely kid can also be… kind of an asshole. To the point that I dread seeing her, because I don’t want to end up bruised and have my ears screamed directly into and frankly, every get together is just really stressful.

My partner and I try to model good behavior, and do the “hands are not for hitting” stuff, and if she’s sitting next to us we threaten to (and do) take away food if it’s being thrown around instead of eaten. But realistically, that happening once a week is not making one dang speck of difference. And in the end, we’re just those jerks without kids who think we know it all. And it’s hard for both her and her parents – there are no other kids in this wing of the family. We love her (seriously confrontation-avoidant) parents, and don’t want to be uppity and offensive with “here’s why your parenting sucks” (which I can pretty well guarantee would not be heard anyway).

So please: what do we DO. I hate to think that I’ll end up disliking this child for behavior that I really don’t believe is her fault.

Thanks,
Thatjerkwithoutkidswhothinkstheyknowitall

There’s really only one main thing you can do about other people’s sub-par parenting, and that’s accept the fact that there really isn’t all that much you can do. Believe me, though, I hear you SO HARD.

I personally try VERY VERY hard to avoid the know-it-all parenting judgyness thing — I’ve had three children! Who change the rules on me constantly! Who test my nerves and willpower to parent “correctly” on a regular basis! — so I always want to give other parents the benefit of the doubt that I’m just witnessing a low moment, or that there’s some other reason behind their decision to parent a certain way. And you know, letting a kid stay up late and eat too much sugar isn’t flat-out abusive or neglectful, and lots of spoiled children with zero boundaries eventually grow up and become civilized and productive members of society.

On the other hand: HELLO PLEASE MAKE YOUR ANNOYING CHILD STOP WAVING A STEAK KNIFE AT MY FACE, THANK YOU.

On the other other hand, in your particular case: It’s important to remember that even a casual family get-together once a week is not necessarily going to give you an accurate picture of what happens the other six nights a week. I’ve gotten letters before from appalled relatives about children’s diet and behavior over holiday visits (or more accurately, about their in-laws’ encouragement of said diet and behavior over holiday visits), and many many parents have chimed in to admit that it’s usually not a battle worth fighting.

“My kids eats a healthy balanced diet and behaves relatively well at home. If she gets pumped full of cookies and snacks and watches TV on all day when we visit, that is not the hill I choose to die on. At the end of the day I will collect my semi-feral offspring and take them back home to the land of limits and whole grains, and everybody will be just fine and nobody’s feelings will be hurt, like if somebody told Grandma that cookies made with Crisco and red food coloring are the devil and our snowflake isn’t allowed to have any.”

Obviously, it sounds like you are pretty reasonably sure that the parenting style you’re seeing during the family get-togethers is fairly typical. But it IS possible that you’re seeing extra exceptions being made, especially with how late she’s staying up (they want to stay and visit; they want family to get more time with their little darling, etc.) and the junk food (they can’t deal with the post-meal meltdown when she’s denied a piece of the cake the rest of you will all eat in front of her; they want these visits to be “fun” and “special” for her so they let her have all the treats in the world, etc.). She’s also a four-year-old child at an adults-only gathering with no playmates, and that’s hard for any kid — much less one who is overtired and eating a ton of junk food. You guys are all talking about boring grown-up things and eating boring grown-up food. She wants attention and is perfectly fine with getting negative attention for naughty behaviors, like crawling under the dining table to pinch your ankles. (And that is all SO TOTALLY NORMAL, BY THE WAY.)

And it’s possible that they DO care but aren’t sure how to course-correct, or are wrestling with secret concerns about developmental delays or sensory issues or oppositional behavior — and naturally, you probably aren’t going to be the first person they turn to for guidance and advice.

It’s also just as possible that we’re seeing Occam’s Razor, Bad Parenting Edition, live in action: Maybe her parents are simply totally, completely fine with the choices they make and the behavior that results. They don’t care that she still wants to sleep with them and don’t really care that her shrieking and hitting and hopped-up sugar-monster routine is wearing on people’s nerves. Maybe in their mind, she’s still a baby or toddler and don’t realize that by four years old, most people expect to see SOME evidence of manners and proper social skills.

