Care and Feeding

My Nieces Keep Telling My Kids Our Lifestyle Is Gross and Weird

Our families’ differing parenting styles are causing tension.

Two girls stand back to back, pouting.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I live three neighborhoods away from my younger sister “Etta,” her husband, and their two school-age children. My nieces and my two daughters (also school-age) generally enjoy spending time together. I’m thrilled the cousins are so close, and I’d like to maintain this closeness as they grow up.

Here’s the issue: Etta’s parenting style is very different from mine, and it’s been causing some tension and unpleasantness when her kids are at my house. My husband and I are pretty focused on environmental sustainability and stewardship. We’re vegetarians, practice intense recycling/composting, and prefer to reuse or repurpose old materials rather than throwing stuff away and buying something new. Our kids generally do these things too. Etta and her husband both work full-time, and things tend to be more chaotic in her home, with both parents trying to balance work and childcare. Their family chooses to focus on ease/efficiency (which makes sense given their situation!) rather than slow sustainability.

When Etta’s kids are at my house, they constantly push back and whine about how “gross” composting is, how “weird” our multigrain bread is, or point out how my kids tend to have older clothing. They also brag about their newest gaming system. My kids have overreacted by crying and refusing to play with them. I’ve tried to de-escalate and mediate but it’s not working. This has happened a few times now and I’m at a loss. I have no idea whether my nieces are mirroring what they hear Etta say about us or not. I’ve tried talking to her, but regardless of whatever talking-to she’s given the kids, it’s not changing the situation.

I’ve started to dread these visits and I hate that. What can I do to help both my nieces and my own children accept the others’ way of life without judgment or drama?

—Just Trying to Help the Planet

Dear Just Trying to Help,

I think this needs to start with a frank conversation with your sister. I know you said that your talks with her so far haven’t been effective, and that’s probably due to how you’re having them.

Maybe I’m the weird one, but I don’t care if we’re talking about extended family members or my electrician—nobody is going to come into my house and ridicule me for how I choose to live. Additionally, you’re not hurting anybody by living a sustainable lifestyle, so they have even less reason to make you feel inferior. With that in mind, your conversations shouldn’t be, “Etta, it’s really hurtful when your kids make fun of how we choose to live. Can you please tell them to stop?” Instead you should say, “Etta, it’s really hurtful when your kids make fun of how we choose to live. It’s impacting my kids’ mental health, and I’m not going to tolerate it anymore. If this doesn’t stop immediately, they can’t keep coming over.” It’s as simple as that.

Don’t budge if she shrugs you off for overreacting or gaslights you into believing her kids would never behave that way. Also, you must follow through if the unwanted behavior continues, even if it makes things uncomfortable between your families for a while. If she’s intellectually honest and values your relationship, she already knows that her kids aren’t being nice, and she’ll do whatever she can to correct them.

Sometimes, the “nice guy” approach to getting people to change won’t work, so don’t feel bad if you have to be more heavy-handed. The goal is to provide a firm reminder for how you choose to be treated, especially in your own home.

—Doyin

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