Care and Feeding

My Brother-in-Law Constantly Says Negative Things About His Youngest Daughter

Should I confront him?

A dad looks annoyed while his young daughter in pigtails boisterously sings into a hairbrush.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tetra Images/Mike Kemp/Getty Images Plus and Allison Michael Orenstein/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 brother-in-law seems to be professionally unhappy. No matter what is happening, he can find the negative in every situation. We recently went on a big family trip to a lake house, and he spent the whole time complaining about the internet and the snakes (that live … outside … in the lake) and how bored he was. It seems like he makes it his job to be displeased, no matter the circumstances. He gets on my nerves a little (clearly), and I’m not sure to what extent, if any, this annoyance plays into my question. I try to be friendly and positive because I want to like him (my sister really loves him), but his behavior and negativity make it difficult to get beyond it.

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He and my sister have three kids: a teenage girl and a boy and a girl in very early elementary school. On this trip, he mentioned that he thinks his older girl and his son are just amazing kids and “basically perfect,” but he finds his youngest daughter “annoying” and “loud.” He spoke of her in a generally derisive way. I get that parenting is hard! But this seemed like more. She is the youngest and still coming into her personality—she is also a great kid, but she is clearly desperate for equal attention and sometimes tries to get it in the ways small kids do, by crying and being dramatic. Her dad seems impatient and short with her, although I can’t tell if this perception is based on my opinion about him. I worry that his attitude toward her will influence her in some sort of permanent way.

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My question is: What is my proper role here? Should I confront him? Mention it to my sister? Just be an overly affectionate auntie, even though we don’t live in the same city? Observe and hope that as she comes into her own as a person, he will magically change? I really want the best for my sister and each of her children.

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—Concerned Auntie

Dear Concerned Auntie,

Yes, your feelings about your brother-in-law will have an impact on how you perceive his behavior and words—there’s no getting around that. But regardless of any bias you may have, his behavior also seems objectively off to me. Sure, a lot of parents (uh, all of us) can be impatient at times, but your BIL really shouldn’t be talking about his daughter in such a derogatory way.

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I think you can continue to observe from afar, be a good aunt, and hope for the best. But I’m kind of a nosy asshole when I think men are being terrible, and honestly? I would probably also say something to your sister if you feel you’re close enough to do so. That doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to tell her what to do or demand tons of information about her marriage and family life. But I think it’s probably within bounds to say that you noticed her husband’s comments at the lake and just felt a little concerned about the dynamic.

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The sad truth is that your sister probably already knows how he speaks to and about their daughter. It could be that she doesn’t agree it’s a problem. It could be that she’s just not sure what to do, and feels unable to challenge or change her husband’s behavior. It could be that the two of them have already discussed it, and he either shut her down or agreed to try to work on it or something in between. If she’s not ready to talk about it with anyone, including you, the conversation you try to start might not go anywhere. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t voice your concern and your willingness to listen, because at least then she’ll know that you’re available if there’s anything she wants to share down the line. In the meantime, you can try to affirm and support her as a parent and be there, as much as possible, for her and her kids.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a very dear friend who I’ve been friends with practically since birth. She’s one of the sweetest, kindest people that I know. She and her husband have their own business, and COVID hit them hard. They recently were given notice that their landlord is selling the property that they were renting, and now they can’t find anywhere to rent. The city is extremely expensive as far as buying anything. Plus, I don’t think they can afford a down payment with how COVID affected them and their credit scores are very low.

My issue is that while COVID is partially responsible for their current troubles, they have never been very responsible with money—partially due to medical issues, but mostly due to mismanagement. My friend has come to me for help on numerous occasions, rarely asking to borrow money, but many times asking for help in budgeting and/or financial advice. She never takes my advice, and there is always someone else to blame for her current predicament (i.e., the landlord is terrible for “kicking” them out; they paid the bill, but the electric company didn’t apply it correctly; they sent in a check, and it never arrived; etc.). It’s become so bad lately that her housing/financial problems are all she ever talks about. Is there a way to help her that I’m not seeing? I don’t want to hurt our friendship, but I’m also weary of hearing about how everyone else did them wrong and they have nowhere to live because of it. I don’t have a large enough house for their family and mine; otherwise I’d gladly offer to let them stay with me. I’m deeply sad for the situation she is in, and I truly just want to help her if I can.

