Almost every Dear Family Whisperer question I answer hits close to home, because I live and deal with many of the same issues. However, this week’s, “Overcoming Four Difficult Truths About Your Grandchild’s Parents,” was one of my most challenging to answer. In varying degrees–many less blatant–I’ve heard similar stories from other grandparents. More importantly, I’ve experienced the generational divide myself. I have and continue to inhabit many family roles: daughter, sister, niece, wife, mother, aunt, partner–and, most recently, grandmother, which might be the most challenging of all! Continue reading article
Dear Family Whisperer
I cannot seem to navigate the bumpy landscape of parenting differences between my brother’s and my family. We LOVED the idea of our kids growing up together as cousins and spent a lot of time during the baby years. Our differences were obvious then and have become even more so. They allow a lot of technology in their home, they eat differently and their discipline is very different. That’s their choice, but I don’t want to be called out because of what I do or don’t do — for example, let my 4-year-old wear lip gloss. My niece and nephew run amok in my home, and nobody corrects them. Worse still, my brother and sister-in-law get angry if my husband or I say something (“We don’t use language like that here, darling”). If we ask the kids not to pick up the dog (which we repeatedly have to do) or bring popsicles into the living room, the parents roll their eyes. If they don’t correct their children, what choice do we have? They seem angry at us for our (by today’s standards) more conservative lifestyle, and it has driven a wedge between us. I don’t see why we can’t just respect each other’s boundaries and house rules, and support each other.
-Stressed Out Sister/Sister-in-law
The “wedge” you describe is a matter of family “style.” You perceive the world differently from your brother and sister-in-law. When you see lip gloss on a young child you think inappropriate; they think cute. You have different levels of tolerance for chaos and disarray. No wonder spending time in each other’s homes has become increasingly challenging!
The best way to “navigate” your differences is to acknowledge that you can’t change them. You can’t control anyone’s beliefs or behavior except your own. But if you start to act more accepting and respectful, your brother and sister-in-law might, too. Continue reading article →
We do everything we can for our kids — a girl, now 5, and a boy, 3. They are our number one priority. But we have let slip time as a couple, and I am unsure how to balance it out so we all get what we need. Is it even possible with two kids and a busy mum and dad? Our son possibly has ADHD (not diagnosed and not sure we will even go down the assessment route yet), but that at times makes it even harder to keep the focus on all of us, not just one member. Any tips would be great!
Dear Lonely Wife,
Your relationship is the foundation on which your family rests. Of course, you need to take care of your kids. But of the most effective child-rearing strategies, “stress management” (taking care of yourself) and “having a good relationship with the other parent” (taking care of your marriage) are second only to love and affection.
Being parents is challenging, especially when a child has a problem. One study found that couples whose children had ADHD were twice as likely to divorce. That doesn’t mean your marriage is doomed. But it’s reason to consciously allot some of your family “resources” — time, attention, and energy- – to your relationship. You need each other to sort through the confusion and make good choices. Continue reading article →
Asking a parent whether he or she has a favorite is a loaded question. Just thinking about it makes some parents uneasy. One woman seemed angry:
Sorry but you can’t have a favorite child. That’s not right!”
We’re not supposed to “play favorites”–treat one child better than the others. The mother who wrote this answer represents what I sense is the popular view:
Every child is special in their own way. You love one for the softness of her heart. You love the next for his strength. You love all your children for where they are.
I hope this question comes under family whispering! My 4-year-old, Hanna [name changed], is constantly biting her nails, and it drives me crazy. I do it, my hubby does it and my mum even does it! It is such a difficult habit to break! I’ve tried ignoring it totally. I’ve tried telling her she can bite her nails, but she must go into the bathroom (she would often just take herself to there to do it. LOL). I’ve tried telling her that I don’t want to see her biting her nails, as she is hurting her little fingers.The bottom line is she knows I hate it, even if I allow it to happen and pretend not to be bothered. Would love to know your thoughts on this.
Dear Nail-Biting Mom,
If I dreamed up questions for this column, I couldn’t have imagined a better one to illustrate the importance of focusing on the whole family! When you see Hanna biting her nails, you’re not just looking at your child. You’re seeing your own childhood. Perhaps you have memories of your mother biting her nails or kids teasing you as a teenager. You also married a nail-biter. No wonder it “drives [you] crazy.”
You’re already thinking like a parent and have taken several sensible steps: trying to ignore it, being careful not to shame Hanna, offering her a nail-biting space to limit the behavior. Now also try thinking like a family whisperer.
Instead of focusing solely on Hanna, reframe nail-biting — rightfully — as an issue that concerns all of you. Nail-biting runs in families. Some evidence points to a genetic component, but environment plays a role, too. Children absorb emotions and messages from their household. Hanna wants to be like the grownups she loves.
In the Mind of a Child Nail-BiterIn “Nail Biting: Mental Disorder Or Just A Bad Habit?” science reporter Amy Standen recalls the “exact moment” she started. “I was 6 years old, watching my mom get dressed for work. She paused to mull something over, chewing on a nail. My reaction: ‘How cool! How grown-up! I think I’ll try it.'”
