Care and Feeding

My Mother-in-Law Is Way Too Strict With My Perfectly Normal Child

She lives with us now, and the unfair disciplining is out of control.

Older woman wagging her finger
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by lisafx/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,

My children (10, 8, 6, and 5) have been attending school virtually since March. Our 5-year-old misses his friends and the in-person nature of school, but has been doing very well in long-distance kindergarten. He’s always been a little bit behind (within normal parameters) for self-regulating and similar skills, but he’s not regressed too much.

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My mother-in-law moved in with us in August, for the foreseeable future, and my partner and I have noticed that she treats the 5-year-old differently than she did the others at the same age, especially when it comes to discipline. He is generally happy, though definitely not an easygoing child. However, she is much stricter with him in what we feel is not an age-appropriate manner, and she doesn’t deny treating him differently. It’s because “all she sees is an angry child who’s headed down a bad path and needs serious help NOW.” He’s a 5-year-old who misses his friends and school. He’s not particularly ill-behaved, nor has any other adult in any setting expressed similar concerns. His reaction to her discipline is to escalate his upset behavior.

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My partner and I are very upset by both the way she treats him differently and her analysis of the situation. We’ve tried to speak with her, individually and together, and have not gotten anywhere. We have tried to tell her to call one of us in to discipline him, but she does not do so consistently. Any advice on how to deal with this divide?

—Seeking Fairness

Dear Seeking Fairness,

Of course your child is upset and angry—a member of his family has chosen to be obnoxious to him and him alone! Yes, there are grandparents who play favorites and even grandparents who are downright hostile, but to have this daily negative impact on his life, in his household (at a time when he cannot even get out and go to school for part of the day!), is just an impossible, unsustainable situation for your kid. Even if your MIL were right about him needing more help or support, the course would then be for her to discuss this calmly and respectfully with you, not try to intimidate him into being whatever her version of an ideal 5-year-old is.

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She needs to hear and understand how seriously upset you and your partner are about this, and that it is unacceptable to specifically target your youngest child and discipline him in ways that you, his parents, don’t find appropriate. Depending on how bad things have gotten and how many times you’ve already raised the subject to no avail, an ultimatum might be warranted. Your house, your kids, your rules—your MIL can treat all your children with basic decency, or she shouldn’t be sharing a roof with them. I don’t know what her inappropriate “discipline” looks like, but if she has ever struck your 5-year-old, of course you shouldn’t allow her to be around him. If what she’s doing has escalated to emotional abuse, that could also damage your son’s behavior and development, his self-esteem, and his ability to feel safe and loved. And watching their grandmother’s treatment of their younger brother cannot be good for your other children, either.

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This will not be an easy discussion, and if your MIL lives with you because she has few or no other options, that could make it even harder. But your obligation to your 5-year-old child, to his mental and emotional health and well-being, outweighs your obligation to a grown adult—even a parent.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My kids, 10 and 7, are both enthusiastic readers, and the 7-year-old loves to read his big sister’s tween stories. Sometimes, this is great (he’s really into Raina Telgemeier). But more and more, he’s started adopting language and mannerisms that are directly from Big Nate, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, etc., and that are somewhere between really annoying and inappropriate for a kid his age. He uses “shut up,” “stupid,” and “idiot” frequently, and has started responding to his Zoom classroom’s “good morning”s with a very affected “‘sup.” He doesn’t really have other social interactions right now, so he’s not picking these up from other kids.

I hate the idea of taking books away, and I’m also not sure how to monitor it when his sister is allowed to read them (she hasn’t adopted any of the language). I guess I’m asking—are the books the problem? Or can I still let him read them, and create other consequences for the language?

—Banning Books in Boston?

Dear BBB,

Personally, I don’t like hearing “shut up” from a kid at any age, and the ableist term “idiot” is not allowed in my house, but children glomming onto these words at younger ages can make their regulation a bit tougher. When you talk with your son, I would explicitly name the problem with the language, as opposed to focusing on the books: Ordering someone to “shut up” is rude; “stupid” and “idiot” are words that can really hurt people. Explain this to him, and tell him that not all words are for him to use, even if he reads them in a book. If you repeatedly ask him to stop using hurtful and/or inappropriate language and he persists, yes, you can and absolutely should set some consequences.