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—Unfortunately Unhelpful in Utah

Dear Unfortunately,

It sounds like your friend would probably accept more practical assistance if you are in a position to offer it, but barring that, you’ve probably done about all you can. The primary way most of us help our friends when we can’t meaningfully change their situation is just to be there and listen.

If you’ve never had to scramble for housing on relatively short notice, I’m happy for you! I’m not surprised that it’s all your friend can think about or focus on at the moment. She and her husband may have made some choices that worsened their situation, but it should go without saying that there are so many systems working against people who are struggling financially; it’s neither shocking nor a personal failure that they haven’t managed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps during a pandemic. I understand that sometimes it’s hard to hear about other people’s problems on an endless loop—and if you don’t want to supply advice that you think will just be ignored the next time she asks, you could deflect and say you aren’t comfortable offering her that type of guidance. But there’s a reason we usually don’t say things like “I’m sorry for what you’re going through, but that’s what you get for never listening to my suggestions!” or “Can we please talk about something else for a change?”—it’s just not what good friends do.

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Your friend may indeed require a great deal of help, more than you or any of her other friends can offer. It’s very hard to feel helpless when someone you care about is struggling. But I suspect that what she most wants from you is a sympathetic ear, someone she can vent her fears and anxieties to without fear of judgment. If you can provide that for her, know that it’s not nothing.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My BFF since age 11 and I are now almost 40. She’s been married 11 years and is the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, with a second child on the way. I’m single and have never wanted kids, but I like hers in small doses and cherish my role as “aunt.” I’ve been fat since age 7 or 8, i.e., the entire time BFF has known me. She has been slender all her life. Her husband tends to be a bit heavier, although he is also very muscular and works out constantly to stay in shape.

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I’m concerned because BFF seems to be modeling some very unhealthy food/eating habits for her daughter. She has been a religious calorie-counter ever since she gained like 10 pounds after turning 30, and she shows her daughter how she enters everything she eats into her app. This 3-year-old already knows all about calories, exercise, protein, vitamins, and carbs. (To be fair, she’s a smart kid and also knows all about the solar system, animals, how money and banks work, etc.; I just don’t think this is a healthy area of focus.) BFF and her husband do not allow soda, chips, candy, or other “junk food” in their house. Their daughter is only allowed to eat these things as a “special treat,” and will actually turn them down if they’re offered when she’s already had a treat recently. She knows it’s not polite to point out when someone else (like me) is fat or is eating something “unhealthy,” but I can tell that she notices.

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Recently, I tried to start a conversation with my BFF about this, and she admitted that she and her husband are concerned their kids might gain weight more easily because he has this tendency. She also admitted that part of the reason she wants to start them on the path of “healthiness” (i.e., thinness) early is because she’s seen how hard being my size has been for me all my life.

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At this point, I started tearing up and had to end the conversation. It’s true that I was bullied about my weight from third grade (when it first started becoming an issue) through high school. It’s true I spent my 20s and early 30s hypersensitive about it, and have only in the last few years reached a place of acceptance. It’s true that I’ve had to learn not to care about clothes, because nothing my size ever looks good and nothing cute ever fits me. It’s true that I’ve never dated, because the only guys who have ever expressed interest in me have been fat themselves, which I’m not attracted to in men, and I’ve never been able to imagine that anyone I find attractive could be into me. But I feel so enormously guilty to think that witnessing these struggles of mine has influenced my BFF toward raising her kids in a shaming and damaging way. How much responsibility do I actually have, both to remedy these past mistakes and ensure that these kids get a healthier message in the future? What is the best way to continue to talk to BFF about these issues without breaking down again?

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—Fat-Positive Auntie

Dear Auntie,

I’m sorry that your best friend said such a hurtful thing—whatever her body image issues are, it was very unkind of her to try to lay them at your feet. To your question about what “responsibility” you bear in terms of how she raises her kids: absolutely none. Your friend and her husband have made their own decisions. If they are modeling or encouraging unhealthy pressure or body shaming, I think that’s deeply regrettable, but it’s also 100 percent on them. It is not your burden to worry about fixing or mitigating their approach, or to single-handedly ensure that their kids somehow grow up with more acceptance of what bodies can look like. I understand why you care, and it speaks well of you that you do, but that’s just not something you have to take on.

