Care and Feeding

I’m Worried My FIL Is Creeping on My Young Niece

His sexualized “quirks” have long made me uncomfortable, and now my niece is complaining.

Photo illustration of a woman speaking to a concerned-looking child.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I think my FIL may be creeping on my 10-year-old niece. I apologize for how long this letter is, but I feel like you need to know the background to be able to tell me whether I’m overreacting or not. My FIL has made me uncomfortable from the first moment I met him. He stands too close, gazes into my eyes, and speaks really softly like he’s whispering in my ear. If I were on a date with someone and they exhibited this body language, I would think they were about to lean in and kiss me. He also likes to give full body contact hugs that are way too long—the kind you would give your significant other if they were flying off somewhere without you. He’s well-known in his family for being strange (and a hugger), but is generally thought of as nice, so I was willing to write it off as a clash of personal boundaries—until a couple of overtly creepy encounters I had with him.

At a family Christmas party, he approached to ask if I was “into” the movie Eyes Wide Shut. The orgy scene is literally the only thing anyone can remember about the film. I can’t think of any non-creepy reason for him to ask me that, and I was so shocked I just mumbled something and walked away. After a few years of decent behavior from him, my mistrust was very slowly thawing … and then at my baby shower, he gave me some unasked-for advice about the best way to get milk out my breasts (“a real good massage” complete with massaging hand motions in the air). His current wife was sitting right next to him when he said this, and she didn’t bat an eye. I generally avoid him as much as possible, and I think my husband must have said something to him because he only tries to shake my hand when I see him now.

In light of all this, I was disturbed when my 10-year-old niece (the daughter of my SIL, who he is closest to out of my husband and his siblings) told me recently that, “Grandpa hugs me too long and it makes me uncomfortable. I want to get away, but I don’t want to be mean.” I explained that no one has the right to touch her in a way she doesn’t like, and she doesn’t need to worry about hurting someone’s feelings if they’re making her uncomfortable. I found out that her mother had already given her some good ground rules on this, and also that her mom “rescues” her from Grandpa when the hugs go on too long. I told my husband about the conversation later and he responded, “Whoa, OK. That’s not good for her to feel that way, that has to stop. I’ll talk to my sister. Hopefully, nothing else is going on.” He didn’t seem shocked or incredibly taken aback like I think you would be if this news was actually surprising. I don’t know if that’s because he already thinks his father is capable of something more and it didn’t come as a surprise, or because he thinks the too-long hugs aren’t really a big deal and that his dad just needs to know people don’t like to be hugged like that.

I don’t know if I’ve done enough for her. I don’t know if I’m overreacting to the whole situation.
To my knowledge, FIL has never molested anyone, and I don’t think any kids in the family are ever left alone with him. No one sleeps over or gets babysat by Grandpa as far as I’m aware. I just keep feeling like I’m waiting for him to cross the line because I think he might someday, given the opportunity, but if something ever happened to my niece or anyone else and I was just waiting for it, I would feel horrible. What do I do here?

—Creeped Out

Dear CO,

Tell your husband straight out that you are deeply concerned. Remind him of your own issues with his disgusting daddy and ask pointed questions about his behavior over the years: Why wasn’t he surprised by his niece’s comment? Has there ever been a case where he escalated his already problematic behavior with anyone in the family? Does he know anything about the relationship between his dad and sister that he should share? Work with your partner to figure out a way to speak to your SIL about what her daughter told you, and let her know that she should not be “rescuing” her little girl from an elderly man. There needs to be a family meeting about Grandpa’s antics and a collective effort made to either address him directly or bar him from gatherings all together. Take swift action and know that there are likely to be folks who don’t want to deal with this at all, but that the youngest girls in the family are vulnerable until you do. Best of luck, and keep us posted.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 17-year-old daughter “Robin” recently found out that a close friend/classmate, “Sarah,” has been sexually harassed by another classmate, “Mike,” for the last year. It sounds like this has included comments, repeated asking for dates, and unwanted touching. It came up because Sarah expressed discomfort about Mike’s involvement in an after-school activity that Robin and Sarah do together. Sarah is a lesbian and her girlfriend, “Margo,” later told Robin that she felt worried because she is not involved in the program and would not be there to run interference for Sarah and protect her from uncomfortable situations. At that point, Robin told Margo that the teacher supervising the activity needed to know. Margo agreed, and my kid proceeded to email the teacher involved without talking to Sarah (or me) first.

Sarah is very upset that the teacher was told and is angry at Margo and Robin. Robin told me about all this right after the email to the teacher was sent and has updated me as it has gone along. Meanwhile, I am very good friends with Sarah’s mother, who knows nothing about any of this! So far (it’s only been a few days) I haven’t said anything to my friend, but I’m trying to figure out what, if anything, I should do. My teen has apologized to Sarah, and I hope and believe the teacher will take action with Mike to make sure the harassment stops, but due to a totally reasonable need for confidentiality, we may not know what action is taken. Sarah may or may not tell her parents what is going on, but I feel conflicted about keeping this from my friend. If my kid was dealing with this, I’d want to know and would possibly be upset with a friend for keeping it from me. But on the other hand, Sarah is a senior and almost 18, so maybe it is up to her whether she wants to include her parents. What do you think my responsibility is in this situation to my friend, to my child, and to Sarah? Thank you!

