Care and Feeding

My Cousin’s Kids Are Growing Undisciplined While Their Parents Go Clubbing

I’m genuinely worried for their future.

A kid sleeps on a desk.
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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m stuck in a horrible dilemma. My cousin and his wife are very nice people, but not the best parents. I know, I know­­­—back-seat parenting and judging other parents is never good, but hear me out. They have three really great kids who are in first, third, and fourth grade and are sweet and fun-loving but growing increasingly undisciplined. The kids themselves have complained to multiple members of our family (our extended family is fairly close-knit), including myself, that their parents will regularly come home after 11 p.m. on weeknights, often drunk. The kids wait up for their parents (they have a nanny who stays with them until the parents come, but they do not listen to her about bedtime). Then they are so excited to see their parents that they try to stay awake with them until after midnight, and they’re often up after 1 a.m.

This is interfering with learning for two of the three kids, who complain about hating school because they’re too sleepy. More than once, the teachers have called home about lack of preparation or falling asleep during class. The parents do not seem to really mind. Every Friday, the parents drop off the kids at their grandparents’ house and then don’t see them until Sunday evening. So they barely spend time with their children. The parents are financially very well off, but it’s not because they’re working extra hard to make ends meet. Most of the time they are literally going out to dinner and drinks with friends or going clubbing on the weekends. They’re in their late 30s, and their friends are all about 10 years younger. The kids have said to me they really wish they could hang out with their parents more and stay home as a family on the weekends instead of going to their grandparents’.

Recently, new problems are surfacing. The children have, after a lot of nagging, been given smartphones and are growing addicted to the games on them (they spend over six hours a day playing!!), and their parents do little to stop them. In addition, the parents, while vaccinated, continue to hang out with their friends who are NOT vaccinated, putting both the kids and the grandparents at risk.

What do I do? A few people have tried to talk to my cousin and his wife, and it has not worked. They will either shoot it down and say that they know what they’re doing and other parents are overprotective, or they’ll pretend to agree in the moment and then not change anything. I know it would be overstepping for me to do anything, but I love these kids, and I’m genuinely worried for their future and the people they might turn out to be. They are so sweet and loving right now, and I can already see them developing new behavioral issues.

—Virginia Is Now for Worriers

Dear Virginia,

It seems as if letters like this are a common theme around here. I’m happy to go through the motions again, but I’ll do so in a different way. Everyone reading this column can think of a few parents whose parenting styles make them cringe in some way, right? Maybe they swear in front of their kids on a regular basis, or put iPads in their kids’ hands all day, or let them eat Skittles for breakfast.

The question we should ask ourselves is this: Are these kids in imminent danger? Imminent danger to me could range from kids sticking their tongues into electrical sockets for fun to engaging in substance abuse—but you know what it looks like when children are at risk. If the answer to that question is no, then you should ask yourself if you really need to stage an intervention. Sure, you may not raise your kids in the way that your cousin does, but that doesn’t mean his style is inherently wrong.

Not to mention, have you given any thought as to what an intervention would look like? I mean, you can tell your cousin and his wife how heartbroken their kids are that they can’t spend more time with them, provide them with empirical data on how extended screen time is bad for children, and discuss the dangers of hanging out with unvaccinated people—but at the end of the day, you can’t stop adults from doing what they want to do. That’s why I always bring up the “imminent danger” question, because at least in those instances, you can bring in the proper authorities to keep the kiddos safe.

Personally, I think the grandparents should stop enabling your cousin by refusing to babysit every weekend while he goes clubbing, but that’s their call, not yours. There really isn’t much you can do other than being as loving and supportive as possible to these kids, and hope that their parents will see the light.