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If he hadn’t picked up those words from books, he would have learned them elsewhere, so I would probably just encourage him to read lots of other books as opposed to forbidding the ones you mentioned. I will point out that not giving your 7-year-old unlimited access to all the books he can technically read doesn’t necessarily make you a book censor, or mean that you think those books or authors are without merit. You are within your rights to help your kid find books that’ll be good for him right now; you aren’t going to be monitoring his reading forever. Obviously he, like all of us, will be exposed to rude or inappropriate or hurtful words for the rest of his life—right now, the key is to help him start thinking more critically about language, how we use it, the power it wields. Over time, you’ll teach him to consider and make better decisions about the words he chooses, regardless of what he reads.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a working mother of three amazing kids. My youngest daughter is 10 months old and—at her birth—was diagnosed with a very rare genetic disorder that brings with it a wide range of physical and intellectual disabilities. My husband and I feel overwhelmed and scared, but we love our daughter unconditionally and feel determined to build a fun, fulfilling, and happy life for our family.

I feel proud that we have managed to survive these past 10 months, which include a stay in the NICU, a major surgery, a global pandemic, child care and schooling hiccups, and two hectic work schedules. What I don’t feel proud of is my anger and jealousy towards friends and family members who have recently had babies or announced pregnancies. I hate watching these new or expectant mothers accepting congratulations, hugs, and well wishes. I hate seeing pictures of healthy newborns. I can’t stand to read baby announcements. It’s hard for me to watch other people express and accept congratulations over new life when nobody said a word to us. Friends either ignored us or avoided conversations about our new baby. We received pitying text messages and notes of condolence. Even visits to the pediatrician were sad and depressing.

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How do I get over this? How do I set up a happy life for my family while I’m secretly harboring such anger and resentment? How do we rejoin a world that would rather ignore us? Where do we go from here?

—Invisible Mother

Dear Invisible Mother,

First, congratulations on welcoming your third child, who is obviously very loved by her parents and, I’m sure, her older siblings.

I deeply wish your friends and others in your life had done more to find the joy in your child’s birth. Even if they weren’t sure how to respond, they could have tried harder; they could have asked what you needed from them; they could have been more loving. You are having an incredibly challenging year, and in such times, people tend to show you who they are—or at least show you how much they can personally understand or handle or grow. Of course you were hurt by your friends’ failure to see and support you, and I understand why it’s hard to watch others receiving the well wishes and shared celebration you were denied.

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Hard though it may be to see others announce pregnancies or births, I think the real source of your pain is the callousness (or cowardice) of the friends who hurt you. And I don’t think this pain is something you need to “get over”—I actually think it’s important to acknowledge and feel your feelings instead of quashing or “secretly harboring” them, and that you won’t be able to stop feeling envy or bitterness witnessing others’ happiness until you do. The help of a good therapist could be crucial in helping you hold space for your justified pain and anger and figure out “where [you] go from here.” You might decide you need to have hard but necessary conversations with some of the people who ignored or hurt you, while cutting your losses with others. I can’t say exactly what will feel right for you, what will allow you to move forward without denying your feelings or your fears. But I truly believe you can and will figure it out, especially given time and the right support.

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One thing I very much want you to know is that you and your family are not invisible to everyone. I see you, and others will, too. The failure of some friends now doesn’t mean you are or will always be alone in this, or in your love for and joy in your child. Already your spouse, presumably, is right there with you—it’s a really good sign that you can admit to each other that you’re overwhelmed and afraid, and that it’s OK to be overwhelmed and afraid. I expect you’ll eventually find that you have others in your corner, friends who will relate to and understand and support your family, who will care enough to learn what they don’t know, who will see and love and celebrate your child and all of you as you are. Your family will not be invisible to such people either, and I hope you come across many more of them.