—What Should Mom Do?

Dear WSMD,

Whether telling Sarah’s mom is the right thing to do or not, one thing is clear: You are raising a special daughter, one who had the presence of mind and courage to stand up for her friend even though she likely knew that it could have a negative impact on the friendship. It’s great that Robin and Margo recognized that Sarah deserved to be free from harassment because there are still so many among us who think it’s “no big deal,” that girls somehow invite it, or that Sarah’s sexuality should make her immune to Mike’s behavior. Your kid is a good friend.

Sarah’s mother should know what’s going on. This would be a tricky situation regardless of your relationship, but you have a duty as her good friend to let her know what’s happening with her daughter. Sexual harassment affects girls in many different ways: Some may find it to be little more than an unfortunate inconvenience of womanhood, while others may experience deep trauma and fear as a result. If Sarah is in need of support and/or if the school fails to adequately address the issue based on Robin’s reporting, your homegirl cannot step in if she doesn’t know what’s going on.

Let her know how sensitive things are because of Robin’s decision to reach out to a teacher without Sarah’s blessing, and put your heads together to figure out a way for her to address it without revealing that this came via Robin and her “big mouth.” Perhaps she can reach out to that teacher and explain how she found out what was happening and get them to take the fall for notifying her, or she can find a way to get the story out of Sarah. Either way, take a page from your kid’s book and do the right thing, even if it’s terribly uncomfortable. All the best to you folks and, again, go Robin!

• If you missed Tuesday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Our 8-year-old son is robustly healthy and athletic. He is an excellent swimmer. We own a Japanese soaking tub, which he loves. It’s pretty deep, but even if it’s filled to the brim, the water only comes up to his navel when he stands up in it. Some time back, my wife saw him fall asleep (with his head well above water) while sitting on the built-in seat. Ever since, she insists that he not use the tub unless he’s supervised. He doesn’t mind, but it’s a challenge for one of us (or the sitter, who has to either stay longer or not do other things we need done) to make time to stay in there with him while he soaks for 20–30 minutes. I think it’s ridiculous for a healthy 8-year-old to be continuously supervised in the bath; my wife does not. Your thoughts?

—Dry Land Dad

Dear DLD,

It only takes a few minutes for a luxurious tub nap to end in tragedy. If you don’t have time to accommodate daily baths, limit them to a couple of times a week—perhaps Monday to decompress from the stress of a new week and Friday to kick the weekend off. Write them into the sitter’s schedule so that you don’t have to deal with overtime or other things being neglected—like what, by the way? If she’s there to babysit, she has to sit with the baby! If you have other children, that’s one thing. But if it’s a matter of her, say, tidying up or washing dishes after dinner, perhaps you can find workarounds (i.e., Bathtub Night also being Pizza on Paper Plates Night).

Loud music playing may prevent an accidental nap, but it could also ruin the tranquil nature of the soaking and, depending on your son’s tolerance for noise, might not be enough to keep him awake. The same goes for using brighter bulbs in the bathroom. You can try these things a few times during supervised soaks to see, but even if they do seem to help, you should check in on him quite frequently and find things to do close enough to the bathroom that you can call out to him. Logistics aside, you’ve got an 8-year-old boy with better self-care practices than most of the adults I know—that’s pretty awesome. Cheers!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My kid is in fourth grade and just entering sleepover land. At a recent birthday for one of my kid’s best friends, I dropped them off at a jumpy castle place and then the parents of the birthday kid brought them to their house. What I realized just before I dropped off was that there were a lot of kids (10ish) at the jump castle part, but then only two kids were invited to the sleepover. There was a text to bring stuff in a backpack and NOT to bring a sleeping bag and to keep it hush-hush. This seems like a setup for hurt feelings that I unintentionally participated in.

Should I have asked how many kids were sleeping over beforehand? What happens if we get another invite with A-list and B-list groups? I don’t want my kid to think this is a cool way of organizing a party.

—Not a Happy A-Lister

Dear NaHAL,

Birthday celebrations that include an activity followed by a more private sleepover are not terribly uncommon, nor are they always indicative of social hierarchy within a friend group. It may be the case that the b-day kid has limited space at home, or that their parents were only up for the task of having a couple of extra children around. This may be a little stickier if the a.m. group consisted of 10–12 kids and the overnight one had, say, six to eight of them. Perhaps your child is one of this person’s best friends!

Alas, there will invariably be hurt feelings and disappointment at some point over these exclusive invites—just as the kids who weren’t invited to either party may be hurt about that “snub.” Explain all of this to your child, and make it clear that there will be times when they don’t make the cut for a function, which is but another reason to treat everyone with kindness and respect.

—Jamilah

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