Take on nail-biting as a family challenge. Set aside a time to sit down together. (If she’s willing, include your mother, too.) Explain to Hanna (in your own words): “You know that Daddy and I get upset when you bite your nails. It’s not only because we don’t want you to hurt your fingers or get sick from the germs on your hands. It’s because we all bite our nails, including Grandma.”
Hanna isn’t too young to understand that everyone has little “tricks” to comfort themselves when they need to relax. Maybe she has a stuffed animal or a “binky” she loves. Be honest: “For some people, biting their nails feels good. But it’s a habit — something we do without thinking–and that’s why it’s really hard to stop. Maybe we can help each other.”
Recall your own experiences (“Grannie put yucky-tasting stuff on my fingers when I was little,” “I used to hide in my closet, so no one would see me do it.”). Encourage your husband and mother to participate as well. You might be afraid, as many parents are, of giving your little one “ideas” or drawing too much attention to nail-biting. But even at 4 — as you point out — she is already aware that you “hate it.”
Discussing nail-biting as a family will not only take the spotlight and pressure off Hanna, it will broaden her vocabulary of ideas and emotions. Talking about times and circumstances when you tend to gnaw on your nails — watching TV, after an argument, when you’re worried, bored or tired — will encourage her to be more aware of her behavior.
Together, brainstorm strategies that support habit-breaking. For example, distraction is a key component of self-control. How can you keep your hands busy? You might buy or make a “fidget toy” for everyone, like a squishy ball or homemade bean bag. Or perhaps there’s a craft that all or some of you can try together. If Grandma is a knitter, she can teach the whole family.
Because nail-biting — in an adult or child — can be stress-related, also pay attention to what else is happening in and to your family. Problems at work, illness or any disruption to your normal routine can heighten everyone’s sense of vulnerability. Instead of biting your nails, dial down the tension. Eat well, get enough sleep and exercise and make an extra effort to have more fun and down time.
Monitor your progress — post a chart with each of your names — and find ways to reward yourselves. Of course, strategies that work for one family member might not work for another. For example, a weekly manicure might not appeal to Dad! However, the way you take on this challenge is less important than the fact that you do it together.
One caveat: While warning signs, such as bleeding fingers, cuticles ripped raw and chronic infections, should be taken seriously, quitting should be Hanna’s decision.Multiple studies link childhood anxiety disorders with parents’ “intrusiveness” and unwillingness to allow children’s independence. Thus, it’s best to guide Hanna by being a power of example and give her opportunities to show how capable she is.
Dear Family Whisperer,
It’s the same every year. They bring me breakfast in bed, and I get a 24-hour break from my normal routine. It’s as if my husband has been replaced by an alien who does the dishes without reminding. The kids hand me homemade cards that bring tears to my eyes. But what about the rest of the year? The other 364 days, I’m constantly schlepping, catching up on chores, remembering and reminding. I often feel alone and overwhelmed. Sometimes, I try to get my DH to do more and the kids, who are 8 and 11, to at least clean their own rooms. But mostly, I just accept that I’m stuck with the whole enchilada. What else can I do?
Dear Resentful Mom,
There is a different way that will change your perspective and your attitude: Adopt a family-centered version of “motherhood.” When they wake you with a tray of pancakes and roses and handmade cards this year, thank them and tell them how much you appreciate them. But also use the moment to usher in a new year of family consciousness in which everyone — not just you — is responsible for getting through the day. Your children (and DH) can do more than you realize.
Start with these five important resolutions that will make your life easier throughout the year, improve your marriage, help your kids become capable and competent and make your family stronger as well.
1. I will remind myself that I matter. There’s an “I” in family — a collection of them. Each I deserves to get what he or she needs… including you! Like many women, you’ve probably internalized the message that “mothering” means Doing It All. But think of the “lessons” you are inadvertently teaching the future adults in your household — your children.
How do you get an egocentric 3 ½ year old to engage with the concept of family? At the moment it’s ALL about him. If, for example, DH [dear husband] or I are trying to do write the weekly food shopping list and DS [dear son] wants to do something else, he repeatedly whines at us,”But I want to do X.” I know we should be getting him to help out, but there are only a few things he’ll help with and other things he absolutely won’t! He is pretty stubborn (his preschool teacher say this too) and only likes to do what he likes to do. He does fully understand about helping, he’s great at sharing and has good empathy, so I’m sure he can “get it,” but we’re at a loss about how to do it!
-Mother of a “King Baby”
Dear Mother of a “King Baby,”
My colleague, the late Tracy Hogg, warned new parents not to allow their infant to become “King Baby.” Young children see the world through me-me-me eyes and yours already seems savvy about getting his way. He feels eclipsed by a shopping list because it’s not about him.
But we shouldn’t fault his age or personality or even how you’ve parented him. Self-centeredness is part of the human condition. We adults aren’t necessarily less inclined to unleash our “egocentric tendencies.” We are simply more efficient than children at correcting our self-centeredness.
