Dear Prudence

Help! How Do I Get My Sister to Stop Worrying About Her Perfectly Normal Stepson?

Dear Prudence answers more of your questions—only for Slate Plus members.

Q. First steps: My sister is the stereotypical internet social justice warrior (cares a lot about the “right things,” but kind of focuses on the minutiae that irritate people). She has also recently married a (very nice!) woman with an 8-year-old son, and is now very focused on being a good parent. Unfortunately, she seems kind of … pessimistic about my nephew? He’s a nice kid from what I’ve seen last year and over Zoom, but he’s a kid. So he misbehaves. He fibs. He gets into disputes with other children. Every time he does my sister gets on the phone to me to talk about how this is the “first step” to him becoming a predator. He tricked one of the little girls next door into swapping a toy for a bag of toffee. That was apparently a sign he didn’t respect consent and would become a date rapist. He fibbed on the internet that he had a pony, then committed to the lie to the point he invited other children to come and visit the pony, and that means he’s going to be an internet predator.

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I have tried to talk her down about this stuff, but it never seems to stick. Obviously, my nephew needs to learn not to fib or play tricks on other kids, but it seems like pretty normal stuff to me, a nonparent. I don’t know how to get through to her. Should I even persist with her, or just assume that this is new-stepparenting nerves? To be honest, I’m on the verge of being really concerned about my nephew. It doesn’t seem great to grow up in a household where one caregiver thinks you are one step away from becoming a predator. I know that this could be COVID magnification, since I’m not meeting them in person, but I don’t know. Just for clarity I’ve not seen anything with my nephew that suggests he is emotionally troubled. He loves animals, he is patient with younger kids, and he doesn’t try to upset or hurt other kids on purpose.

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Your sister’s response to pretty age-appropriate little kid misbehavior is worrying, and the fact that she’s brought it up to you so often gives you grounds to do a little more than just try to “talk her down” again. I realize that people are sensitive about getting parenting advice (especially from nonparents) at the best of times, and your sister sounds more sensitive than average, so you should expect some initial defensiveness. If you want to do the “compliment sandwich” thing, I think that’s fine, and you can also stress it’s clear how much she cares about her stepson. But you should bring it up as a recurring issue, rather than waiting for the next episode, and stress how important it is for little kids to know they can mess up without forfeiting their parents’ trust and affection, that it doesn’t mean they’re no longer “good” or “worthy.”

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If she’s really defensive at first, you can back off and ask her simply to consider what you’ve said; if she’s able to hear what you’re saying you can ask about what her wife thinks and maybe even affectionately remind her of the sort of misbehavior you got up to when you were both her stepson’s age (but read the room there; if she’s not ready for a joke yet, it’ll backfire). Treating an 8-year-old like he’s on a slippery slope to being a Charles Dickens villain just can’t be good for an 8-year-old, and you should take this opportunity to encourage your sister to recalibrate her reaction to him. He’s just a little boy, and she can help encourage good behavior without treating him like he’s about to single-handedly inherit every social evil imaginable.

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