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
This week, the Family Whisperer responded to a question from a mother who revisits her childhood summer home (“You Can’t Go Home but You Can Grow Up. Here’s How!”)
I never had that challenge–at least not with my parents. On my wedding night, my father told me he’d sold our summer house. I was disappointed, but part of me was also relieved.. I remembered what happened when my much-older siblings came for the summer with their families. Continue reading article →
This week’s Dear Family Whisperer column, “How To Not Be the “Bad Guy,” hit home. Times have changed–men are more involved in childcare today. To his credit, my husband loved kids and was more hands-on than many fathers in the 1970s. He took our children to the playground on Saturday mornings and, once, even held down the fort for nearly three weeks when I went to India. But for the most part I was “the heavy”–the bad cop– who decided what was good for the kids. Not surprisingly, when we became a “family apart,” still co-parenting but in separate households, our different standards and problem-solving approaches magnified.
I’ve since peeked into many other families’ lives and have come to understand that the push-me-pull-you between parents–married or divorced–can be better understood with “family think.” Continue reading article →
I’m a child of divorce. My husband and I have 3 year old twins. This will be our fifth Father’s Day together, and I’m dreading it…once again. Between us we have three “fathers” – two biological fathers and my step-dad. My father left when I was twelve, and lived far away from our family until last year. He is getting older, apparently has some regrets, and says he wants to be closer to the boys. I’m trying to trust him, because I’d like him in my life, but I’m skeptical and still angry at him. My step-dad has been more like a real father to me, and since my mother’s death last year, he’s alone. My husband isn’t particularly close to his parents, who live an hour away, but he feels he “owes” it to his dad to spend Father’s Day with him. How do we make everyone happy?
Your situation is not just because of divorce. It’s familiar to most married couples who have at least two dads to consider on Father’s Day. However, you’re also dealing with past hurts that obviously cause you pain. Still, this Father’s Day doesn’t have to be a disaster.
First, stop thinking of yourself as a “child of divorce.” You’re an adult. Focus first on what’s best for the family you created. What does Fathers Day mean to you and your husband? Is it a time to honor your fathers or your husband’s new role? Is it also an opportunity for your twins to know their grandfathers? 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 →
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.
When my own daughter and son, 3 1/2 years apart, were children–during the pre-car seat era–they sat in the back of our car, unrestrained. We tended to plan trips to coincide with nap time. It almost always worked. They’d flop onto one another and, usually, fall asleep. We never worried that it was unsafe. It gave us time to talk. An hour or so later, we’d hear the inevitable “Are we there yet?” And we usually were.
Things have changed since them–kids can’t cuddle in car seats, video games tend to keep them awake. But the car is still one of the best places to talk and to build memories–a sacred space of connection for families-in-perpetual-motion. Continue reading article →
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,
I’m 13, and during the recent search for colleges, my sister has become very stressed. She has breakdowns on a weekly basis, crying about how she’ll never get in anywhere. Because of this, my parents haven’t paid any attention to me for over a month. At dinner, they just talk to my sister. They sometimes forget to pick me up from school, even though I’m half a block away. They apologize for forgetting, but I really feel like I don’t matter anymore. Any suggestions?
Welcome to family life, Neglected Son! I love your question, because many children feel this way at one time or another. That’s because a family is a group of “I’s — individuals — who are very different from one another and need different things at different times. Everyone should get equal attention — not just the kids; the adults, too. But sometimes, the balance tips in one person’s direction.
My dear daughter (DD), who is almost six, is generous by nature. She even had a party for her fifth birthday where she collected donations for a local shelter instead of receiving presents. She has never been showered with gifts and doesn’t ever watch TV with commercials (we only have Netflix). Even so, she seems to be more and more acquisitive lately. I notice a lot of sentences starting with “I want a …” and “Buy me a….” How can we combat this without making her feel like she doesn’t have the right to ask for things and, at the same time, teach her about the value of money? She doesn’t currently receive an allowance but she does receive cash from time to time. –Spending-wary Mom
Dear Spending-wary Mom,
Congratulations! Being mindful of overindulgence is half the battle. Not showering your daughter with gifts right-sizes her expectations. And a good-deed birthday party lets her experience giving. But beware: Subscribing to commercial-free TV won’t completely shut out the culture.