Care and Feeding

Exiting the Scene

My in-laws fight everywhere, and I don’t want my kids to see it. Can I keep them apart?

Grandparents fighting
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My MIL and FIL are kind, highly educated, successful people who, for reasons I’ll never understand, get into the most contentious, over-the-top, dramatic, and humiliating fights with each other in public, all the damn time. Before this goes further, I’d like to clarify that I have never seen it become physical (yet!), but it’s still terrible. They fight everywhere, over everything: in public, on Christmas, on vacation, after church, out to dinner with my parents, everywhere.

Do you know what it’s like to have your senior citizen in-laws dissolve into barbed verbal sparring inside of a Denny’s? And for that to dissolve into screaming at each other in the Denny’s parking lot? I probably could have dealt with this as “not my business” since my husband does not emulate this behavior, but we have two kids. My family is “Minnesota Nice” and even though my parents divorced, they made a point to present a loving and unified front to me and my siblings. We’ve been living across the country, but now we are back, and only a 45-minute drive from Grandma and Grandpa Train Wreck.

Over the holidays, they fought while holding my kids, feeding my kids, putting my kids into winter clothes, taking pictures with my kids, and building gingerbread houses with my kids (who are currently 3 and 1). I don’t want to keep my kids away from their grandparents, but something has to give. I attempted to redirect and act like a buffer, but they are absolutely shameless and can’t be kept from fighting for long. I eventually broke down and begged them to stop fighting, which lead to the “lie, lie, deny” act of “We have no idea what you’re talking about.” They want to see the grandbabies all the time, but I can’t take any more of this incredibly chaotic and dysfunctional dynamic. Please help!

—Jerry Springer Never Saw Grandparents Like This

Dear JSNSGLT,

I am laughing a little bit because now I am picturing the cast of Cocoon throwing down in a Denny’s parking lot, but this is obviously terrible and of course you need help!

You gotta pack up and leave. Forty-five minutes away is a perfect distance for this maneuver. I need you to tell these two twits that you’re incredibly frustrated with their fighting ruining every visit, and you don’t want your children hearing and witnessing this kind of dysfunction. (I would prefer it if your husband could bring himself to deliver this homily, but the situation is wildly unacceptable and one of you will have to be the bad guy either way.)

Make it clear that the minute things go south, you are gone. I don’t care if the kids are in half a snowsuit or at the beginning of a Grand Slam breakfast; they can be in the car in under five minutes flat if you are sufficiently motivated. Repeat until you break their spirits.

This is one of those “We teach people how to treat us” moments that Dr. Phil was right about. (He’s wrong about plenty but dead right on that score.) You need to be the family members who will not put up with their shit, and since you hold all the cards (the grandkids), they’ll have to get it together or face the consequences.

They sound just awful, but either during your initial “You cannot act this way in front of my children” speech or after the next blowup, please talk to them about their desperate need for therapy. It’s up to you and your husband if you want that to be a stern recommendation or a mandatory edict, but I would feel like a piece was missing if I didn’t mention it.

These people! The Denny’s parking lot! You’ll be in my prayers.

Dear Care and Feeding,

While there is a long laundry list of ways my parenting style (and overall approach to life) differs wildly from my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, I’ll limit it to one issue in particular.

I firmly believe there is a difference between the inevitability of kids getting sick because kids and school and irresponsible parents who are lazy about germ spreading. Sending your kid to preschool with a low-grade fever because you can’t take off work without losing your job? Inevitable and normal, as much as it sucks for everyone.

Bringing your actively green-snotting and coughing kid to my house without warning, wiping said green snots with a napkin, THEN USING THE SAME NAPKIN SECONDS LATER to wipe my toddler’s mouth? Lazy. And gross. Which is exactly what my sister-in-law did, and exactly the type of thing she does regularly. My daughter gets an ear infection with every single cold, which means a trip to the doctor for antibiotics and time off work for me. Spoiler alert: This happened a few days ago, and we are both well into Cold Territory. Is it a huge deal? Of course not. But it was so easily preventable.

Also? My mother-in-law regularly SUCKS MY DAUGHTER’S THUMB because she thinks it’s “cute” since my daughter sucks her own thumb. I have always been a Type B, “whatever” kind of gal, but this makes me squirm. Why would anyone suck a child’s finger? Am I insane for thinking this is gross? Look, I kiss my kid on the lips 100 times a day, but this is just … yeeesh.

They have been doing stuff like this since my daughter was 3 weeks old, when she caught her first cold and had a close call with respiratory syncytial virus, which terrified the living daylights out of me and my husband. We generally keep a wide berth when we can, but since we can’t make it a permanent one (we do love them of course, and they live nearby), please tell me how I can politely address this with them. I have generally been rendered speechless when these things happen as my soul completely exits my body in dread, and plus I know they think I’m uptight (among other things), so I usually just limit my bitching to my husband, who agrees with me.

