Care and Feeding

My BIL’s Explosive Temper Has Some Terrible Consequences

A dad yells angrily, holding his hand up in front of his face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by OSTILL/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 take care of my sister’s two daughters (7 and 4) fairly regularly. I am childless, and my nieces mean the world to me. Unfortunately, my brother-in-law has an explosive temper, and so any behavior from the girls that’s less than perfect is met with screaming, threats to break and throw out their toys and other possessions, etc. As far as I know, he’s never been physically violent with them, but there’s a lot of yelling. Now the kids, and especially the older, have learned this as their default method of communication, and won’t respond to anything but yelling and threats. Any calmly voiced request, no matter how trivial, is met with screams of “no!” This is definitely getting worse of late, but I reached a breaking point recently when I was out with the girls on a walk and I asked the 7-year-old to hold my hand instead of running ahead of her sister and me. She screamed “no!” and ran out into a traffic intersection.

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Fortunately no one was hurt, but I’m now worried that these children are so unable to listen to adults that I have no real ability to keep them safe when I’m looking after them. My sister has confirmed that this is normal behavior for the kids; they’re not just acting out away from their parents. She doesn’t yell very much but she does default to threatening to involve their father when the kids are acting up. I’m part of my sister and brother-in-law’s child care network that allows them both to work, so I’m very reluctant to just walk away from caring for my nieces. I also hate the idea of having to resort to their father’s method of yelling and making threats, as I really want to be an emotionally steady resource for these kids, who are really going through it at home with their dad. What’s my best bet for getting past my nieces’ refusal to listen to a calm voice?

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—Not Going to Shout

Dear NGtS,

We should start with your brother-in-law’s anger issues, because that’s extremely concerning from my vantage point. If this dude is threatening to break his kids’ toys due to their behavior, it makes me wonder if he is indeed being violent with them at home. More on this later.

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Regarding getting through to the kids, I agree that you shouldn’t have to yell to get your point across. When they’re with you, you’re in charge. In a calm moment, go over your rules with them, especially when it comes to safety. Make clear that if they don’t abide by your rules, there will be consequences. At my house, it works when I take away an item that’s meaningful to my girls. This could be their favorite snacks, devices, or activities. All kids are different, but in my household, even the threat of denying my daughters their weekly Roblox time with their friends is enough to make them fall in line without raising my voice. They may have a meltdown, but remember that you’re the adult in the room and don’t budge. Other parents I know lean on “natural consequences,” which might mean that bad behavior around an activity means not being able to participate in that activity.

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But let’s be real—these are temporary fixes. The bigger issue at play here is your nieces’ household dynamic, and I fear they could be in real danger if it continues. If I were you, I’d have a heart-to-heart talk with your sister, because her husband sounds like he could be a ticking time bomb. I also think they all need to attend family counseling as soon as possible, and your role in this is to do everything in your power to make that happen. You can simply bring up the busy intersection incident and how the girls refuse to listen to anything other than yelling at them like a maniac—and that a trained mental health professional needs to intervene.

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Hopefully they’ll listen to you. If not, you could threaten to end the child care arrangement because you’re not comfortable taking care of her kids if you worry about your own ability to keep them safe since they’re unwilling to heed your warnings. But to me that should be viewed as a last resort.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m worried that my sister has an unhealthy attachment to her only child, who is almost 3 years old. She wore her son in a sling for most of his first year, and still carries him around for long periods during the day (even though he is over 30 pounds now). She has not taught him to feed or dress himself or do any personal hygiene or toileting activities. She also breastfed him on demand (usually around 40 to 50 times a day) until just a few months ago. They co-sleep and have been together 24/7 since birth. Despite being together all day, my sister doesn’t really do any educational activities with him—they mostly watch YouTube videos together, with my sister hugging her son tightly and often becoming overcome with emotion and tears about how precious and special he is. My nephew is also very physical—demanding that my sister act like a horse for him to ride, standing on her shoulders, and jumping up and down on her stomach. It was easier to play with him in this manner when he was a baby, but he is a pretty big toddler now. My sister is pretty petite (5-foot-1) and I feel like I can see her body breaking down before my eyes, but she just chalks it up to her beloved boy being “free-spirited.”

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Despite my concerns about his development (he didn’t walk until almost 2 years old and didn’t start talking until 2.5 years old), he is showing to be a very bright and observant kiddo. I am worried that he will not be allowed to thrive due to my sister’s extreme emotional attachment to him, which has compounded in the past month because she is getting a divorce. Whenever I try to talk to her, she says everyone has their own parenting style and that there is no one right way to parent. I have a toddler as well and don’t claim to be a perfect mom, but do feel like there are certain parenting styles that set up kids better for success. I worry that her extremely emotionally invested approach will do more harm than good in the long run, and would appreciate any advice on how to help my sister think about the bigger picture instead of her feelings in the moment.

