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Norman Rockwell's Freedom from Want

Holidays and Other People’s Kids

By Amalah

Good morning!

I really need some advice on how to handle my sister-in-law’s children at Christmas. I just had a baby in August, and rather than do the normal dance of visiting 4 houses Christmas day (don’t ask), this year my husband and I want to host Christmas dinner ourselves so we don’t have to go anywhere with an infant. Unfortunately my niece and nephew are completely undisciplined, and I don’t know how to handle them when they are in my house.

My sister-in-law has 2 children – a 3 year old son and an 8 year old daughter. My sister-in-law and her husband do nothing to try to control their kids unless they are bugging them specifically. For example we had Thanksgiving dinner at my mother-in-law’s house last week. The younger boy sat at the table for about 10 minutes before he slid out of his chair and started running around the table grabbing at everyone’s napkin holders and glasses. Then he started jumping around on the sofa, and running up and down through the hall. The 8 year old was the families’s first grandchild, so she expects everyone to always pay attention to her – no matter what we are doing. All through dinner she yelled any time she wanted something (GIVE ME GRAVY!), if she didn’t like something she demanded that someone remove it from her plate (TAKE IT OFF MY PLATE! IT’S YUCKY!), and when her brother started jumping on the couch she stood on her chair – still at the table- and shouted at him to stop. Not once did either parent try to stop this behavior. My mother-in-law only tried to intervene when the son was jumping on her couch. Oh, and my daughter was sleeping in a pack-n-play and both kids ran up to it and started poking it and yelling at her until she woke up. I was pissed.

Now in my family that kind of behavior is completely unacceptable. Unfortunately we don’t feel that we can intervene because they are not our kids. There is also the issue that my in-laws start “cold war” fights all the time – no actual physical fighting, but lots of back biting and mean gossip and lies. We are pretty sure that if we tried to intervene my SIL would start a fight with us and the family over it. (She started a fight with my husband in the NICU at the hospital because we didn’t let her and her children visit the hour after my daughter was born. She was 5 weeks early, and hooked up to a bunch a machines, of course the nurses and I did not want people bugging her.)

To be honest, before my baby was born we did not see much of my husband’s family. We don’t like the drama, the never ending yelling/noise and constant infighting. However we feel that our daughter should have the opportunity to know her family.

But I digress. Is it okay for me to discipline my niece and nephew when they are at OUR house? I expect them to stay seated at the table during dinner, speak not shout, and say please and thank you. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of them. I am concerned that if they are given free range they will end up hurting themselves, breaking something or purposely waking the baby again. I kind of want to say ‘my house, my rules‘, but I don’t know if that is acceptable or not.

Any advice you can throw my way would be awesome,
Thank you!

Ah, yes. I can tell it’s That Time of Year Again, when the holidays are right around the corner and the Smackdown queue fills up with questions like this one. Mostly variations on How Do I Not Lose My Everloving Mind Around My Family This Year?

And your situation is a tough one, albeit very common, I imagine: There’s what’s generally considered okay, or at least what most reasonable people would consider okay…and then there’s what will likely be considered okay by the people sitting around your dining table. As usual, there probably isn’t a whole heapload of overlap here.

In general, yeah, I am all for expecting young guests to follow basic house rules for behavior, once it’s been explained to them. This is not to say I explicitly “discipline” other people’s children in my house, unless I am the sole adult who has been explicitly put in charge.  I will SAY SOMETHING in a calm, firm voice to a child who is doing something dangerous or just plain asshole-y (like WAKING MY SLEEPING BABY). I will tell the child that we’re not allowed to do or say X, Y or Z in our house, but no, I will not send that child to a time-out or yell or anything like that when their parent is present. In most cases — and ESPECIALLY in this case, given your SIL’s hair-trigger ability to get offended and bent out of shape — a friendly-yet-firm “no thank you, sweetie, I need my silverware, could you go please sit down now?” is about as far as I personally feel comfortable taking a rebuke. Once I’ve made it clear that I prefer the child to not do or touch or play with something, I expect the parents to take it from there. If the child repeats the behavior, I’ll usually direct my next attempt at the parent — “Hey, sorry, but I really need him to not do that right now, it’s dangerous/fragile/whatever.”