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I’m not saying you can’t try to talk with your best friend about these issues, of course, perhaps with the goal of providing additional perspective or even changing her mind. But I will point out that you have already tried talking to her, and it led to her saying some pretty awful things to you. It could be tough for you to change her thinking on your own because, like all of us, your friend has been accumulating baggage and forming her own beliefs around body image since childhood. I’m a little concerned that trying to counter the weight messaging for her kids’ benefit would just open you up to more hurtful comments from her and/or her husband.

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Then there’s the question of whether to address what she said to you for the sake of your friendship. You’re the only one who can decide whether you want to try to talk it through—that conversation, should you choose to have it, might prove painful, too, and maybe you’ll decide that you don’t want to be that vulnerable with her on this particular issue (I wouldn’t blame you if so). But I could also see you wanting to hash it out and explain why you were so hurt, because it’s just a huge thing to have sitting between you, unaddressed. It’s possible, if perhaps not super likely, that being honest with her could also encourage her to rethink her approach with her own kids.

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If you remain in your friend’s life and in her children’s lives, you can at least model a different relationship to food and the acceptance of bodies of all types. Whatever you choose to do regarding communication about these issues and your friendship overall, you are in no way responsible for her behavior or her choices as a parent, and your friend should never have remotely implied that you are.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

When I was in my early 20s, my best friend died unexpectedly. We had grown up together, and it was devastating. Since then, I’ve always known that if I had a child, I would name it after my friend to honor her. Now, over 15 years later, my husband and I are finally expecting, and I still feel very strongly about this name. But my friend was of mixed Guyanese descent and had a traditional Guyanese name, which is uncommon in our area of North America. My baby will be one-quarter Asian and three-quarters White. When we announced the pregnancy and shared the baby’s name recently, a few relatives were quite offended and said this was cultural appropriation, and that it was not appropriate for us to give the baby a name from a culture she didn’t come from.

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I do understand this, because I see lots of appropriation from my own culture. Maybe it’s just the hormones, but the idea of not being able to give my baby this name is almost bringing up the grief all over again. My husband is supportive of the name and the intent behind it, but suggested using the name as a middle name so our daughter doesn’t bear the stigma of cultural appropriation her whole life. I think this is not the point of honoring my best friend—it’s like giving your child your great-aunt’s name as a middle name when you really hate that name. I’d rather not use the name at all than use it as a middle name, and it breaks my heart. I know my best friend would love having a baby named after her, and she would have been the most excited about being an auntie to our baby. I don’t want our daughter to have to justify her name her whole life either, but I think by the time she is old enough, cross-cultural names will be more common so it won’t seem so out of place. What do you think?

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—What’s in a Name?

Dear WiaN,

I don’t really think this is as cut and dried as the worst examples of cultural appropriation; you would be giving your child this name not to fetishize or mock or “try on” another culture, after all, but to honor a beloved friend. If you’re asking what I’d do personally, in your place, I wouldn’t give a non-Guyanese child the name.

It’s worth keeping in mind that whatever your intentions, you won’t be able to control how others react to your choice or whether they consider it to be appropriation—and it will primarily be your child, not you, who has to deal with questioning or judgment, explaining their name and/or defending your decision as their parents. Honestly, I like your husband’s middle name suggestion, although I hear that you don’t. (I might be biased as someone whose middle name is my Korean name, which obviously holds a great deal of meaning for me, a Korean.) I don’t really agree that giving your child your friend’s name as a middle name is the equivalent of giving her a name you hate because, well, you actually love this name! It holds great significance for you. I still think it’s a nice way to honor your friend without you—and, in time, your child—having to constantly make explanations or be on the defensive.

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Certainly, many of us grew up explaining our names to others, and probably we should not have had to. If you go ahead, I think you’ll also just have to live with knowing that some people might consider it strange and/or appropriative. It seems like a whole lot to saddle your kid with a lifetime of explanations about a name to which they have no real cultural connection of their own. But the decision is ultimately up to you and your husband.

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—Nicole

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