We’re expecting a second child this year, so I want to be firmer on my “Please don’t be careless about spreading germs. It’s actually not that hard to be conscious of other tiny humans” stance. But I don’t want to be an asshole.

—Not Into Hosting Typhoid Mary

Dear NIHTM,

That is … completely disgusting. THE SAME NAPKIN? Sucking the BABY’S thumb? What the hell! No, of course this is not acceptable conduct. Wow, what a great week for telling people to firm up their very reasonable boundaries!

Look, babies and small children really do get sick all the time, because their damp little hands and faces touch everything they come into contact with. Which is why we do what we can to minimize direct contact with people who are actively draining mucus out of their faces.

You think that being “the uptight one” makes it hard to say something, but my dear, it actually makes it easier. They’re always going to think you’re the uptight one, so DON THAT MANTLE GLADLY. Be more uptight!

If you are planning to visit, or they ask to visit you, ask if anyone in the group you’ll be seeing is sick. If they say yes, you can say you’ll reschedule. If they lie about not being sick, you get to get back in the car or usher them out to theirs. You do not bring sick children to someone else’s home unless in the direst of circumstances.

I am sure you do not need me to spell out to you the correct avenue for dealing with THUMB-SUCKING GRANDMA at this point, but I’ll do so anyway: “Mildred, don’t suck her thumb. It’s unhygienic.” Raise your voice if you get ignored. No one finds this behavior acceptable.

Having two women you have very little respect for believe that you are uptight is meaningless. You will be the uptight one who skips RSV.

• If you missed Wednesday’s Care and Feeding column, click here to read it.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

This hasn’t become an issue for my family just yet, but it will soon enough, so I figured I’d get a jump on it: What are your policies on determining what is an appropriate movie to show children other than your own kids (i.e., your kids’ friends)? And how do you handle it if it turns out you show a kid something her parent didn’t want them to see?

The background: I’m an avid movie buff with a very large movie collection (about 2,000 Blu-rays/DVDs as well as many movies streaming). Needless to say, many of these films are perfectly age-appropriate for even the smallest of children, and many of them are not. (Among other things, I’m a horror fan.) My kids are currently 4 and 1, so it hasn’t really been a concern yet. But as the kids (and their friends) get older, the topic of what to show them will become a bigger (and grayer) issue.

My thoughts are:

• House rule: You cannot watch anything without first asking for permission from me or my wife.

• Rely on the ratings system where we can—e.g., a 13-year-old is free to watch a PG-13 movie without seeking her parents’ permission (absent pre-existing knowledge about the parents’ preferences to the contrary), while a 10-year-old is not.

• Defer to any known parental rules (e.g., if I know a parent has a “no sci-fi” rule, however weird I may find it, I’ll honor it) and any known kid proclivities (e.g., taking into account knowledge that a kid is particularly fright-averse).

• Beyond the above, use our best judgment.

I feel like that’s about as much control as we can hope to exert. Kids are sometimes going to break the rules and watch things without asking or after we’ve said no, and there will always be the unexpectedly skittish kid or the parent who didn’t communicate his anti–Mary Poppins stance in advance, but there’s not much to be done about that. Nonetheless, the fear of an avoidable confrontation or soured relationship as the result of little Johnny’s premature viewing of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre persists. (I also don’t want any such situations to turn accusatory if possible: I feel like part of being a parent is letting go of what you can’t control outside your own home, but I know not all parents feel similarly, and I worry that the uncommunicated anti–Mary Poppins stance might be met less than graciously by me in the moment.) Any advice on anything else we should do or prepare for on this front as our kids age?

—The Projectionist

Dear Projectionist,

Would you have any interest in writing a parenting advice column? Because you have arrived at a truly excellent and intuitive set of rules for showing movies to other people’s children! I award you a gold star and a bag of popcorn. Please enjoy the warmth of my approval.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I need some help on how to handle other children hitting my son. We were out at a play area today, and a child hit our son, who is 2, when he tried to use a toy. The mom quickly stepped in and told him not to hit, and our son was unfazed and kept playing. My husband and I stayed close but didn’t address it since our son didn’t really react. Did we do the right thing? Should we have done something else? I keep replaying it in my mind and wish I had said something to him then, but I don’t know what besides just a general “That wasn’t nice and he should have said sorry.”

—Punch Drunk

Dear PD,

Sounds like a normal Tuesday morning for toddlers. I definitely recommend not doing a performative “He should have said sorry” within earshot of the young prize-fighter in question; it’s a super annoying thing parents do to let other parents know they’ve dropped the ball.

Apologies are great, but his mom intervened and that is plenty, honestly. Please do not waste another moment of your life dwelling on this incident.

—Nicole

Ask a Teacher

Our daughter is in kindergarten. While she’s doing well by all academic markers, and her teacher confirms that she’s very well-behaved in class, she’s completely miserable. Per her reports, her teacher yells a lot at the other kids, and at the whole class. What can we do?