Care and Feeding

My Mother-in-Law Constantly Ignores All of Our Parenting Rules

An older woman holds a toddler.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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,

How much input should my mother-in-law have about what happens at her house in relation to my child? I have an 18-month-old, and my mother-in-law is a doting grandmother. However, she seems to have no respect for our parenting decisions, and flagrantly disregards them. Recently, we went as a family over to grandma’s house. Right after we got there, it came up in conversation that we still aren’t letting her watch TV. We are holding off as long as we can, partly because we don’t trust ourselves to be able to regulate it once it starts. Immediately my MIL began saying that things like Sesame Street are OK because they’re educational. I replied and said that yes, I understand that, but we’re not doing TV right now. After dinner she was in the living room playing with my daughter, and I heard the TV going. My husband rolled his eyes and said that they were watching Sesame Street together. I was livid, as we had just discussed our feelings on TV and she had gone ahead and turned it on anyway.

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There are other things—like we don’t let my daughter have very much sugar. We don’t see the point in feeding her a bunch of sugar when her favorite foods are green beans and bananas. She’s still so young, and it seems unnecessary for me. When we’re at my MIL’s house, she gets so upset that we don’t feed her sugar (putting out cookies and things that wouldn’t normally be put out, just because she wants to give them to my daughter), at one point she told me “one bite won’t hurt” and went to feed her anyway, until my husband sharply told her that was not OK. I totally understand wanting a special relationship with her granddaughter, and I also understand that sometimes rules are bent at a grandparent’s house. However, it seems unnecessary to be doing this stuff with an 18-month-old. What was the point of watching Sesame Street when we were only over there for a few hours? It seems as if she’s doing it just to prove that she’s in charge. If our daughter were older, and understood that rules are different at a grandparents, that would make more sense to me.

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I also worry that her constant disregard of our ground rules is going to undermine our relationship with our daughter as she gets older. My husband is supportive of me, but struggles with setting boundaries with his mom. I’ve asked him to have conversations with her, and he did discuss the recent TV thing, but he never brought up the larger picture of her disrespect for our parenting styles, only that specific instance. Honestly, I don’t even feel like my daughter’s mother when I am with my mother-in-law, she’s constantly telling me what I should be doing, and has never shown any interest in how our family has come to the decisions (evidence-based research) on how to raise my daughter.

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Am I overreacting? No one example is that terrible, I don’t think. It’s the constant undermining of my husband’s and my decisions that frustrates me. But should it just be anything goes at Grandma’s house?

—Disrespected Daughter-in-Law

Dear Disrespected,

Ah, mothers-in-law—don’t you just love ’em?

The short answer is you are always 100 percent in charge of how you choose to raise your daughter—especially when you’re present—regardless of where she happens to be. For example, if she happens to be at school, then the teachers get to call the shots, but you can still share with the teacher what you want for her.

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I can’t go too hard on grandma because I know her heart is in the right place, and I actually agree with her in some ways. I ingested a ton of sugar as a kid. Anyone remember that orange beverage named Tang? It was practically injected into my bloodstream throughout my entire childhood. I also watched a ton of television with my two brothers. But guess what? My older brother is a Harvard graduate and a corporate executive, and my twin and I are both bestselling authors and successful entrepreneurs, so we all turned out better than OK. I think this generation of parents is wound up so tightly in fear of a make-believe boogeyman that they don’t allow their kids to do anything remotely fun because of it. I’m not saying kids should be hopped up on sugar and iPad screens all day, I just wish more parents would let kids be kids.

Here’s the kicker, though: I’m not raising your kid, and neither is grandma, so our opinions don’t matter too much. If you are firm in your convictions, then you need to put your money where your mouth is when dealing with your mother-in-law. But before you do, you should talk to your husband about how deeply this upsets you and hope that he might be willing to take this on with her. If he goes through with it, and she respects your wishes, then you’re good. If she still ignores you, then you’ll have to kick it up a notch and handle business on your own. For starters, I’d pull her aside and tell her that she cannot go against your wishes as a parent, and if it happens, you’ll leave.

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I guarantee that she’ll call you on your bluff (that’s what grandmas and mothers-in-law do), but when it happens, you need to scoop your child up and bounce. If she wants to have a relationship with your daughter, she has to play by your rules. So if you want to feed your kid rhubarb smoothies and have her compose haikus instead of watching television, that’s your right—and everyone needs to get onboard with it. If you want to take a softer approach, you can compromise and not tag along with your husband and child when they go to her house—but if you’re going to lose your mind wondering what they’re doing while you’re away from them, then that may not be the best plan for you.

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Keep in mind that grandparents operate from a different parenting playbook than you do, and if you’re unwilling to bend, it could affect your relationship with her, and the relationship she has with her granddaughter. Is it worth it just to ensure every rule you have for your kid is followed? Only you can answer that.

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

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

For a number of reasons, my husband and I chose to send our 4½-year-old daughter to Catholic pre-K and then through Catholic school. One of the many reasons we did this is the local Catholic school in our city is incredibly diverse—two-thirds of her pre-K class is ESL students. She comes home every day bubbling with excitement about the new Spanish words her friends have taught her. Our home parish is also fully bilingual, so she’s getting exposed to lots of different cultures.

