Dear FamilyMinded: How to Teach Your Kids About Healthy Relationships
For the first Dear FamilyMinded column, we addressed many tricky intersections that kids face with technology. This time, we’re tackling your tough questions about teaching your kids how to have healthy relationships.
We’ll cover how to deal with the competing needs of kids and grandparents, how to raise an extroverted child when you’re not one, ways to teach kids about difference, dealing with another child’s difficult behavior and negotiating the changes of the tween years.
We hope you’ll find something here that enriches your relationships and lends perspective.
When my mother comes to visit, she spends a few weeks with us — often during summer and spring break when I need help with care for my elementary-aged children in order to continue to work. It’s true that my kids are a little wilder than usual during those breaks, but understandably so: They don’t have the routine and structure of school to help regulate them. And because school is so demanding these days, I think they need that kind of break every once in a while. I don’t want to put them in camps all through summer and spring break because I believe downtime, and even boredom, is important.
But my mom criticizes me and them for what she perceives as a lack of rules and a lack of structure. She says that my kids are unruly, that they don’t listen well and that they certainly don’t have enough chores. I’ve been the recipient of one too many “back in my day” lectures, and I’m about to tell my mom to quit visiting us altogether. The thing is that I need her help to do things with my kids during the day so that I can keep my job. What should I do?
Stuck in the Middle
Dear Stuck in the Middle,
You are indeed in the middle, but perhaps not as stuck as you think. What you see as the needs of your kids and the needs of your mother are, in the moment, at odds — and you’re the one who has to make tough decisions or negotiate a middle ground. Things change from generation to generation, and sometimes grandparents have a hard time accepting that. Even beyond generational differences, each parent makes decisions for his or her own kids based on the family’s resources, kids’ individual temperaments and varied goals. It’s a lot to navigate.
Apart from simply doing nothing and letting tension build, one option is to tell your mom that you don’t agree with her assessment of the situation and don’t appreciate her criticism — then you deal with the consequences. She may choose to stop helping you with childcare during holidays, and that means, of course, that you will need to find alternatives.
But in the interest of strengthening relationships, you may want to approach the problem more collaboratively. In this scenario, you talk it out with each of the parties separately and together, then you come up with a workable solution. Perhaps everyone could benefit from a bit more structure to the day, but in a way that preserves your kids’ needs for downtime, too. May we suggest a schedule?
8-9:00 — Kids and Grandma make and eat breakfast together.
9-9:30 — Kids help clean up breakfast, make their beds, brush their teeth and get dressed.
9:30-10:30 — Free time. Everyone gets to choose how he or she spends this time as long as it conforms to your family’s rules.
10:30-2:00 — Planned outing. Help your kids and mom develop a list of places they’d like to go together. Each day of the week could be something different: a new park, the library, the pool, any museums or other experiences that are affordable or free (or that you already have a pass for).
2:00-3:00 — Free time. Kids can play with friends in the neighborhood, read, draw, build or otherwise spend their time as they wish.
3:00-3:30 — Clean up and help-out time. Assign age-appropriate tasks that each child can do to contribute.
3:30-4:30 — Screen time. Let them watch two episodes of their favorite show. Saving screen time for the later part of the day means that it becomes a reward they can earn by listening to Grandma and contributing when needed.
When you or your partner get home from work, be sure to relieve Grandma of her duties, give her ample thanks and make dinner for everyone. As you know, it’s hard work caring for little ones.
You got this!
My two kids consider our two neighbor children their best friends. The four of them play together almost constantly when they’re able to and create wonderfully imaginative games. But a problem has come up, and I don’t know how to handle it. Because my kids attend public school and the neighbor kids homeschool, the neighbors aren’t exposed to the same numbers of germs that mine are. Little things that I consider annoying, but normal, parts of childhood (like colds and bugs and occasional lice) seem very threatening to the neighbor parents.
I do my best to warn them if my kids have been exposed to any of those things, but the truth is that I don’t always know. Consequently, my kids have passed on some of these school-borne ills to our neighbors — much to the parents’ dismay. Now, they have new rules that include “no touching” and “no going inside one another’s houses.” I understand wanting to protect your kids, but this feels … excessive. And my children have begun to feel like there must be something wrong with them. Their feelings and even their self-esteem are suffering. I know I can’t change the neighbor parents’ decisions. But what can I do?
Dear Patient Zero,
This actually may be an incredible gift wrapped up in a shoddy package. Why? It’s a moment to teach your kids about difference. The neighbor family does things differently from yours, and that doesn’t make them better or worse — nor does it reflect on your own family’s worth. It’s possible that there are factors beyond your knowledge that motivate the neighbor parents to exercise extreme caution. For instance, perhaps someone in the family is chronically ill or has a compromised immune system and cannot easily handle common childhood ailments.
Whatever their motivation, they have a right to do things as they wish, and your kids have a right to decide whether or not they can live with the differences. Help your kids understand that it is indeed a choice — they can choose to accept their friends as they are, even when they don’t like everything they do. Or, they can choose to make other friends in the neighborhood and move on. From the way you describe the relationship, we suspect that your kids will choose to remain friends and that means they’ll have to accept the new rules in order for the friendships to survive.
