Dear Prudence

Help! My Sister’s Careless Parenting Has Gone Too Far.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

Woman holding and kissing a crying baby with a hand in the corner waving goodbye.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

My sister has a bad habit of dumping her daughter on our mother and me without any warning. (Dad isn’t in the picture.)

She will just show up and drop my niece off on the doorstep. She classifies it as “family bonding,” while I call it bad parenting. We fight about it. I have health issues that keep me from working, so I am dependent on my mother and what money my father sends me (I am going to community college). Mom will never say no to seeing her granddaughter. I love my niece, and she is an easy kid to watch, but I am tired of having my every weekend wrecked on my sister’s whims. Where our mother works is severely short-staffed, so she often has to work on the weekend and inconsistent hours. So that leaves me to do the babysitting.

The straw that broke my back was several weeks ago, when my sister decided to drop off my niece and three other kids I didn’t know (of a “new friend”) without even a word to me. I got up late and came downstairs to watch Disney+. I tried to call my sister, but that went straight to voicemail. Same for the kids’ mother. Same for mine. The kids didn’t know where their mothers were going other than “out,” and had no idea when they would get back. I ended up using one of the kid’s phones to call their paternal grandmother, and she came to pick them up. When my sister and her friend showed up six hours later, all hell broke loose. The friend freaked out that her kids were “missing,” and she was apparently in a custody dispute with her ex. My sister screamed at me, I screamed back, my niece saw everything, and my condition flared up. I had to be taken to the ER.

Since then, I have refused to speak to my sister and have told everyone that if she tries a stunt like this again, I am calling the cops on her. My mother is right in the middle—she claims my sister “overstepped,” but that I can’t “punish” my niece like this. She loves me and thinks I don’t love her. I can’t control that. I can’t control my sister or her pathological inability to plan ahead. I can’t control when my condition will flare up. I just can’t keep doing this. Help.

—Over It

Dear Over It,

Your situation is especially difficult because your sister is dead wrong, but she obviously knows it and doesn’t care, and possibly has some issue of her own that makes her incapable of caring in the way a healthier person would (more on that toward the end). It’s also tricky because you live with your mom, and therefore will have a harder time setting boundaries in a home that isn’t just yours. And finally, there are kids involved, and I’m sure you care about your niece and don’t want to see her neglected.

So I felt pretty stuck when it came to giving you advice, and turned to Slate readers on Twitter.

I thought a couple of people made a good point when they suggested that the first thing to do should be to be very clear with yourself about what—if anything—you are willing to do to help out with your niece, and whether that help ever extends to other children. Maybe that’s babysitting once a week with two days’ warning. Maybe it’s once a month. Maybe it’s six surprise emergency drop-offs a year. It’s whatever you would actually feel good about—but decide, and then tell both your mom and your sister.

Sounds like she needs to have an honest convo w/ her sister: asking the sister what kind of support the sister needs from the family, and then she honestly stating what she needs to offer the sister that support (like, advance warning?) —@ElaheIzadi

I think all she can do is, first, establish for herself a clear delineation of what she is and isn’t willing to do; second, strategize responses if an “isn’t willing” situation is foisted; and, third, clearly communicate that to her sister. Broad stratification is what we’re going for here, not hyper-specific rage frustration spiraling! (E.g, “if I legitimately believe a child is in danger, I will…” and not, like, “if Timette falls down a well, I will do x, BUT if…”) —@larisimilitude

Agree, not sure if they’ve tried to put a plan together like that before, but maybe this incident is a good reminder that a plan needs to be made. Map out different scenarios and how they should be handled … I think it’s one of those convos where it’s like 1. This is the plan. 2. This is the enforcer of the plan. 3. Since u agreed to this plan, u can’t be mad when the enforcer starts enforcing. 4. Let’s talk about backup options if we’re not available —@imfeelingsocial

Can LW impose some schedule structure here? Pick a day of the week or an every-other-week play date/hang out with the niece, and proactively say “I love [niece] and want to make sure we spend time together! This time is when I am available.” —@snorensoren

Then you have to decide what happens if your sister ignores the boundaries you’ve set and insists on dropping her daughter and friends off whenever she wants. This is going to be tough, but I agree with the readers who suggested that you need to get up and leave the house if you are able, or lock yourself in your room and refuse to engage at all if you’re not.

Def talk to niece so knows she is loved & this is about planning. No health info, but if OP can leave the house: Give arriving niece a warm welcome. Tell her sis that she’s leaving for a study date in x mins. Then tell niece she’s looking forward to having planed time soon. Exit. —@dubioussource

My sister had this habit. The last time she did, I saw her parking her car, so I grabbed my keys, and left. I honked on my way out and waved and yelled the babysitter quit. I did the same the next 2 times she tried, so she gave up. —@SassyMamainLA

It sounds like she doesn’t have the option to change living arrangements so I’d try to set some boundaries within the home. Maybe the mom is open to the sister not having a key, or maybe the letter writer can put a lock on her bedroom door and find a way to hang out in there. —@jillemader

Then invent more scheduled things…. …make up a hobby. schedule friend Zooms or schedule your naptime or whatever. Make up half of it! Turn off your own phone so you are unavailable when you promise to be unavailable. Create boundaries around your time the way the family members who leave the house more often do. —@snorensoren

Finally, I agree with all those who said calling the police wouldn’t be great for anyone here, and child protective services wouldn’t be ideal either. The last thing you want is for your niece to end up in foster care. But maybe you can rally some outside support for your sister in nonpunitive ways. Two people who read your letter were sure that your sister is using drugs, and while we obviously can’t know that for sure, I would not be surprised. Her behavior sounds just too irresponsible for there to be many other explanations:

This. This goes beyond inconsiderate behavior. Dropping kids off without notice, no information on where she’s going, shutting off phones to be unreachable, are all weird and dysfunctional alone. Together, the chance of issues like drug abuse is high & kids may be in danger —@JessicaMJonas

Call social services, not the cops, if one absolutely have to call anyone. I would make that a last resort, though, since OP is so dependent on the good will of her mom to stay housed. Maybe demand a normal babysitter’s pay. BTW: Your sis and her friend are using drugs. —@WiseWyzard

So maybe you can work with your mom to try to figure out not just how to stop your sister’s behavior but also what’s behind it and whether she’s open to any support or help. I know that’s easier said than done, but even working to connect her to a therapist or another kind of community support might be a good start. On that note, I think it will be helpful for you to think of her as someone who is deeply troubled, and not herself, so that her irrational behavior doesn’t feel as personal.

I don’t know how old your niece is or whether she has her own phone or tablet, but it would benefit her a lot if you would stay in touch with her and make sure she knows she’s loved even if you aren’t able to watch her in person. One thing for sure is that having a mom like your sister can’t be easy, and she’ll need all the support that you can give while still taking care of yourself.

Classic Prudie

We have had the same babysitter for two years now. She’s now 17 years old, and she’s great: reliable, kids love her, flexible if we’re late or need her last minute, cleans up after the kids.

Well, last week, when I was driving her home, she asked if it would be OK if after the kids were asleep, her boyfriend comes over “to study.” I’m glad she asked, instead of just sneaking him in, but is this … OK?