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—Concerned Auntie

Dear Concerned Auntie,

My first reaction is: “She says everyone has their own parenting style and that there is no one right way to parent.” Exactly.

Her son seems happy, he’s not in any danger that would require an intervention, and she’s doing what works for her. Given the divorce on the horizon, she has also been dealing with a lot of emotional upheaval, and it’s possible this has compounded her feelings of attachment to her son.

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Rather than focus on correcting her parenting—from where I sit, you should stop being so judgmental—I think you should offer her your support. Is she seeing a therapist in the wake of these marital issues? It does sound like she’s channeling all of her anxiety and fear into her child. Therapy seems like it would be beneficial. I think you can do better as a sister and a friend.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Monday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a white mom with two young kids, and a few months ago I made a new friend with a mom whose son plays on the same basketball team with my son. She’s also white, but she’s married to a Black man. She invited my son and me to her house over the holidays and I noticed some disturbing behavior from her. At one point when we were alone she said, “I’ll be damned if my son grows up to be like one of those illiterate gangster monkeys in the city.” I was floored, but didn’t respond. I told my white husband when I got home and he shrugged it off by saying she can’t possibly be racist because she has a Black husband and a half-Black kid. That’s probably true, but the bigger issue is I don’t want her to ever say things like that around my son or me. How should I deal with this in the future?

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—Awkward New Friend

Dear Awkward,

Hold up—you said it’s “probably true” that a white person can’t be racist because she has a Black husband and a half-Black kid. That’s not true. Trust me, this is way more common than you may believe, and I see it often in my line of work.

The problem here is your unwillingness to say anything. Time’s up on racists in 2022, and we need to call them out at every single opportunity. Since this happened relatively recently, you should bring it up by saying, “Hey, remember the monkey comment you said to me at your house? The fact that you’re married to a Black man or have a half-Black son doesn’t give you the right to say racist things around my son or me.” You can’t pussyfoot your way around this conversation—be blunt, firm, and unapologetic.

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If she apologizes, that’s great, and you can move on. If she pushes back, then basically she’s saying she’s choosing her racism over your friendship. Would you want someone like that as a friend? I wouldn’t.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband did something pretty awful over the weekend. Our 16-year-old daughter shared her New Year resolutions with the family at the dinner table, which is a big deal because it’s difficult to get her to share anything personal with us. Afterwards my husband asked why she didn’t include any weight loss goals. She stormed away from the table in tears and I was furious with him. He insists he meant no harm, and his intention was to ensure she takes care of her health. She 5-foot-3 and 138 pounds, which is far from overweight in my mind, but I’m a thin woman, so maybe he’s comparing her to me. The tension in my house is unbearable and I don’t know how to approach my daughter or my husband. Ideas?

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—Fat-Shaming Dad

Dear Fat-Shaming,

Good grief, your husband definitely dropped the ball on this one. What you need to do is pretty simple, though—tell him that he acted like an insensitive jerk, and that he needs to profusely apologize to your daughter immediately.

I’m always irked by people who talk about their intent when they mess up. Who cares about what he intended to do? Give me a break. I bring this up because if his apology is all about what he intended to do, then it will be meaningless because it’s all about him. He needs to apologize for his words and then focus solely on the fact that she is perfect the way she is right now.

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In terms of what you can do? The bigger and more important issue is your daughter’s well-being. Comments like that from a dad to a teenage girl could be incredibly damaging and can lead to big problems down the road. Not to mention she’s probably looking at you as the only acceptable female standard since you happen to be thin yourself. As a woman and her mom, it’s essential to continue to emphasize how amazing she is right now.

His words may have significantly hurt her, and I think it would be a good idea to look into therapy to ensure things don’t go sideways. Memo to any dad reading this: If you feel the need to talk to your daughters about their weight, just don’t.

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—Doyin

One additional note: Several readers wrote in about my response to Cowardly or Conscientious in last week’s column, raising the very real point that mental illness in women can be exacerbated by pregnancy. My apologies for this oversight, since that is certainly worth bearing in mind—perhaps in consultation with her doctor and/or a therapist—as the letter writer considers her future.

More Advice From Slate

When I was young I was married briefly. I did not want children, and thought I’d made that clear to my husband. I accidentally got pregnant, and he was thrilled. Against my better judgment I had the baby, with the understanding that he would take care of it. I did not like motherhood and when the girl was 2 years old, I divorced her father and moved out of state. I paid court-ordered child support until she turned 18. I had thought that was the end of my interaction with her, but I recently got a letter from her saying she would like to meet.

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