Dear Family Whisperer,
How can I get my in-laws to mind their own business regarding my child-rearing philosophies?
– Annoyed Daughter-in-law
Dear Annoyed Daughter-in-law,
A great question–and an age-old family dilemma. In-laws–for better or worse. At best they’re like parents (assuming you get along well with your parents!) At worst, you feel they’ve always got an eye on you, saying or implying, “That’s not how I’d do it.” Think Robert deNiro, playing Ben Stillrt’s father-in-law in Meet the Fockers.
Parenting has become an Olympic sport. If you’re like most moms today, you’re already self-conscious and stressed out. And if that’s the case, the mere hint of disagreement from your MIL might tap into your worst fear: I’m not doing this right.
Instead of worrying about your mother-in-law’s judgment, focus on improving your relationship. That will change everything.
The key to making and maintaining any relationship—with our partners, our children, or our “other significant others” (parents, siblings, in-laws)—is to get “REAL.” REAL stands for four critical traits that makes us “better” at relationships: responsibility, empathy, authenticity, and love. So, in dealing with your MIL, you need to;
1) Take responsibility. All relationships are the “co-creation” of two people. The connection between you and your mother-in-law isn’t just about her. You also bring something to the table. Figure out what it is. Then, try to slow yourself down and before you say or do anything, ask yourself, Is this going to better our relationship? If the answer is no, edit yourself.
2) Be empathetic. Step in her shoes, understand where she’s coming from. And while you’re at it, cut her some slack. People often criticize what they don’t understand.
3) Be authentic. Be a real person whom your MIL can get to know. Talk about what matters to you, how you came to be who you are. You don’t have to apologize for the way you parent. Just calmly state how you do things. Listen, too. You don’t have to do or agree to anything that goes against who you are but you might find some kernels of truth and wisdom in your MIL’s perspective.
4) Lead with love. Give her the benefit of the doubt. Come from the wisest, most mature part of yourself—the part that wants a good relationship. Your MIL is a stranger in many respects-all you have in common are her son and her grandchildren (which is to say a lot). If you get to know her better, and she gets to know you, things between you won’t be quite as black and white.
Your relationship will never be “perfect”—no relationship is. But if you work at it, you will find common ground (your child, her grandchild), and you can—ideally—learn from each other.
Have a family question for Melinda Blau? Tweet #DearFamilyWhisperer or email us at DearFamilyWhisperer@familywhispering.com. Check back next week to see if your question is featured here and on the Huffington Post! Real names will not be used, no topics off limits. Adults and children welcome. These columns are brief. You’ll find more in FAMILY WHISPERING, co authored by Melinda and (the late) Tracy Hogg. Also check out the website: FamilyWhispering.com and follow @MelindaBlau.
Dear Family Whisperer,
When our friends with kids ask us to meet for a dinner at 8 p.m., I feel kind of reluctant to say we can’t go out because our 4-year-old son needs his sleep and his routine. The problem is, children here (in Italy) go to bed later. They make up for lost sleep in school, where nap time is maintained until children are 5 or 6. I sometimes wonder if we would be better off going with the flow — letting him stay up later, not taking away his afternoon nap — because it would give us more opportunities for a social life… Dinner with other children in a restaurant with a playground would be a great experience for him, and it’s a pity for him not to go. Sometimes we do, but the day after is a bit hit and miss. How can we find a compromise between maintaining a routine that fits our child’s needs — in my opinion, he cannot go to bed at 11 p.m. — and, at the same time, enjoy social experiences as a family?
— Culturally Challenged Mom
Dear Culturally Challenged Mom,
The social life you describe — and what I’ve read about Italian parenting — remind me of families I’ve interviewed in France, where children are part of the constellation, not its dominant stars. At grown-up gatherings, the kids behave. When they don’t, most parents seem to take it in stride.
Perhaps what you’re looking for is “balance,” not compromise. This needn’t be an either/or choice between sticking to your routine or having a social life. To be sure, a predictable daily routine is as essential to “familying” as it is to parenting. But it’s also important to be flexible.
Family whispering is about tuning in and considering everyone’s needs and vulnerabilities, not just your son’s.
Will both generations, parents and grandparents, become involved in the weekly discussions of family?
This question occurred to me as I was enjoying yesterday’s debut of Dear Family Whisperer, now a weekly column on the Huffington Post. The first three installments were “published” on this site. I had asked Tracy’s fans (members of the online forum she launched a decade ago) if they would help me launch a Dear-Abby-type column about family issues, and they came up with great questions. Mothers in the thick of hands-on parenting–in their 30s, 40s, and 50s–they want answers about sibling rivalry, what to do when a parent is physically or mentally ill, how to resolve couple differences about parenting practices, how to tame a mother-in-law.
Now that Dear Family Whisperer is visible to a larger audience, I wonder who will metaphorically raise their hands and what will they ask about? Continue reading article →