Our niece and nephew (ages 5 and 2) run the show. Discipline isn’t enforced ever, and their parents have no control over them. They have every toy under the sun. It’s not my idea of parenting, but they aren’t my children, so I don’t meddle. They aren’t told to greet us or thank us for gifts. My niece told her dad she wouldn’t thank us for a recent present, so he thanked us instead. I don’t enjoy her, and it makes me quite sad to say that. Do I keep giving gifts and holding my lips pressed tightly together, or do I acknowledge her bad behavior and the lack of parenting she is receiving?
K.N. / Boston
You are wise to realize you can’t change this family’s unfortunate dynamic. The question, therefore, is how to minimize your stress and resentment when interacting with the Tyrannical Tots. This is doable!
First, as a practical matter, stop buying them presents if they already have everything. Give donations in their name to a worthy children’s charity instead. (I mean, of course, a charity with a good reputation that is dedicated to children’s causes, though I expect the idea of a charity exclusively for worthy children must hold some appeal given your current state of mind.) At least this way you won’t be wasting your money, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that some child, somewhere, might appreciate your efforts.
Your letter starts by talking about both children but ultimately focuses on your niece. Any change in gift policy has to apply to both of them equally, even if your nephew emerges from the terrible twos to be somewhat the nicer of the pair. (Why does your niece bother you more than her brother does? Because she’s older and should know better? Is she generally a nastier piece of work? Do you cut more slack to boys than to girls? Is there any insight to be gained by mulling these questions, K.N., or are they so much headache fodder?)
Then lower your expectations. You say it makes you sad that you don’t enjoy your niece’s company. To “enjoy” people is wonderful, but “put up with because they’re family and you love them” is acceptable, too. (Some people don’t enjoy the company of even well-behaved children. Or relatives.) Be bluff and genial with the Tots when they interact with you, cheerfully ignore them when they don’t, and cut your visit short if they become too whiny or distracting. This doesn’t mean you’re writing them off for good, just giving them and you a little bit of breathing room.
The nuisance posed by the children themselves can be managed into reasonable parameters. How is your relationship with their parents? Nothing can renew your faith in humanity more than seeing dear friends or relatives rise brilliantly to the task of parenting, revealing greater depths of resourcefulness and courage than you ever dreamed they possessed. And nothing is quite as dismaying as the opposite, when people you love raise their children to be people you can’t even like.
But we put up with family as they put up with us. Don’t let the relationship you’d like to have spoil the relationship you actually do have. Create a little space, reduce your psychological investment, and stake out your boundaries in order to maintain harmony. And allow yourself some hope for the future. Sometimes, even underparented kids figure it out on their own and become fairly decent adults. May your family be blessed with such good luck!
Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.