Yes, it’s your house, but those aren’t your kids. It’s a delicate tightrope to walk, but as irritating as you may find your niece and nephew’s behavior, you MUST be mindful that you’re not sending out the signal to your SIL that you think she’s a lousy parent. (Even though you clearly think she’s a lousy parent.) Pick your deal breaker behaviors — screaming while the baby is sleeping, anything dangerous — and try your best to tune out the low-level annoyances like table manners or whining. It just sounds like the more you step on her (useless) toes over her kids’ behavior, the more likely this visit will end with offense and hurt feelings and silent treatment over HOW DARE SHE SAY THAT TO OUR CHILDREN.

If I may play Devil’s Advocate here, but your daughter is still a baby, so it will be criminally easy for your SIL to simply view you and your attempts to correct her children as stuff coming someone who just doesn’t “understand” what it’s like to have older kids, or to have more than one child, or who hasn’t yet had the humbling experience of a kid with behavior delays or issues. Or what it’s like to have a kid who just melts down at big family gatherings after a long car trip and new surroundings and food they don’t like and boredom, while YOU just want to sit at the table with a glass of wine and pick your damn battles with them already. I’m not saying any of these things are actually reality-based reasons for the kids’ behavior and the parents’ lack of involvement, just loading up the most obvious ammunition your SIL might hurl back at you once the next cold war starts.

Beyond the “to discipline/not to discipline” issue, remember to plan the holiday gathering WITH THOSE CHILDREN IN MIND. They are small, hyper, rambunctious children who just lived through the highs and lows of Christmas morning. A big turkey dinner and lots of sitting around chatting (in a house that only has baby toys) is just not going to be their jam, especially if they can’t spend time outside. Make sure there are age-appropriate toys for them. Encourage your SIL to bring the kids’ scooters or skateboards or buy a big thing of sidewalk chalk, should the weather allow for it. If they are going to be housebound, have a WHOLD BUNCH of kids’ movies for them to watch and let them marathon the crap out of them, if it keeps them entertained and still. Ask your SIL if there are any specific side dishes you could make that the kids would like. Basically, if you want these kids to be good guests, go the extra mile to ensure that you’re being a good hostess to them, and not simply expecting them to be perfect little mini-adults. Because good lord, we all know how easy it is for grown-ass adults to act like jackasses at holiday family gatherings. Kids are sadly, not much different.

More on Family and the Holidays:

Cropped Image from Norman Rockwell’ Freedom From Want.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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Caroline
Guest
Caroline

Amy, as usual, great advice, and I agree, be the perfect hostess, really show your sil from beforehand that you are doing your very best for her – frankly, hideous-sounding children. When they arrive, and around the time your baby is going down, just say ”okay everyone, no running into the baby’s room, that’s the golden rule, make sure to say it in front of the parents so they know. If it happens, just gently remind them and then ask your sil (and brother in law…) if they could help you out please, shame they are so cute and excited… Read more »

IrishCream
Guest
IrishCream

The US is a big country with many many subcultures. There’s no one standard way of doing anything. In my house that would be unacceptable behavior, but I can think of acquaintances who probably have different standards.

Caroline
Guest
Caroline

oh dear, didn’t mean to ruffle feathers, I only meant that in certain places, children would either not be expected to sit with the grown ups at all, for any length of time, not that all North American children are badly behaved! Where I am, it’s summer at Christmas, and many businesses shut down completely for anything up to 2 weeks, meaning many people are at the beach, away camping / on holiday or having barbeques rather than the traditional winter Christmas event. Thus the expectations for behaviour are different. The kids would probably eat a festive meal, but it… Read more »

Isabel Kallman
Admin

Thanks Caroline for coming back and elaborating and adding context to your comment. 🙂

Stephanie
Guest
Stephanie

Obviously you didn’t read the LW’s letter very closely: “For example we had Thanksgiving dinner at my mother-in-law’s house last week.”

