How involved are you when your kid visits family?

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Photo by SanShoot, used under Creative Commons license.
My husband and I each have pretty abrasive families. We don’t fear for our child’s safety in anyone’s company, but each set of personalities present their own unique complications — usually that of the binging/ racist/ sexist/ vulgar/ religious-political fanatic variety. In short: strong opinions, bad habits, and unforgiving personal views reign. We’re also both only children, and our families don’t really know what it means to be “kid-friendly.”

We’re stuck on how to handle visiting with families — so far our options come down to being present at every visit and monitoring interactions with an iron first, being somewhat present and attempting to regulate adult behaviors by setting ground rules, and taking a laissez-faire approach and simply priming our child before dropping him off and doing damage control with explanations ready when he returns.

How do you handle it when your family members don’t act the way you would around your child? — Kay

Comments on How involved are you when your kid visits family?

  1. Hey all! Since this post is somewhat more sensitive than others, I wanted to leave a friendly reminder from our comment policy about sharing personal information about family members:

    While you’re welcome to share your OWN experiences in your comments, please be extremely cautious when sharing identifiable and personal information about family members or other people. This includes things like delicate interpersonal family issues, your kid’s medical history, custody situations, etc. Bascially, when writing about someone else, always assume the person you’re writing about WILL find and read your comment on Offbeat Mama (because this happens all the freaking time). Please read Ariel’s post for more perspectives on this sensitive issue: Why blog commenter over-sharing is ultimately a publisher’s problem.

  2. Unfortunately you can’t change a person’s personality or how they act around kids. My son is 2 and I’m having this problem now, when his paternal grandparents want him to spend an afternoon at their house. It’s not my place to hang around my ex-husband’s parents house monitoring them with my son. I’m curious as to what other’s responses are too….

  3. I’m only 2 months along, but I am already starting to have concerns of this for when the tater tot comes along. I love my family dearly, and I know that every family has its crazies, but still it concerns me. I guess the best way to look at it is this…the world is full of crazy people of all variations…at least your child will know that it is okay to accept and love people for who they are and that life isn’t cookie cutter perfect. The best you can do is be there to guide your child into an awesome, loving, compassionate human being.

  4. So tough. I remember once *I* did something that my older brother wasn’t happy about with his daughter/my niece. I still have a playful relationship with my younger bro and I punched him on the arm. My older brother said “No Sonya. I don’t want you doing what Auntie B is doing. You don’t hit your brother.”
    That really resonated with me and stopped me dead in my tracks and now I’m always hyper-aware of how I act around my brother’s kids.
    I think I will use that method with my son too.
    “No. Don’t listen to Uncle So-and-So. We don’t talk like that in our family/house” and I will say it in front of Uncle So-and-So.

  5. I must count myself very lucky. Both sides of the family are super kid friendly. Both grandparents keep a crib and buckets of kids toys. My mother and grandmother are Kindergarten teachers, and my mother-in-law still has a kid at home in HighSchool. Both familys stay pretty well child proof and child friendly. I could easily leave my kids there for a couple nights while we went off. We are very lucky.
    The only advise I have is that you just express your opinions and even admit you are being protective… but maybe in a humorous way?? Ex: “Can we NOT leave beer cans all around? Im kinds a prude mom not wanting the kids to take a sip of your back wash or slice there fingers on the tops…you know you would have done it when you were a kid!”

    • This is our policy, too.

      Then again, we have some family members who I we can’t leave our kids with because we actually would fear for their safety (luckily, most are amazing!). I just can’t drop my child off, knowing that I’m going to worry about them all the time.

  6. In the beginning it is super easy to monitor visits since your child is typically so dependent on you. As the kiddo gets older (and also more aware of others’ behavior) the requests for longer visits come in and it gets more difficult.
    My advice would be to observe your relatives with your child early on, see what behaviors they exhibit and if there are behaviors you cannot tolerate (for example, one family member smoked cigarettes while holding my baby) – talk to them about it.
    Other than that, I think the best thing to do is to prime your kid for when they go to someone else’s house. Since you’ve watched how they behave you can know what to expect. I would have a good age-appropriate chat with your child before and after the visit about how people think and act differently than you do. And how, although you may not agree with someone, you still love them. Try to not create tension with these talks. Kids pick up on that so easily and it will make them uncomfortable. They don’t need to know that you think that Gram-Gram is a racist old hag because more than likely – they love Gram Gram.

