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Carolyn Hax: Setting ground rules for babysitting without seeming anti-Auntie

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My aunt "Fanny" is in her mid-50s but still thinks of herself as 21. She was my cool aunt growing up, and now I feel like I outpaced her in maturity. She turned down marriage proposals years ago to travel, holds a part-time job and thinks a pet is too much commitment. Fine, but she regularly complains about her loneliness.

Since my last grandparent passed away, Fanny has directed her attention and time onto my 15-month-old daughter. Fanny adores my kid, and it is mutual.

But I don't trust Fanny to babysit for a whole evening. Several times, she's told me after the fact, laughing, that she did something with my baby that I asked her not to do, like feed her a french fry when she was only eating purees, or take a picture of her in the bathtub when I've been crystal clear on no naked-child pictures. With each of these, I've been teased about how rigid I am.

Fanny has watched my daughter for an hour-ish, and I am okay with that. I don't think my child's life is in danger, but I don't think Fanny would respect what I want her to do.

She knows other family members have babysat for entire evenings, and is increasingly calling me out, in front of other family members, and asking to pick a date for her to babysit. I don't know how blunt to be.

For what it's worth, I think Fanny will be an excellent babysitter when my kid is older.

— Turning Down a Babysitter

Turning Down a Babysitter: Knowing how blunt to be is tough for most of us to navigate. It feels so rude to say no to people vs. things. It feels personal.

It isn’t rude, but that’s how it feels.

If we’re paying attention, though, people actually tell us exactly how blunt we need to be with them — in how they receive our messages.

You’ve set limits with Fanny, and she is ignoring them and calling you out publicly. Your messages haven’t gotten through, then, right? So, you need to be blunter.

Such as: “I said no to naked pictures, and you took a bathtub picture. The baby doesn’t eat solids yet, and you fed her a french fry. It’s not about whether my decisions are right — I’m not even saying they are. They’re mine, though, for the baby, and I have a right to ask people to respect them.”

Even bluntness, though, comes in more than one emotional flavor. You can have an angry tone, or use a lovingly exasperated, why-are-you-making-it-so-hard-for-me-to-say-yes-to-my-favorite-Auntie? tone. Find the latter and say your version of what you really want to say.

Re: Fanny: I would add one more sentence at the end. "That's why I'm saying no." Otherwise this could encourage Fanny to start a long argument about who has the right to make rules, what respecting them means, etc.

— Closer

Closer: Good catch, thank you.

Re: Bad Babysitter: You think you're more "mature" because she had the audacity to "turn down marriage proposals" to travel? And you think marriage means no loneliness? More than a whiff of judgment there.

— Anon

Anon: Each point is true on its face, but look at the bones: She chooses A then complains about not having B.

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