If this is the case, you can maybe find comfort in the fact that the “village” will hopefully, eventually step in and give this child some of the guidance and boundaries that her parents have failed to provide: Preschool. Kindergarten. Reports going home about behavior problems or aggression. A pediatrician who asks the right questions about bedtime. A fellow parent lending them copies of Satter, Ferber or something about parenting the strong-willed child. Or worst case, other children (or their parents) not wanting to play with her or have her over for playdates because she hits and acts out. A nice thing about living in a modern society is that a child has other influences and institutions that can help make up for lazy parenting along the way.

And yes, trite as it sounds and as ineffective as you probably feel right now, you are part of her village. Keep modeling proper behavior. Stay calm and gentle with your corrections but don’t be afraid to let her know that her actions have consequences: I don’t like being kicked. I’m going to get up and move away from you when you kick. If you want to talk or play with me, you have to not kick me, or I will get up and move away again. Maybe bring her some books that JUST SO HAPPEN to have a title from the Best Behavior series mixed in with super-fun ones about Dora or dinosaurs or whatever she’s into. (But that’s about as overt of a hint as I’d drop, for the record.)

But most importantly: praise her when she does behave — even over the smallest thing, like sitting in her dinner chair, even if you KNOW she’s probably going to climb down in 10 seconds. Let her know that you notice and that it’s a good, happy thing. Reward her with as much positive attention as you can and she might surprise you and make a repeated effort please you, rather than acting out in search of negative attention from the grown-ups. Let’s face it: Being naughty can be fun sometimes. Giving in to every spastic impulse is a lot easier than controlling your body and behavior. But being praised and applauded for being GOOD feels pretty nice, and feels better than the post-naughty-behavior scolding. But if the poor kid is never praised or noticed when she DOES behave, she has zero motivation to seek positive attention when being naughty is so much easier. (Though it doesn’t even sound like her negative acting out gets her the attention she’s desperately seeking from her parents, who seem to ignore everything she does in favor of HERE HAVE SOME MORE CANDY AND BE QUIET. That’s way sad, actually.)

Would you and your partner be open to babysitting her once in awhile? That would give you guys the chance to have real time with her and see how she behaves when she’s not competing for attention in a room full of distracted, socializing adults. She might surprise you. OR…she might not. But then at the end of the night you’d be well within your rights to (gently) report on her behavior and your concerns to her parents. “We had a lovely time and would love to have her over again, but just so we can be consistent, what strategies do you use at home to curb the hitting/kicking/spitting? Also, she seemed really overtired, is she sleeping okay at home? We put her to bed at 8 and she really fought us pretty hard but I think she really needed it!”

You’ll also get to see firsthand that the road to parenting hell is paid with know-it-all-y good intentions, yes. Three hours alone with this child could completely shatter every illusion you had about knowing anything about child-raising, sure. But if you’re concerned about this little girl and hate the thought of her general amazing-ness getting usurped by her less desirable tendencies, you’re going to need to keep at it and keep being there for her, even when it’s hard or annoying or supremely not-fun and you feel like nothing you’re doing is helping. Which is a lot like…actual parenting, I guess.

photo source: Digital Vision/Thinkstock

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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16 Responses to “On Other People’s Parenting”

  1. Karen Mar 04 at 1:10 pm Reply Reply

    That is such a great answer!!! I was just having a conversation yesterday about why I don’t bring my kids to adult gatherings (exceptions for occasional family things). Because this, on a smaller scale, will happen. I would suggest taking your niece to a park or a children’s museum/aquarium for an outing. Children can be so lovely when given the opportunity to exist in a space that is suited for them. And if not, you don’t have to do it again. Also, if a birthday or gift-giving opportunity is coming up, you could ask her parents if she might like to receive a kids tablet like a leappad or the Tabloo from Toys R Us. Something to amuse herself with during adult dinners.