  7. If I know another person’s house is not safe for my kid, then my kid will not be able to go to that person’s house without me, plain and simple.

    I would closely supervise visits with family members with “questionable” traits. And I would let everyone know the rules. If the rules are violated, they get a warning. Second violation, visit is over.

    A bit harsh, but people learn quickly if one is consistent and means business.

  8. i think it depends on the age of your kid(s).

    under 5’s: oh, you bet i am there policing interactions with an iron fist.

    5-8: possibly less supervision, depending on the kid(s) (are they inquisitive? do they come to me when they have a problem they can’t fix themselves? do they have a good understanding of right/wrong?) and depending on the family members.

    8-10: on a case by case basis – definitely less supervision, maybe only for an afternoon or so, depending on the family member. with the caveat that the kid needs to say something/call me if they’re uncomfortable in anyway.

  9. Our baby is due in five weeks and my husband and I have agreed never to leave our child alone with either of our sets of parents. My parents are racist and like to hit (aka spank), and his parents are hyper-religious and hit. Both are very conservative politically. My husband and I are closet atheists with his parents (his choice) because he doesn’t want to lose his family if he told them (he would). I don’t see how we can impose boundaries around their preachiness with that policy in place. We’re not closeted with my parents, so I have to ask them to keep our secret with his parents. Sigh.

    I’m not confident we can pull this plan off forever, but hopefully we can pull it off long enough for our son to develop some sense of right and wrong before he’s exposed to them. I’ve made some of my boundaries very clear with my parents (no hitting), but I doubt they’ll observe them when I’m not around. My parents still think they did the right thing, and I don’t think I’ll ever convince them otherwise.

      • They don’t know what else to do. Hitting works, so they don’t see the problem. I’ll try to educate them. I just found this great video about the effects of hitting, but I doubt they’ll watch it:

    • Carolyn, I had a similar issue with my own mother and eventually had to just stop unsupervised visits with her. When she comments about my MIL seeing my kids more, I simply remind her that she can’t respect my parenting choices and I can’t trust her. Stand your ground! Your parents should definitely respect your wishes when it comes to spanking… that’s NOT a grey area!

  10. Mine and hubby’s families are far more conservative/gun-toting/meat-eating/religious than we are. Yet, I know that the grandparents aren’t going to try to preach to our toddler about the Constitution or Jesus. Grandma might read a Bible story to her but hey, it’s just a story and I know she’s not trying to ‘save’ my kid. Our biggest issue is with food since we grew up fat and are trying to raise our kid on a well-balanced diet. Sadly, our parents try to feed our kid like they fed us which resulted in childhood obesity for both hubby and I.

    I don’t really let my kid spend time alone with other relatives, just grandparents. I don’t know hubby’s family well enough to feel comfortable and I’m not close enough to mine for an unsupervised visit to even come up.

    The way I see it is this- your kids don’t see your extended family that often and probably for short periods of time (like no more than a week I assume) so it won’t be hard to ‘undo’ anything that may have been learned. Kids will soak it all up but are quick to move onto the next thing. Your child may ask you what the ‘N’ word means because Uncle Whoever said it but you can simply use that as a time to teach him/her about equality and to instruct your kid to not use the word.

    • Oh I feel you. My answer is to live far far away so all visits become supervised family vacations. My in-laws just bought the older grand kids shotguns and I made it very clear that I do not want that as a gift for our kids when they get to that age. Their eating habits are atrocious, my mother in-law ALWAYS has a bottle of wine with her, EVERY single one of my in-laws smokes cigarettes and pot, and I’ve heard so many racial slurs and jokes in their presence it’s disgusting. Luckily my husband is the black sheep of his family, which includes constantly being mocked for being a vegetarian and shopping from “fancy” grocery stores (organic).

      At the end of the day I married my husband, not his family. I know we will do what is best for our kids, even if it means hurting our family’s feeling.

