Care and Feeding

My Sister Clearly Favors One of Her Kids Over the Other

Should I confront her about it?

A boy grimacing and his sister making a goofy face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Prostock-Studio/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am concerned about a dynamic between my sister and her two kids, “Carter” (7) and “Madison” (5).

There is some sibling rivalry between the kids, nothing really beyond the pale, but the problem is that whenever there is a conflict, my sister defaults to believing and siding with Madison, even when it is obvious that she was the instigator or they were both equally at fault. My sister says things to Carter like “You’re older and you know better” and “She’s little and doesn’t understand, so it’s your job to set an example.”

Normally I would stay out of this as the childless aunt, but I’m starting to see Carter get worn down. The other day we were all at the park and Madison hit Carter, and he shoved her back. He got the Riot Act from his mom, including the line about Madison not knowing any better. The whole time, Madison was watching with the biggest grin on her face. Carter was grounded from his tablet for the rest of the week, and he just shut down and barely said anything else after that.

I don’t know what I should say to my sister, or if I should just stay out of it because they are her kids and no one is in any imminent danger. For a little context, I was the slightly older sibling who was always to blame for any fights between my sister and me, so I identify with how Carter is feeling.

— Caring Aunt

Dear C.A., 

You should absolutely stick your nose into this while accepting the possibility that your sister will disregard your thoughts based on you not having children; it’s unfortunate how often we dismiss what former kids have to say just because they aren’t parenting themselves.

Be gentle and non-judgmental as you share your observations. You aren’t pointing a finger at Madison, nor at your sister’s mothering. Rather, as a former slightly older child, you know what it feels like to be expected to be significantly more mature than your sibling, and how difficult that can be in practice. The kids are close in age; Carter should try to set a good example for his younger sister, but he’s still young enough to struggle with his own decision-making without somehow being made to feel responsible for both of their choices. Ask her to maybe give Carter a little more grace. Seven is a squirrely, awkward, feeling-your-way-around-things kind of age; it’s still relatively “little,” if not as blameless as 5.

You may end up having this conversation on multiple occasions. It may be the case that you have to advocate for Carter a bit, maybe pointing out specific instances where he can be shown a bit more patience or when both children could have been chided for something as a unit instead of allowing him to carry the weight alone. Hopefully, you’ll get through to her and they won’t be 15 and 17 dealing with the same dynamic.

— Jamilah

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