Thanksgiving in the US is the last Thursday in November. Thanksgiving in Canada was last week, October 13, so I guess there are some children in Canada who can’t behave either. Please don’t paint all children and parents in the US with the same brush. Like IrishCream, jumping on the sofa would be unacceptable for us as well. 

Ali
Guest
Ali

I am likely in the minority here, but I wonder if OP has slightly out of touch expectations for the kids. I’m not saying that they are well-behaved kids, but I also think it’s unrealistic to think a 3 year old will just happily sit at a grown up dinner listening to adult conversation. I know I looked on at lots of toddler/preschooler behavior aghast until I had a little one of my own. While we certainly try to teach “please” and “thank you,” and use manners at home, the expectation that my little guy do that with someone he… Read more »

K
Guest
K

I had the same reaction. It’s all the more frustrating because SIL doesn’t do anything or seem bothered, but expectations need to be tempered. I recently visited family and we went out to dinner with my then-20 month old. When the toddler got antsy waiting for dinner, my dad’s wife told her, in all seriousness, to use her inside voice. What are you supposed to do with that? (The other part of that is, knowing how out of touch she is, her opinion really does *not* matter to me when it comes to how I parent, so Amy was right… Read more »

Jill
Guest
Jill

I fully understand wanting to do dinner at your own house because you have a new baby but, if I may, you have A BABY.  A totally portable, still sleeps in a pack n play wherever you go, all you need to pack is some bottles/diapers/blankets baby. I do remember the days when it was stressful to think about going anywhere with a baby, but 4 kids in I will say that it is definitely easier for you to take your one small baby to someone else’s house than it will be for your SIL to take her kids to… Read more »

Stephanie
Guest
Stephanie

As usual, Amy gives spot-on advice. You are absolutely within your rights to set boundaries in your house: “I’m sorry, but our room is off-limits.” “I’m sorry but the baby is sleeping right now.” I did want to chime in on Amy’s great advice per kids. An 8 year old should know better, but as someone with a complacent 5 year old and a crazy 2 1/2 year old, I can say with some authority that some children will not sit in their seats for more than five minutes. I can assure you that my husband and I try our… Read more »

LH
Guest
LH

I have a 3 and 5 year old.  The ENTIRE holiday season is filled with gatherings, parties, indulgences, junk food and precious little sleep.  Manners and proper behavior are a constant work in progress.  My 5 yo knows and understands the basic expectations, but holidays test those limits and evenings often end with behavior issues.  My 3 yo?  Total crapshoot.  I have to admit I lay off the scolding and lectures when we are at relaxed family gatherings.  Sometimes parents need a break too.  It’s nice to relax knowing my family can assist with the kids.   I agree with… Read more »

June
Guest
June

Wow this is a tricky one. I HATED people who would disrespect the sleeping baby or not discipline their kids (we have a 9 year old relative who stood at the base of the stairs screaming when we told her she couldn’t barge into our sleeping baby’s room, which of course woke him up). However, I also have three kids, one of whom who gets very stressed / overexcited at family functions so I understand their side a little too. I think Amy is right and that you have to plan around the older kids as best you can because… Read more »