  11. I think the answer really depends on what is being done. If it is not safe, then my kids wouldn’t go over there without me or at all. Some things are easier, like my in laws insisting that my kids are quiet during the mealtime prayer or that they need to accompany them to church since the kids can’t stay home by themselves and the kids stayed over at the in-laws’ house on a Saturday night. Sure, no problem, be respectful.
    My particular problem came with my mother feeding my kids lots of food that I didn’t approve of. When she just watched them for a date night a couple of times a month, I didn’t set any rules. It was more like a ‘sure enjoy some stuff with grandma time’. When I went back to work and she started babysitting full time, I had to start putting down rules (no, oatmeal cookies from the dollar store are not breakfast; no, they don’t need to go to the store EVERY day and get a new toy). She stuck to the rules only sometimes. My sister would help out too and do things I didn’t agree with either (like feed them dinner at 4 pm, so that by the time I got home at 5:30 pm, she would put them in bed for me). Finally, we took a break from having them as full time caregivers and my husband (then boyfriend), worked a night job so he could stay home in the day for them. Once we all got some distance, we were able to establish some ground rules and work towards more visits. It has been several years now and my boys are now able to visit them during the summer without issue. For us, it took distance (figurative and literal- we moved from FL to PA). So, you can see how things go in the beginning, but don’t be afraid to step back and take some distance too. Talk to your partner lots and get on the same page.

  12. I don’t worry about this with my immediate family. But I can definitely say that my extended family has been very hurtful to me during my growing up years, and even still. Many of my cousins agree. Certain people say snide/vicious/mean things about each other (and the kids) in the hearing of children, and some of them get into loud arguments at family events.

    We all grew up with it and hate it. But they’re all 50+ years old, they aren’t going to change just because the younger generation wants to protect their children from bad adult behavior.

    What many of us have decided to do is band together. We only do visits/events when 2 or more of the “sane” among us can be there to act as buffers for each other and for the kids.

    • My kid’s 60+ year old grandma learned a lot of new tricks and started behaving when the alternative was never seeing her grand-daughter. And my 69 yo future father in law is learning how to communicate like an adult because I don’t accept “because I said so” as an answer to ANYTHING. People CAN change if you find the right motivation–though admittedly sometimes the right motivation isn’t something you’re willing to make happen. And that’s OK too.

  13. I have come to learn after almost 12 years of being a mother that what your child learns at home will almost always be what sticks. Have confidence in your ability to teach your child right from wrong and relax. 🙂

  14. I didn’t even think about the food thing. My parents are obese and they love feeding my nephew sugar when my sister’s not around. She’s asked them not to.

  15. When my firstborn started spending weekends at Grandma’s house she was about 18 months old and I dropped her off with a laundry list of schedule and dietary expectations. I was then deeply frustrated when my mother-in-law ignored most of them.

    What I finally settled on was this: if my child is safe, fed, and loved by family it’s okay if her experience is different with grandparents than it is at home. The extra tv time, sugar, whatever that happens there is part of what makes time with grandparents special and she’s more than capable of learning that life is different at grandma’s than it is at home. It’s not daily or even weekly, which helps, but it is hard to give up control. Having a weekend a month kid-free? Well that makes it easier. 🙂

    Ultimately, I think it is a good thing for my children to have independent and unique relationships with extended family, and part of facilitating that is, within reason, giving up the minute-to-minute control that my husband and I have when kids are at home.

    I want to add that I think in the future this will mean that at times my kids will hear political viewpoints that are different than what they hear at home, and encounter attitudes toward race that are different than what they encounter at home. I am okay with this – they’ll work out what they think by going through experiences, disappointments, epiphanies with extended family and with us – and hopefully I’ll always be a good sounding board as they work this stuff on those different levels.

    So, within reason, we operate by Mom and Dad’s rules at our house and Grandma’s rules at Grandma’s house, etc.

    • This really resonates with me. I had to ‘let go’ as well. Plus, I realised that as our kids get older, I wanted them to be able to talk about the different values and perspectives that people have in a respectful way. When I was growing up and we went visiting, I heard alot of nasty talk about other family members and I am really conscious about not doing this in front of our kids.

      Also,my partner and myself are what our families term as ‘out there’ but in a way it has worked for us. We are really explicit about our parenting in front of the family so they see our boudaries in action.

    • I agree. Sometimes the whole point of going to Grammy’s is that it’s special, so sometimes you do things out of the norm. My mom is careful with my nephew not to just cram him full of sweets….instead, if there are sweets they’re tied into an experience. For example, helping Grammy make dessert for the family dinner that night means he gets to lick the beaters from making frosting. Or, to keep him occupied, my mom will take a small plate and put some sprinkles on it…it takes him forever to pick up each individual sprinkle and eat it, so she gets him out of her hair for a bit while she works.