  2. cassie Mar 04 at 1:31 pm Reply Reply

    Ugh. Thank for your that ‘exception’ paragraph. Because my child can and has been that hell child out at friends houses or family gatherings. And he’s not usually, but sometimes letting him play instead of be at the table or eat a cinnamon roll for dinner is 100x easier than making him sit down and behave ‘properly’ and yeah, I’m not dying on that hill. Won’t do it. (Although I have also taken him OUT and AWAY when he gets too horrid even if I’m missing out on social time, so… ::shrug::)

    But this sounds like it’s the norm rather than the exception, so Amy’s idea of some personalized, full-on child attention time sounds like a great idea. Then you can understand if the bad behavior really is an exception or the norm. And if it’s the exception, maybe THEN you can talk to the parents about “How can we – together- make this more the norm at our regular gatherings so we all have a much more enjoyable time?”

  3. Amie Mar 04 at 2:07 pm Reply Reply

    I mostly agree with all of this–except–if a kid is waving a knife in my face, I reserve the right to put the kibosh on that, whether or not somebody’s parenty feelings get hurt. Because knife!

  4. Sarah Mar 04 at 2:37 pm Reply Reply

    I’ve been watching the same situation in my goddaughter, and now she is 13. It’s been watching a car accident in slow motion for 13 years, and she has turned out even worse than I had worried. The lack of boundaries and no bedtime/ proper diet has resulted in a 13 year old who refuses to eat anything but fast food and soda and who stays up late, sleeps in, and misses school. The “village” did step in, and the pediatricians and the school were “told off” or ignored or changed until CPS was called, and then superficial changes were made. Meanwhile, the 13 year old has become a master manipulator, liar, and has multiple email and Facebook accounts and talks to older men all over the country. I can barely deal with it and my continued positive influence has done nothing; it’s just not enough. She lies to me too. I don’t know what the answer is to the OP, sometimes these parents need to hit rock bottom before they can make changes, and then often it is too late to start parenting the child. And FYI, CPS does not consider this type of parenting to be abuse or neglect, they have much bigger problems to deal with.

  5. Lydia Mar 04 at 3:02 pm Reply Reply

    Oh I so feel this LW right now.  And now I am married so she is my niece and she is 9, and well, I can’t say it gets better.  She’s still wonderful and sweet and hilarious and smart and fun.  But she can also be incredibly petulant, rude and has horrific manners.  I used to think it was just because we saw her at gatherings and things, but it’s not.  In general, she’s a great child.  But I get so angry that her mother hasn’t taught her basics because she’s too damn busy checking twitter.  I HATE that I feel negatively towards my niece when it’s not *her* fault she hasn’t been taught how to behave.  But it can he hard.  I try really hard to engage her, talk to her, play games with her when we see her.  Because it gives me wonderful positive emotions towards her, while reserving my frustration at my SIL to just her. I am finally (5 years later) starting to realize that she will never learn table manners and that her mother will never teach her to sleep alone (yes at 9 she still sleeps with Mommy).  I can not control these things and my relationship with her is better if I just focus on and praise the great things, and try to ignore the rest.  Good luck!!

  6. Olivia. Mar 04 at 6:35 pm Reply Reply

    I definitely see both sides to this. It’s easy to see this kind of behavior once a week and think the parents are doing it wrong, but there really isn’t much you can do about it. For better, and sometimes, for worse all parents make their own path to raising their children. As long as the child isn’t actively being neglected or abused we can only shake our heads and sigh that another asshole is being created in our world.

    Also, some of these things (not the knife wielding, of course) might really just be different parenting styles. I know kids whose parents let them stay up late, and then they relish the kids sleeping late in the morning. My daughter will be 4 at the end of the month. We just started putting her to sleep in her own bed a few weeks ago, and she still comes to our bed later every night. It’s cool, though, because we have a king size and are “family bed” people. And, food, well not everyone feels the same about food and diet and, again there isn’t really anything you can do about it except model the behavior you want and hope it rubs off.

