Care and Feeding

I’m Convinced My In-Laws Are Bad for My Kids. Is It Time to Cut Ties?

A man looks frustrated.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Dragana991/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife, sons (13, 16), and I are preparing to visit family and friends this summer after moving out-of-state 5 years ago for my work. The first part of the trip is work related so my sons are choosing to stay with my mother and my wife, and I will join them later. I have a few concerns about them being there, but nothing that we can’t address beforehand.

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Later in our trip we’re supposed to see my wife’s parents. My older son has already asked to not visit with them and my younger son has indicated as much. My wife is an only child and her parents are terrible but “good Christian” people; her childhood memories are filled with stories of what would be considered abuse today. They flew in last summer, and the 3 days they visited were anxiety producing for all of us. We were all quite relieved when they left.

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Now that we’re looking to be nearby this summer we are uncertain about asking our sons to visit their grandparents. Do we ask them to grin and bear seeing them over lunch or cut what few ties there are once and for all?

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—Far Away But Anxious

Dear Far Away,

It really comes down to this—do you think their behavior can change if you bring up your concerns to them? If the answer is yes, then you should do everything in your power to put your feelings on the table and mend your fractured relationship. If the answer is no (and I have a feeling that it is), then you should cut ties and move on. If you feel a sense of discomfort whenever they’re around, then it’s probably for a good reason.

You said, “My older son has already asked to not visit with them and my younger son has indicated as much.” You also mentioned that a recent visit with your in-laws produced anxiety for everyone in your household. So tell me why you would consider hanging out with them? Because they’re “family”? Toxic people should be cut out of your life regardless if you are blood-related or not.

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Your role here is to ensure psychological safety for your kids and clearly your in-laws don’t help in that regard. The whole “grin and bear it” thing is not healthy because it just teaches your kids that their feelings don’t matter. As I’ve said before, some people are best loved from a distance, and that seems appropriate with their grandparents.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

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I have a 5-year-old son. About six months ago my now-ex husband abruptly requested divorce. He has since remarried, and moved out of state. He mostly keeps up with child support, but went from being an “at every t-ball game” dad to occasional video calls, an intent that was clear during custody proceedings. The day my son went from “when will Daddy call?” to not wanting to take the call was really hard.

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He’s also getting less attention from me because I’m suddenly doing everything alone. I’m pulling in help from my girlfriends and sister, but I want him to have more. I know a lot of that garbage about fatherless sons isn’t true, but I still want him to have father figures. How do I start that process? My own parents live far away, and I have only female friends. It seems like the moms are the ones involved in playdates with my son’s friends. He’s been refusing sports, something he previously loved, because “Daddy isn’t there.” We have a local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters but he’s too young to qualify and they have a brother shortage. Boy scouts?

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I’m not dating yet. Even if I were, I would take a long time to introduce a guy to my kid. I know if my son needed “mother figures” there would be a lineup of friends and aunties. But how do I find the men? Honestly, I’m sad and hurt about the divorce for me but the impact on my son is the worst part. How can someone just leave a child?

—No Dad, Just Mom

Dear Just Mom,

As a dad, I simply cannot wrap my head around the concept of men who abandon their children regardless of the circumstances. There’s no question that this must be incredibly heartbreaking for you and your son, but it’s also a blessing in disguise because you wouldn’t want a person like him involved in your lives if this is who he really is.

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I’m not sure what you meant regarding the “garbage” about fatherless sons, but I will share what is true: boys without fathers are more likely to engage in crime, struggle in school, and abuse substances than those with active fathers. I’m not saying this to scare you, but I want you to understand that the stakes are high and the data is real.

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That said, this is a time where you need to be vulnerable. They say it takes a village to raise a child, right? It’s time to put that to the test. Lean on your girlfriends and ask if they have male partners, siblings, friends, etc. who would be willing to spend a few hours a week with your son. Maybe you have male coworkers who would be willing to step up in a mentorship role. Perhaps you could reach out to the parents of your son’s friends at school and mention how you would like to get together for a playdate. Once you get to know the parents, you could decide if the dad is someone you could approach as a potential role model.

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This may seem like you’re imposing or asking for too much, but I’m telling you that more often than not, people are willing to help others in need—especially children. I’ve stepped up to mentor kids who have never interacted with a Black man before, and it has yielded amazing results as I look at them today. If you ask, you will receive — but I’ve noticed that asking is the hard part for so many people.