  16. When I was a kid my parents really focussed on using the “different” values and behaviours of extended family to teach us that rules etc are different depending on circumstance – the world isnt all treated the same – but just because they believe or act in one way doesnt mean its ok for us to. They taught us what our values were and why and then trusted us to use our judgement. Always in an age appropriate way of course. Im not saying it always worked or was always easy, kids naturally push boundaries, but now that we are adults it is the only choice our parents made that my siblings and I all agree was clever, really worked on the headstrong independent kids we were and that we each plan on carrying on with our own families. I guess my point is to trust that you are raising your children well and that outside influences can not undo all your effort! 🙂

  17. My husband and I have discussed this. At length. His family is darned liberal and mine is darned conservative. My dad has Tourettes and can’t help from uttering certain phrases that won’t be great for a young child to repeat. That being said, they are all wonderful with our daughter, even if her fertile little mind is getting ideas planted. The conclusion that we’ve reached is that we want her to make informed decisions and this is a way of informing her – “these are politics, these are why they are important. Some people feel strongly this way and some people feel strongly that way, and you need to really research these issues to develop your own opinion.” And “Grandpa has a disorder where he has no control over when he says (insert family unfriendly phrase here). He is aware that it’s not a very nice phrase, which is why he apologizes afterward.” What it boils down to is the fact that these people raised us and we still managed to develop our own opinions and still be well rounded… and we’ll have more influence being the people that she’s with and mimicing most often.

  18. I am so sorry others have to go through this parenting “trial by fire”. When my daughter and son were very young, about 6 and 2 respectively, I sent them off to a family barbecue with my husband’s sister (who I would trust with my childrens’ lives)with their maternal family. Unfortunately, while they were there, one of my husband’s aunts gets into a discussion about how “Grandma T isn’t your real grandma”. My husband’s mother died of cancer when he was a teenager, and his father remarried a woman who has become the absolute most wonderful Grandmother in the history of the world. I understand how these men and women still love and miss their sister, and how her children and grandchildren(my husband and his sister and their children) are one of their only links to her, but to belittle a wonderful, loving relationship with their grandmother just because technically she’s a step-grandma is beyond low. Needless to say, my children, all three of them now, are not permitted to go anywhere near the offending Auntie unless closely supervised, and my husband and his sister back me up completely. It’s a shame to lose some family ties, but when behavior crosses a line you have to stand up for what you think is best for your children.

    • My son has a “step” grandma too who sounds like your little one’s “step” grandma – more wonderful than I could ever hope. I’m not sure how I will approach this with my son when it comes up but I remember one of my gr.4 students saying that his “grandma-in-the-heart-not-by-blood” passed away. I thought that was so cute and I praised his parents for using this phrase to help him understand his own family dynamic.

    • I know a family who’s oldest child has a different dad. Her mom always used the word “biological” instead of “real.” When she talked to her daughter about the dad that raised her she said “If you can touch him, he’s real.”

    • My partner’s family is “patchworked” together, with step-grandmother’s and aunts and uncle’s who are technically not even related. I love that My kids have a very big “extended” family. My oldest son’s father doesn’t live with us. My current partner and his entire family have taken my son in, without a thought of blood relations. Likewise, Our family has an amazing relationship with my oldest son’s father and grandparents. They attend holidays and birthdays and treat both boys equally. Both boys call each other’s grandparents and great grandparents “grandma” “grandpa” “Mimi” “Nana”… you get the idea. I don’t feel the need to differentiate and say “this is O’s family, this is Z’s family”. As far as I’m concerned we are all ONE family and as long as my children are surrounded by love, who cares what the DNA says?

  19. We had this same concern for our little one on the way – so much so that we are using a counselor to help us make a plan for how to negotiate our family situation. We have a particular family member whom, for a variety of reasons ranging from minor to very serious, is not to be left alone with our child and whose relationship we know we will need to mediate.

    The kid isn’t here yet, so we have yet to put any of our counselor’s advice into practice. And there is still more we need to work on and have clear before we get ourselves into one of the situations that we are concerned about, but already her advice is making sense to me. And it has been a huge stress relief and confidence booster to have an outside party to talk to and affirm that 1) YES you are justified in having these concerns and 2) YES you have every right to be firm and direct in dealing with your family members and 3) YES fallout may happen with the family but the most important thing is your kid.