  7. Jeannie Mar 04 at 9:57 pm Reply Reply

    FWIW, I have had a four year old (now seven) and I currently have a three year old as well. And a lot of the behaviour sounds normal for a four year old — I’ve seen it and its been my kids! They sure can be feral beasts once in a while, especially at exciting outings or when bored, when they make Bad Decisions. But! If I don’t correct them at the time (which I usually do) I sure as heck do later, or at home. As a result, the seven year old is usually very publicly presentable now. 

    So I think it’s possible that other behaviour correction is happening, and she’s just a normal 4 year old who is over excited and she will be fine later. 

    But … Otherwise yeah. That could be crazy. Because I wouldn’t count on the “Village” to make it better. If the parents are oblivious now, I’m not betting they will respond better in a few years. 

  8. Kim Mar 05 at 1:10 pm Reply Reply

    I like a  lot of Amy’s advice, but I think I would go a little further with the boundary setting. Nobody over the age of 12 mos. should be allowed to hurt people at will, and pinching counts in that. I think everyone can agree that safety comes first, and that this particular child should not have access to steak knives.  If the gathering is in your house, you get to set the rules, and those can include no crawiling under the table.  If it isn’t, you get to set your own personal boundaries – “I don’t like to have my legs touched while I’m eating, please.” There are ways of stating that politely, without judgement.
    All over the encouragement of good behavior, and I think you can go farther in setting the kid up for success. Have a set of toys that lives at your house – the kid doesn’t have to sit at the table, but she does have to play quietly so that others can eat. Pull out a dollarstore activity pack and she may even sit with you. And maybe involve her in the last twenty minutes of dinner prep to preempt the twizzler snack.
    You may up being the uptight auntie, but that’s better than being the grit-your-teeth-and-resent-the-kid auntie.  Because frankly, your complaints sound perfectly reasonable to me. (Hello? Steak knife? Please.) I expect more out of my children (I might not get it, but I expect it., and often, I do.)

  9. Autumn Mar 05 at 5:37 pm Reply Reply

    I think this is the hardest part of knowing/loving someone else’s kid, with our without your own spawn/progeny.  Now that we have our own daughter, our motto is lead by example.  

    We were on vacation at the same resort with some friends whose kid is a couple months older than our toddler (scheduled overlap for fun together), and it was really apparent after a day or two together we have different styles of parenting.  Mr Autumn and I are schedule/routine people, and our daughter does really well if you respect the schedule or general daily sequence of things and we kept it as close to home as possible, so even though we were in a totally different environment, it was familiar. Same books for night night after a bath, we only eat in a high chair and can play quietly with our spoon while we wait for some food, a nap an hour after lunch. . .

    Our friends have always been very laid back about everything with parenting, and they have taken their kid places we would never consider taking ours.  Granted he will sleep anywhere now, we must obey the Routine.   But they realized after a day that while their kid was off how a routine might be helpful and make their kid predictable.  It was kinda gratifying to have them try to subtly ask for advice after a couple of days of seeing our happy well adjusted kid.  Not that she isn’t a terror some days, but then we don’t go out.  Just down to the liquor closet for some mommy/daddy “juice”.

    I don’t want to seem like I’m congratulating myself.  But perhaps your (OP) family doesn’t have lots of exposure to other kids her age, so they don’t know about other family’s expectations.  My parents always ask me how the day care keeps 15 toddlers on their little bed things, and I say its enforcing the rules/expectations.  Kids are pretty eager to please, so set high standards when you are with her.  Offer to take her for an outing, such as the zoo, and build on that together time and quietly insist on good manners when she’s with you.  

