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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 dealbreaker 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.

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 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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