Katie
Guest
Katie

“I expect them to stay seated at the table during dinner, speak not shout, and say please and thank you. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of them. ” I kind of think this may be too much to ask of a 3 year old. I mean, stay seated may not be too much to ask if you mean not standing on the chair during dinner, but if you mean staying AT THE TABLE during a LONG holiday meal, umm, unrealistic. I would aim to have something else for the 3 year to do within 15 minutes of… Read more »

diana
Guest
diana

Here’s what I do to keep my 5 and 7 year old from misbehaving at these kinds of events: Give the kids a kid friendly snack when they arrive (fruit, crackers etc), a project to do before the meal (ie making place cards or decorations),  a set number of minutes they are expected to sit at the table (like 10 maybe? or 15? then give them a gold star and let them go), and a movie to watch while the grown ups eat dinner.  Let them know you will tell them when dessert is available.   That combination will prevent… Read more »

S
Guest
S

Great advice here! It sounds both like the kids are wild and your expectations are off. I totally agree with Jill. Your one portable baby is easy to tote along and a great excuse for leaving early when things get annoying. Don’t do this at your house. So what is that means going to four houses? That gives your baby time to nap in the car.

Jeannie
Guest
Jeannie

I have an 8 year old and a four year old, and during those toddler / preschooler years, I would sometimes get angelic, lovely behaviour from them at gatherings — and sometimes it was dreadful. I did dial back my expectations for them in terms of sitting still / sitting at the table / etc., because otherwise some nights everything is a struggle. Some things have to be let go. Having said all that: I don’t back off on manners, or behaving crazy in someone else’s house. I have no problem with other adults (family or close friends) giving my… Read more »

SarahB
Guest
SarahB

The lesson I think you’re going to learn from this Christmas is to start a family tradition of just the three of you at home Christmas morning/day, with visits to other family members, particularly the crazy ones, in the days surrounding the holiday. Expecting more out of a relationship you admit was already pretty non-existent just because you had a baby is likely only to cause you pain and irritation. They’re still the same people you don’t really like to be around, only now add in the fact that you have a little person to manage and are sleep deprived.… Read more »

Suzy Q
Guest
Suzy Q

This is the best response so far. Definitely start your own traditions. If you CHOOSE to visit one or two homes, fine. If not, fine. Four home visits is insane, as is having this crazy, not-close, family to your home.

Your family is you, your husband, and your child. Anything beyond that – on YOUR terms – is gravy.

Suzy Q
Guest
Suzy Q

I thought of something else. One of those traditions you can start is an open house concept. People can visit from 2:00 to 4:00, (or whatever time works for you), with light refreshments served. No house visits for you, just a specified time for others to visit, with a definite end time. 

Ashleigh
Guest
Ashleigh

I’ve never heard of this before but I think it is GENIUS!!!! I wish my family lived close enough to try this one out but unfortunately for us it is travel or not travel. 

Arial
Guest
Arial

“I expect them to stay seated at the table during dinner, speak not shout, and say please and thank you. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of them.” Etiquette like this cannot be taught/enforced in a single lesson, and ESPECIALLY not by an aunt who is a new mom and is hosting a big family holiday dinner.   These expectations are somewhat realistic for a child who has been taught them for months and months leading up to the dinner, but are REALLY unrealistic for children whose parents have clearly never begun the foundation for appropriate dinner party… Read more »

slydegirll
Guest

I was going to chime in and say that all bets are off, in my experience, when visiting over the holidays. My children (1 and 3) could be totally fine – manners, sweet, quiet, the whole 9. Or they could be jumping on the couch and chasing each other around and yelling the. entire. time. and with the different location that they’re not familiar with, I’ve found that it tends to make them crazier/harder to control, because they have no idea what the boundaries are, and thus: Let’s TEST them!!I usually pick a few deal breakers in advance for them… Read more »

Susan:)
Guest
Susan:)

I don’t think your expectations are unreasonable in general, but that only works if the kids have been taught those things for a long and consistent time. If they’ve never been taught good manners or consideration for others, then they aren’t going to know how to do it for you either. My kids are six and four, and I would say they have reasonably good manners. They say please and thank you, but we started that when they were babies. And even so, they still have days when their manners are atrocious. We still have to remind them often on… Read more »

liz
Guest
liz

I ditto what others have said here. 