  10. VG Mar 07 at 12:37 pm Reply Reply

    Okay, is it me or was the answer to the OP’s question basically stated as “There’s nothing you can do. Set an example and see what happens. Have faith”? Um sorry, but that’s a load of crap. If ANY child is deliberately kicking/punching/hitting me OR waving any sharp object that can produce bodily harm at me, then I WILL put that child in his or her place. I could care less what the parents think of me, whether they were my siblings or a stranger on the street, no one should allow a child or any other human being to act that way. Also, what 4 yr old waves a knife in anyone’s face ON PURPOSE? That’s just an example of piss-poor parenting. After I dealt with the child, I would tell the parents to do something about the behavior or someone else will have to step in, and you don’t want me to be that someone else.
    For your reference, I have a child of my own, babysat MANY a cousin, niece, nephew in my lifetime and there have been times where I’ve had to tell a sibling, aunt/uncle that things need to change or else.

    • Liss Mar 08 at 12:14 pm Reply Reply

      It’s just you. You missed the part where Amy says to correct when it’s necessary. However, she says to do it gently and immediately, to model and praise good behavior. Your way sounds retaliative and frankly, ineffective in the long run on a kid like this.

      My family has a niece like this, and within a few weeks of us doing handling things the way Amy suggests with good modeling, praise for good behavior, and immediate, swift, and calm corrections when needed…well, she might act up at home, but NOT at my house anymore.

      • VG Mar 13 at 10:12 am Reply Reply

        Okay, you say your niece may still act up at home, but not at your house, so basically the behavior hasn’t changed because her parents aren’t parenting her. And when your niece comes over does she still act out towards you or others in your home? Has she gotten a clue that this is unacceptable behavior? I doubt it.
        I’m all for trying alternative ways of parenting a child – but there are times where you need to be curt and stern with a child in order for them to get a clue.

  11. MG Mar 08 at 9:10 pm Reply Reply

    Amy’s advice sounds great for dealing with the situation. And as a parent, I can understand the “not making the kid sit and eat with the grownups” part of the behavior and the “kid running around and wanting attention”, but honestly, the hitting and punching adults at age 4 sounds really unusual to me. My boys are three and a half, and yes, kids that age act up sometimes, but they have known better than to hit or kick an adult for a long time now. I have not seen their cousins or preschool or neighborhood friends do that at this age, either. I suspect the kids all know that this is completely unacceptable behavior and would immediately met with a time-out, loss of privileges, or whatever consequences the parents use. So, I know there’s not much you can do since it’s not your child, but I just wanted to say that at least some of this behavior is not the norm for that age.

  12. KT Mar 12 at 3:37 am Reply Reply

    As a first time parent – And it sounds like your niece is their only child so far – I cringe when people judge the way I’ve decided to parent my child. Raising a child isn’t like anything you’ve ever done before. And the whole experience is a trial and error kind of thing. You will never truly know until your baby is a few days old, and you’re just home from the hospital with the ‘what the f@%# do we do now’ thoughts crossing your mind. They’re just doing what they think is right for their kid, and they are doing the best that they can. You’ll have a kid of your own someday and maybe somebody will think that your child has an attitude problem. Or they’ll think you aren’t doing it right, or that they would do it another (better?) way. And they’ll want to suggest all kinds of things, helpful or not, and get into your business when frankly – it’s nobodies business but your own. So rememember this feeling down the line, when it’s your kid whose had too much sugar and is up past bedtime. 

    No parent wants to be judged for their perceived shortcomings. All kinds of parents are good parents, and it’s not up to you to decide wether they are doing a fine enough. Apart from the knife thing. But really, who puts a steak knife within the reach of a 4 year old anyways??

  13. Sarah Mar 13 at 3:58 pm Reply Reply

    I’m sorry, but when your child is terrorizing everyone around them, it IS someone else’s business how you parent your child; it’s the business of the person being terrorized. As a parent, it’s my responsibility to raise my child to know how to behave around other people, and that means providing consequences when they are being obnoxious and unsafe. If I’m not able or not willing to provide the consequences (I’m not talking spanking or anything violent, just reasonable consequences), then I shouldn’t subject everyone else to my child; I should keep her at home. I would never, ever let my children behave this way. If I didn’t know how to make her stop, then I would read some books or talk to someone who knows. I’m not going to get give up just because it’s easier.

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