On Other People’s Parenting
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.
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