Care and Feeding

We Love Our Nieces Unconditionally. But Our Relationship With Their Parents Is Getting Weird.

They seem to be trying to punish us.

Two girls play with toys on a table.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sasiistock/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are blessed enough to have a close relationship with our three-year-old twin nieces, the children of my husband’s sister and her partner. We love the girls very much and try to show them by spending as much time with them as all of our schedules allow. Since the pandemic has eased, we take them—and their parents—to local museums, national parks, beaches, and zoos, as well as on age-appropriate vacations around the country. We host birthday and various holiday parties for the girls and their friends and spend twice-weekly time with them at our house, where we keep individual bedrooms, a playroom, and an outdoor play area for them. We also help the girls’ parents when they need a babysitter and with various kid-related expenses, including clothes and shoes, a new van, and gymnastics, dance, music, and art lessons. We’re thrilled to be involved in their lives and try to be as flexible and supportive as possible.

The issue we’re having is in setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries with the girls’ parents. We are happy to do all of the aforementioned, along with buying the girls toys for their own house—within reason, of course. Our problem is that we disagree with their parents about what constitutes a reasonable number—and type—of toys for us to purchase. We have repeatedly told them that, apart from their birthdays and Christmas, we prefer to limit the “just-because” toys we buy to those that stimulate their mental, physical, or emotional development in some way. Every time we decline to buy something for the girls, though, their parents respond by canceling plans with us for two, sometimes three, weeks. They then make passive-aggressive comments, usually in front of the children, about how they don’t understand why we can afford vacations and lessons and everything else but not the toy of the day. Worse yet, the girls are starting to act a bit entitled and materialistic. For example, sitting in the middle of a store and screaming if they’re told no, assuming we’ll replace something if they carelessly damage or lose it, and refusing to say please or thank you.

While the parents’ disregard for our finances is frustrating, our biggest concern is doing what we can to ensure our nieces grow up to be self-sufficient, considerate adults.  Are we making a mistake by providing my sister-in-law and her partner with so much assistance? How can we help without enabling behaviors that will hinder our nieces as they grow older?

—Concerned in California

Dear Concerned in California,

I’m not going to mince words here—you have clearly created a monster. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not shaming you, because I know your heart is definitely in the right place, but this pattern of behavior absolutely needs to stop.

Take a moment to think about this. You purchased vacations, various lessons, clothes, a freaking van, and goodness knows what else for kids who have adult parents who can work and buy these things on their own. Now they have the nerve to use the amount of time you spend with their kids as leverage so you can buy them more stuff? Not to mention, they’re shaming you for how you choose to spend your money? How incredibly toxic are these people?

Your husband needs to engage in a direct conversation with his sister about this and call out her behavior. Unless she’s a complete narcissist (which is possible) she should understand that your family has gone above and beyond for the twins and should be grateful instead of petty.

Also, if you want to do your part to curb the twins’ materialistic ways, you should stop with the gift giving immediately. No kid needs a “toy of the day” for crying out loud, because all that’s doing is setting the expectation for them to approach you with their hands out saying “gimme something” during every gathering.

As uncomfortable as it may be, it’s definitely the right move to set boundaries for everyone going forward. I have a feeling that your SIL and husband will come around after they’ve had some time to engage in some self-reflection, but you should be prepared for it to take a while. At the end of the day, this shouldn’t impact your long-term relationship with the kids as long as the parents are rational adults. I mean, how silly would it be for them to stop allowing their kids to visit with you because you stopped giving them gifts on a regular basis? I could be wrong, but I just can’t see that happening.

—Doyin

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