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Several of the girls in her class have cornrow braids, complete with beads and intricate braiding and barrettes. They look adorable! But now my little blond-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned daughter also wants braids. For the most part, she has been content with two French braids, but she’s asked me several times, “Can I have lots of little braids, with beads, like ‘Amaya’ and ‘Kylee’ at school do?” I am stumped on how to answer. We have never shied away from talking about race with our daughter. I want to explain to my daughter that the hairstyles she so admires on her Black and POC friends are, indeed, beautiful, and intricate, and wonderful—and also not available to her, because it’s cultural appropriation, but I’m struggling to explain the difference between, “It’s OK and indeed wonderful to learn another language and learn your friends’ native language and talk to them in it,” and “you cannot copy a Black hairstyle, because that’s cultural appropriation.”

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How should I be explaining these issues to my child? Obviously, talking about race is the first step, and making it an ongoing conversation is key, but how do we navigate potential microaggressions? How do we help our kids be better than our generation is?

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—Imitation Is Not the Sincerest Form of Flattery

Dear Imitation,

I admire your self-awareness, and you’re further along than you’re giving yourself credit for here. Quite frankly, I don’t have too much to add. I think one thing you can do to help your daughter to understand why it’s inappropriate is to introduce her to Black history and to some of the horrible things Black people endured.

If you’re looking for a good place to start, I’d go with blackface. Explain how it was used to dehumanize Black people, and how good white people like you understand how hurtful it can be to “borrow” parts of Black culture, especially in a world where Black people are still traumatized on a daily basis. That’s something that even a preschooler can understand.

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So yes, she can admire her friends’ tight braids, but that’s as far as it should go. Oh yeah—and she shouldn’t touch her friends’ hair, either, but I’m sure you already knew that.

Help! How can I support Slate so I can keep reading all the advice from Dear Prudence, Care and Feeding, Ask a Teacher, and How to Do It? Answer: Join Slate Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son is 4 and has become a frequent liar. Did you wash your hands? Yes. (I can hear the water—he didn’t.) Did you throw away your night diaper? Yes. (It’s on the floor in his bedroom.) Did you finish your snack? Yes. (It’s on the counter.) There isn’t much of an issue with what he’s lying about (except when he tells his dad he didn’t get his vitamins that he already ate), but we don’t want him to lie! We stress telling the truth, explain the truth is what actually happened, explain the difference between lying and pretending, assure him he likely won’t get in trouble for the truth but will definitely get in trouble for a lie (which is a four-minute timeout), but he is still doing it. I have tried not asking him if he did something and just reminding him to do it to avoid the lie but how do we get him to stop lying!? We thank him for telling the truth regularly and tell him he is a good boy and that he’s not a liar, he just needs to make better choices sometimes. Is there a better approach? Is it age appropriate and we just have to wait it out?

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—Please Don’t Be a Liar

Dear Please,

I wouldn’t be overly concerned about this. To me, it actually sounds fairly developmentally appropriate for his age. When kids lie, it usually stems from fear or a willingness to please. It could be fear of a previous punishment he received for doing/saying something wrong. It could be a fear of disappointing you. It could simply be that he wants to give you the answer that will satisfy you in that moment. At the end of the day, he doesn’t have nefarious intent like many adults who lie—he just doesn’t know any better.

There are a few ways you could go about this. When you catch him in a lie, you should give him a moment to check himself. In other words, when he says he washed his hands, but you know he didn’t, you can say, “OK, I know you wouldn’t lie to me about this because it would really hurt my feelings if you said you did something and you didn’t. I’ll give you another chance: Did you wash your hands? Remember, telling the truth will make me happy.”

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You could also tell him stories about your childhood about how telling the truth led to positive results and how lying did not. One story that I tell my kids is a time when I threw a ball through a neighbor’s window (a rite of passage for athletic kids). Nobody saw me do it, and I thought that lying would be the best move at the time, but my mom told me, “If you broke the window, I promise nothing bad will happen to you.” I admitted to it, and I went to my neighbor and told her what I did. She gave me a hug and said, “It’s OK. You’re a good young man for coming here and I won’t have you (aka, my parents) pay for it.” I’ll never forget that day.

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One way to curb lying is to simply end the binary questions and go with a command instead. “Please wash your hands” can be more effective than “Did you wash your hands?”—especially if you follow up the command with a patented “parent glare” that lets kids know that you mean business.

If he still holds onto the lies, then you may want to try something different from a four-minute timeout. I’m firmly against spanking but you should consider taking something away from him that he values (toys, games, iPad, etc.) instead of putting him in a corner. In other words, being caught in a lie needs to be more painful for him—metaphorically speaking, of course—than it is currently.

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It can be heartbreaking when your kids lie to you, but it’s not the end of the world. But by getting in front of it now, you’ll protect him from the big trouble lying can land him in as he navigates the world outside of the home.

—Doyin

More Advice From Slate

I’m a 35-year-old single woman and last year I began to have a panicked feeling that my time was running out to meet someone and have kids. I have been seeing a counselor since last September about it, and she has helped me sort through my feelings and look at my options. I now know I want to have a child on my own, but I know my family will disapprove. What should I do?

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