Care and Feeding

Everyone Knows My Nephew Is a Monster—Except His Parents

They’ve never punished him once.

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Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Hasbro.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am in my mid-30s, married, and not a parent—but I have regularly been around other people’s babies, toddlers, and kids for the past 10 to 15 years. If I’ve only learned two things about parenting, it’s this: Don’t tell people how to parent. And toddlers are awful.

However, even by toddler standards, I’m genuinely concerned about the behavior of my nephew “M.” He will be 4 in a month. He has a little brother “N,” and they will have a baby girl “L” join them in about three months. M is violent, emotional, angry, spoiled, cruel, and he simply doesn’t listen to his parents or other adults. I’ve talked about this with a lot of my family and friends, and everyone agrees he’s “a handful” at best, but most say he’s a monster.

I spent one morning at their house this weekend. M took toys out of N’s hand and threw them on the ground. I told him to pick up the toys and give them back, but his dad said “I’ll just do it,” so M didn’t pick up the toys. He then hit N and ran away. He regularly hits N. No reaction from mom and dad.

We played a toddler board game, and he threw the pieces and the board when he wasn’t “winning” and then proceeded to have a tantrum. M’s parents didn’t react, but they asked my wife to pick up the pieces! My brother then fixed the deck to ensure he would get the best cards so he could win the game.

He’s “a bit of a bully” in his preschool, it takes them two hours to put him down for bed, and the list goes on. His mom and dad barely react to his bad behavior, and they never punish him—the most they’ll do is threaten “if you keep doing that, you’ll (get a timeout, lose dessert, TV time, etc.).” They have never once followed through with a punishment.

I want to bring this up to my brother for a few reasons. First, this is just bad behavior, and it needs to be fixed. Second, what will getting hit and having toys taken do to his little brother’s psyche? And then to his little sister in a few months?

I just don’t know how to bring it up. Parents don’t like criticism about their kids, and they REALLY don’t like it when it comes from childless people. Do you have any advice?

—Concerned Uncle

Dear Concerned Uncle,

I’m always very clear that people shouldn’t try to coach other parents on the behavior of their kids unless their physical or psychological welfare could be compromised. That definitely seems to be the case here.

Based on what I’ve read, M certainly has his share of issues and it looks like the majority of those issues come from how his parents are raising him. I don’t think anything is wrong with approaching your brother to discuss the highest-stakes issue, which in my opinion is how M repeatedly hits his defenseless little brother. You can start by pulling him aside to say something like “I’ve been noticing how M keeps hitting N, and he’s not being disciplined for that behavior. Don’t you think that could affect N as he grows up? Also, he’ll get into a lot of trouble if he hits other kids outside of his family or at school. I know I’m not a parent, but I know troubling behavior when I see it. How are you planning to address this?”

Like I’ve said many times before, if you can’t keep it real with your family members, who can you keep it real with? If you come from a place of love, then hopefully he’ll open up to you about the challenges he’s having with M, and then you can follow up by suggesting therapy or another form of intervention to help him get on the right track.

Of course there’s a chance that he won’t be interested in your advice or opinions, and you need to prepare yourself for that. You can’t save anyone who is unwilling to save themselves, and, as painful as it may be, you may have to let it go after you share what’s on your mind. In doing so, you can send a not-so-subtle hint that you don’t feel comfortable spending time with his family due to M’s behavior. It doesn’t need to be done in a judgmental way, either—you can strongly express how much you love him and his family, but you can’t sit quietly and watch M hurting his brother without consequence or correction. Maybe that will flip the switch for your brother to take some meaningful action.

Again, don’t let the fact that you’re not a parent get in the way of speaking up. There is clearly something serious going on with your nephew that needs to be addressed immediately before it gets worse.

—Doyin

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