Other ideas: Buy a big thing of Lego / Lincoln Logs / Tinker Toys and ask the kids to put together something you can take pictures of. 

For that matter, if you’ve got an old digital camera lying around, ask them to take pictures.

If they want to play with the baby, ask them to draw pictures FOR the baby. 

If you happen to have a video game system, get some kid-friendly games for it.

AmyRenee
Guest
AmyRenee

I think you’ve gotten a lot of good advice here. I’m going to chime in with some of the other recommendations to do something with this part of the family on a day besides Christmas day, and for something where a nice formal sitdown meal is not the main event. Can you do Christmas with them on Christmas eve, or the Saturday or Sunday before or after Christmas? I also agree with others on going to them so you are free to leave whenever you want is preferable to being hostage to them in your own house. I think you… Read more »

kimm
Guest
kimm

I would try setting boundaries with maybe 2 house visits per day, going to 4 is unreasonable especially when baby gets older. So what if people get angry, you have to establish that your immediate family is more important to you than pleasing relatives is. Speak with your husband about it. Definitely would not want the in laws kids in my house, I think your visiting the family would be easier. If you just do 2 houses a day:)

Kim too
Guest
Kim too

Here’s the thing about a portable baby, too.  If you are visiting, you can leave, and presto, no more chaos.  If you host, you have the prep chaos, the event chaos which will go on and on because you definitely cannot order people out of your house, and then the aftermath chaos.  It’s a headache I would not want  with a baby, myself.

christine
Guest
christine

I hate to say it, but it sounds like maybe there are some deeper things going on here that are only superficially related to to what the 3 and 8 year old kids are or aren’t doing…  Maybe a long-standing dysfunctional relationship between the adults in the family that is completely independent of kids’ behavior?  The OP describes some historical issues in her background.  I guess I would say that it’s probably better to address the deeper issues than put too much energy and focus into the problem of kids being wild at the dinner table. Just to be clear,… Read more »

Annie
Guest
Annie

We have a very common problem in my family, with cousins who run amok at my house, and their parent does nothing to intervene. And my children, who generally are polite and well-behaved, then get all riled up and go bonkers themselves. When I’m hosting, this is what I do. I do lay down the rules and expectations first. Feed the kids before the adults, then get kids started in a series of structured activities that allow the adults time to eat and talk in peace. Many kids, even wild, undisciplined ones, do much better with clear structure, and novel,… Read more »

Emily
Guest

I really do sympathize. We have a demon, no boundaries, child in our extended family (his mother bought “stink bombs” for him which he then smuggled into our wedding and set off at the reception). So definitely set boundaries, but keep your expectations low. I would second the suggestions to think about the long term – limiting who you see and what you do on holidays. No matter how old your child is going to four houses is not reasonable for kids. If SIL’s kids are being dragged around to multiple houses on Christmas day I would EXPECT that they… Read more »

Leslie
Guest
Leslie

If you don’t want your own kids to have their own irritating issues, you need to nip your attitude about all of this in the bud. While I understand the desire to present your case and have people commiserate with how obnoxious you very plainly feel this part of your family is, you’re ultimately only casting your own issues in high relief. You know that they will irritate you at your house. It doesn’t matter if you think they should be capable of better, and you know full well that any “discipline” coming from you will only be hurtful and… Read more »

christine
Guest
christine

Wow, this is a great post. I totally agree.  

Caroline Bowman
Guest
Caroline Bowman

I don’t think expecting an 8 year old not to jump on my couch or poke my new baby is unreasonable or petty. I think it’s reasonable. Get lots of things for them to do, feed them first, ask the mom what they like (as in, show her you’re really trying to welcome her offspring), then take it as it comes. If they start doing something wildly unacceptable, ask the parents to please stop the couch jumping immediately, thank you in a really neutral way. Don’t apologise or couch it in special terms, just say ”in this house, no one… Read more »