    I won’t go into the details of what she has talked about with us, but I would certainly recommend that if your concerns are very severe, or if you and your partner(s) are in conflict over how to deal with it, outside help from a therapist or counselor can be a tremendous help.

    • *This* so much, but I don’t think the issues even need to be severe. My husband is currently seeing a family therapist with his parents and while it may not solve the problems we have with them, we are getting a better idea of what they’re capable of and if they will ever be people we will be comfortable leaving a child with without supervision. For us it’s about them not respecting us, disregarding our requests and feelings, saying horrible things about us to our friends and family members, and not thinking that any of that is a problem. They may not be the worst grandparents in the world, but I don’t think it’s fair to leave a kid with them knowing they’ll likely be told horrible lies about their parents. It would be hurtful to the child, and damaging to the relationship they can have with supervision.

  20. This hits kinda close to home for me. Long before I met my husband, I made a promise to myself and to my future kids. My dad and I have had a rocky relationship and he was verbally abusive and said things to me that you shouldn’t say to the daughter you love and support. This is aside from the fact that my house was a spanking house. My promise is that I will not tolerate that behaviour with my kid. For the most part I think my hubby and I will be able to mitigate behaviour we don’t like by talking to our kids and being open and honest about what is okay in our house and what is not but I will be watching my dad. He has been much better and I hope he would never even consider behaving that way to his grandchild (although he did it to a friend of mine once) but I still have the niggling doubt. So I will watch and be prepared that if I see tendencies toward taking frustration and anger out on my child, I will be quite clear that if it happens, there will never be grandpa/grandkid bonding time alone again.

    My husband’s family will not be involved. Period. They aren’t involved in our lives because they can’t be supportive of my husband and I would NEVER trust them with our kid.

  21. I only have a 6 month old now, so clearly I know exactly what I want to do when I’ll have a 6 year old! 😉 Ha ha ha, right? Here’s what works for me right now: if I fear for my child’s safety, physical OR emotional, I am right there, physically present, at all times. If the caregiver does something differently than I would, I’ll make a point of mentioning it before handing the child over the next time (e.g. giving sugary treats). But if it’s something that basically boils down to “house rules” (swearing, what toys are and aren’t okay to play with, religion…) then I try really, really hard to back off, even if it makes me twitchy. One of the things I want my child to learn at an early age is that some people do things one way and some people do things another, and that’s not a bad thing.

  22. From the other end of this, I wasn’t really involved much with one set of grandparents. Without going into too much detail, my grandmother simply shouldn’t have been trusted with children and probably never should have had any of her own. I never noticed that my visits with her were supervised and all I knew was that she would say and do things that were strange to me and that they didn’t align with what my parents were teaching me about right and wrong. As an adult, I learned about all of this and I am incredibly grateful that my parents 1. didn’t leave her alone with me and 2. were willing to speak with me about the things she said.

  23. Our daughter is still a baby, but because my husband’s parents are hoarders, there will be no overnight visits at their house. It’s sad, but we’re not willing to compromise on her safety. Other standards will be relaxed when it comes to visits with family (tv, food, etc), but no sleepovers is a firm rule unless they can clean up/get organized.

    I don’t really see any issues with my own family, and don’t worry about leaving baby in their care, especially since my mum is a retired Early Childhood Educator.

    • We have this issue too and it really isn’t about the “junk” with us. It is genuinely unhealthy to breathe, eat and sleep in a house that cannot be regularly cleaned. There is only one room in my parents house that I feel ok with my toddler being in. Even in that room he requires close supervision because he could pick up a penny or lick something disgusting. It makes me a better house keeper in my OWN home because I am grossed out so much when I go over there.

  24. My mother doesn’t get to see my kids, because she is a physically and emotionally abusive person. It’s hard sometimes, because I love her side of the family and they don’t understand, but I’d rather be the black sheep (always have been anyway) to protect them, than allow her to hurt the girls.

    As for my partner’s side, well…they’re everything-phobic but they love kids soooo much and they are brilliant with children. I politely asked them to refrain from various comments a few times, and then blew up. I wish it hadn’t come to that, but they now know that racist/homophobic/transphobic comments are not allowed around our girls, and they respect our parenting choices. I have no problem with leaving the girls with anyone on that side of the family, because they follow our rules and respect our values, even though they disagree.

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