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There’s strength in being vulnerable — and your son will be the one who benefits from you taking that uncomfortable, but necessary step.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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• If you missed Monday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 6-year-old is so competitive, and it’s beginning to drive me crazy. She is an only child, and for some reason she has developed this “one up” mentality. For example, my sister, her aunt, recently got engaged, and I’m separated from her dad, and in the midst of the legal process of getting divorced. When my sister told me about how her boyfriend proposed, my daughter pointed out that my sister’s engaged and I’m not. I’m stunned that my 6-year-old has the ability to hurt my feelings like this. I’m also so embarrassed when she makes comments like these. I often pull her aside and tell her comments are not appropriate and are hurtful, but it keeps happening. I am concerned about this behavior, and the impact it may have on her and her relationships as she grows up. Help please!

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—Ashamed Mommy

Dear Ashamed,

I’m wondering if this has more to do with your child navigating through the pain of a divorce than developing a “one up mentality.” As an only child, she doesn’t have a sibling to help her deal with this, so it’s not surprising that she’s starting to act out a bit. Even if she did have brothers or sisters, it’s certainly normal for kids to go sideways when their family unit changes so drastically.

Your daughter really should meet with a therapist to help her with this. Kids know exactly what buttons to push to hit their parents directly in the feels, but what you want to prevent is having her spiral into a deep depression over this. Please make finding a mental health professional for your child your first priority.

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In the meantime, please give your daughter some grace by not taking her behavior personally. She’s a child who’s hurting, and she currently doesn’t have the tools to handle her big emotions in a productive way. Take a deep breath, tell her how much you love her, set behavioral boundaries when appropriate, and seek professional help for her as soon as possible. I feel confident that she will get through this as long as you make this more about her feelings and less about yours.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My in-laws are quite behind the times in terms of child-rearing, and I’m finding it difficult to navigate their decisions as they interact with our kids. My partner and I have two daughters and, most distressingly, his parents consistently have an antiquated, gendered lens that significantly changes how my boyfriend or I might respond to an arising situation. For example, they expect “ladylike” behavior from our preschooler but not their grandson, who is a couple years younger. On the more extreme end, they also make comments such as: “girls are catty like that” or “[daughter] is so pushy/bossy” within our daughter’s ear shot that I do not condone.

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I have in the past called them out on their behavior. I have let it go. I have asked my partner to speak to them as they are his parents. Nothing changes their behavior and with our eldest daughter growing older, I can tell she is taking some of their words and actions to heart. They confuse her because at home, we focus on our hearts, not our genders. I do not want their negativity to spread when she is in their care, which I have been trying to avoid due to this issue. Am I missing any potential new pathways to try and move forward in unison? What do my partner and I do if they don’t listen? My parents have been much more respectful of our parenting style.

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—Frustrated Mama Bear

Dear Frustrated Mama Bear,

How you handle this depends on how important it is to you. If you feel as if you can offset your in-laws’ nonsense by how you raise your kids at home, then maybe you can keep the relationship as is. If you feel like your in-laws are negatively impacting your kids’ mental health (which seems to be the case) then you need to take swift action.

You mentioned that you called them out on their behavior and nothing has changed, so maybe you should take a more direct approach by saying, “I have told you on multiple occasions that I don’t feel comfortable with how you are addressing our children regarding [whatever it is that bothers you]. Going forward, we are going to limit our interactions with you because our kids are being impacted by it.” If you give them an ultimatum they will have to look inward and determine if they are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their relationship with their grandchildren intact. By the way, if we’re keeping it real (and I always do), this should be something that your partner handles, not you. However, sometimes we have to take matters into our own hands, and this seems like one of those times.

Stand firm on this. You need to protect your children at all costs, even if that means from their grandparents. Like I’ve said before, some people are best loved from a distance.

—Doyin

More Advice From Slate

My daughter is a freshman in high school, and she recently got an assignment in life sciences that seems inappropriate. The assignment is for the kids to identify someone in their family who died of cancer, and then students are supposed to research that kind of cancer and create a poster presentation to display for the entire school. This seems like a terrible idea, and an invasion of privacy. Should I talk to the teacher?

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