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As for how you build and nourish a good, happy life for your children, you’re already working on that. And as you know (because you’re on your third kid now), it’s just going to be a work in progress. Every day that you take care of your family and love them and worry for them and get silly with them, you’ll be doing it, bit by bit. Some days won’t be so great, and you’ll get up the next day and take another shot at it. I know how hard it is to parent with the unknown future stretching ahead of you, and only some of the answers and reassurances you might crave. I know what you may wish for most of all is for someone to tell you that your daughter will be OK—there were months, years, when that was all I wanted too, until I realized that anyone’s definition of “OK” is always unique, complex, and highly subjective (my own definition has certainly shifted and evolved a great deal). I know that you love your daughter, and that as she grows you’ll delight in and be proud of her for reasons you can’t even imagine yet. I’m convinced there will be a lot of joy in your family’s future, not because everything will be easy, but because you love your kids unconditionally and want to give them all happy, fun, fulfilling childhoods. I hope one day soon you will feel sure that this is doable—that you are actually doing it already—and in the meantime, I’m sending you every possible good wish.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

It’s college-selecting time for my 18-year-old. She has been accepted at four universities and has it narrowed down to two. One is a state college 30 minutes away. The other is a private college 45 minutes away. There is not a huge difference in what it will cost us, but enough to make a difference. She is leaning toward the private school. But I think it is for the wrong reasons. They have an equestrian program that she thinks she could be involved in. I don’t think she has a chance of making this team. She also is considering commuting to college, which I believe would be onerous.

I would prefer she choose the state school. Her mom and I have been divorced for 10 years and her mom believes whatever my daughter wants, she should get. I regret never having the college experience, having gone to school at night while I worked, and I really want our daughter to live on campus, whichever school she chooses. Is it time for me to back off and just let her do whatever she wants? She is an adult.

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—Pondering in Pennsylvania

Dear Pondering,

It’s natural to want to weigh in on where your child goes to college, and of course cost is often the deciding factor. Your letter was largely about other considerations, though—namely, your own wants and opinions—so let’s focus on the lede you semi-buried here: Your own college experience wasn’t what you hoped it would be. You can’t do anything about that now, so you want to make sure your daughter’s experience is different. Guess what? It will be! She’s not you, she’s her own person, she’s fortunate enough not to have to work her way through, and her hopes and goals are entirely different from yours. Whether or not her mom overindulges her, wanting to pick which college she goes to and where she lives hardly makes your daughter a spoiled brat.

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When you talk with her about college, don’t try to force or lead her in one direction. This should ideally be a conversation, not a lecture or an argument. Ask open-ended questions, and listen more than you speak. Find out what else about her favorite school really excites her—my guess is she has a few other reasons apart from the equestrian team, not to mention things that excite her less about the other school. I’d also find out more about why she’s considering commuting to college—she must have her reasons, and maybe some of those are reasons you could try to understand and respect, even if you still don’t agree. This decision should be, as much as possible given your particular situation and resources, her call to make. Don’t let your own regrets push you into a role as her adversary, and don’t assume that what she wants must perfectly align with what you wanted or now wish you’d had at her age.

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—Nicole

More Advice From Slate

I have an 8-year-old son who is really, really smart but really, really stubborn. Although he gets good grades, we fight all the time over schoolwork. He is constantly saying that he doesn’t see the point of some simple task, that it’s stupid and easy, that he hates it. When he does the work, he’s lazy, resents having to do multiple steps on things, and doesn’t follow directions well. Example: They are teaching students to do math a certain way, but he can do it in his head, so “What’s the point of doing it like that if I can just do it and get the right answer my way?” Same thing with spelling. Each day they do a different task with their word list. And each day we get drama and fighting because he “doesn’t see the point” to doing anything other than simply being quizzed on the words. I’ve tried incentives, but he was never reward-oriented. He’s always been a grouchy kid, but school is just turning him into an angry kid. Parent-teacher conferences are this week, and I’m going to bring all of this up, but I would love some ideas.

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