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Carolyn Hax: What you can and can’t tell in-laws about their unruly children

There’s no particular benefit to telling someone how to raise their children.

Columnist

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My husband’s brother has four kids under 10.

They are all sweet kids, really. But they talk back, don’t listen, don’t take no for an answer, and seek out trouble for attention. Conversations are interrupted, and we spend a good portion of the visit listening to their parents saying no over and over, repeating instructions, negotiating, yelling and making idle threats.

My husband and I have decided it’s okay to just handle it without their parents if bad behavior is directed toward us. We’ve also started seeing less of them because their family dynamics are unpleasant.

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Should we say something to the parents (which will probably be taken badly because we don’t have any kids ourselves)?

In-Laws

What would be your intention in saying something — to explain your pulling away? To wake them up to their parental failings? To improve them? To register your disapproval?

Their household sounds more chaotic than necessary, but I won’t bother trying to figure out how much chaos is unavoidable with 4 under 10, and how much of your opinion is affected by your not having kids of your own. I can’t call these accurately without being there.

Fortunately, the conversation can stop at, “What do you hope to accomplish?” I just don’t see any benefit to your speaking up — for them, for you, or for family peace. Best just to hang on, at arm’s length if needed, till the kids/parents outgrow this phase.

Re: Chaotic Family:

You might want to ask them whether the kids are always this hyped up, or is it a function of going outside their normal schedule (well-known phenomenon). Ask them if they consider the kids’ behavior an issue, what they’ve done to address, etc.

You might find out a whole lot by asking them their view, rather than telling them yours. It also gives you about the only avenue to discuss the idle threats.

Anonymous

This might seem sensitive and sensible on paper, but I’ve been there, with my own kids as the maniacs. Even knowing the misbehavior stemmed partly from being off their routine and partly from my failings as a parent, and knowing there is often value in outside perspectives, I can say with confidence that if you started asking me these questions, it would take all my earthly strength not to tell you to shove it.

I stand by my advice to leave it alone. “In-Laws” are entitled to set boundaries when they interact with these kids, but it’s otherwise none of their business how the kids are being raised, short of abuse or neglect.

Re: Family:

I sympathize. We took the tack you suggested, but it’s been frustrating. It’s almost impossible in these settings to have a real conversation. We’ve really curtailed our time at family events because of this and his family now thinks we’re standoffish. Is there a middle way?

Anonymous 2

Sure — minimize your daytime exposure by finding day trips, running errands, etc., and be at your most present after kiddie bedtime.

If you have a history of being involved and patient with the kids, you’re also in good standing to ask for adult time directly. If these parents are touchy, though, it’s best just to ride it out.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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