As with a lot of hard things, this will probably take multiple conversations and plenty of reassurance. Make it clear to your kids that there’s nothing wrong with them because there isn’t.
You got this!
My Friend’s Son’s Behavior?
I have a close friend with two kids the same ages as mine. This friend is smart, interesting and overall lovely. Her younger son and my younger son get along wonderfully, and our two older sons like one another, too. It should be a perfect playdate when we get together with the kiddos. The problem is that her older son can sometimes be an absolute terror, and my friend does nothing about it.
She always has a reason for his behavior: He’s tired, he’s hungry, his teacher doesn’t understand him, and that’s why he’s upset. Meanwhile, he wreaks havoc at my house if I’m hosting and often causes problems with other kids when we’re at the park. Now, my son seems to be emulating his friend’s behavior when they’re together — albeit to a lesser degree. I’m afraid that my friend will not take it well if I broach the subject, and I don’t want to lose her friendship. But I’m worried that this is an unhealthy relationship for my son — not to mention unpleasant for me. Help!
We’re sorry — we really are — but here’s the hard truth: You have to do something. Kids can and do influence one another in all sorts of directions, and this sounds like a direction you don’t want for your older son. Martha Beck, author and life coach, teaches that honesty opens the door to deeper connections while dishonesty closes that door. Bottom line: If you want to keep and/or strengthen the relationship with your friend, you’re going to have to take some deep breaths and make yourself talk about it.
Because this is a grown-up conversation, ask your friend when you two can talk, sans kids. Start by saying how much you value her friendship and how wonderful it is that your kids like to play with one another, too. Then, make a few observations about the other boy’s behavior that are specific and not value-laden. In other words, avoid saying, “Your son’s behavior is appalling,” (even if it is). Instead, say, “I saw your son break his sister’s toy the other day” or whatever you have directly observed.
You might at this point mention that your own son has shown some similar behaviors and acknowledge that the two may be influencing one another — because Non-Confrontational — that’s also possible. When it comes to relationships, it’s well-advised to shoulder at least some of the responsibility for what’s gone wrong.
Then, share your feelings. Don’t go overboard, and don’t insert opinions, labels or recommendations. Instead, say that you feel worried or concerned or whatever other genuine feelings you have about the situation. Keep it simple. Wrap up the conversation with reassurance that you value her friendship enough to be honest and that you are there for her.
You can’t control her choices, Non-Confrontational, but you can do your best to communicate clearly and kindly and then see how things play out. Know that this kind of conversation could solidify or weaken the friendship, depending on where she is emotionally and what’s going on behind the scenes. But since you knew that her son’s behavior was getting in the way in any case, change — as unsettling as it can be — was inevitable.
You got this!
Where’s the Affection?
My parents come from a traditional Italian-American background in which hugging and kissing to say hello and goodbye are the norms. But my son apparently did not get the hugging gene because he doesn’t enjoy this type of greeting in the least. At 3 years old, he hugs and kisses my parents very reluctantly — if at all — and clearly is uncomfortable with the whole ritual.
But they continue to insist on it and have recently told me that they feel hurt at my son’s reluctance. My parents are on the older side, and I don’t know if they’ll understand the whole “personal autonomy extends even to 3-year-olds” argument. I’ve always been close with my parents and hate to disappoint them. At the same time, I want to teach my son to respect his grandparents while still honoring his own feelings. Is this even possible?
Dad of a Non-Hugger
Dear Dad of a Non-Hugger,
When helping mediate family conflicts, there aren’t too many cases in which we come down on one side or another. There are usually grains of truth in each person’s perspective, of course — and your parents are absolutely entitled to their feelings. However, we will say very clearly in this case that your job here is to support your son and not to cater to your parents’ feelings and expectations.
In social situations, your son has the right to decide how and when he wants to be touched. We must teach that to our kids early and often — and stand by it absolutely — if we hope to create a future where people respect one another’s bodies and rights. Children whose personal boundaries are honored are more likely to honor their own and others’ boundaries as they grow older, too.
With that in mind, check out this inspiring video of a teacher in the Philippines who gives every one of her students a choice of how they want to be greeted each day. Did it make you tear up? It did for us. The respect and warmth inherent in this scenario is exactly what we want our kids to learn — for themselves, and for each person they will encounter in childhood and beyond.
If you need more authority to back up our advice, consider that the American Academy of Pediatrics, in an article about fostering healthy sexual attitudes, recommends not forcing children to show affection when they don’t want to. “It is their right to tell even grandma or grandpa that they do not want to give them a kiss or a hug goodbye … Constantly reinforce the idea that their body is their own, and they can protect it,” the Academy writes.
We suggest imparting this information to your parents clearly (probably in a private setting, so they aren’t embarrassed in front of other relatives or feel the need to try to convince your son otherwise). Remind them that what they really want is for their grandson to be happy to see them, and that honoring his boundaries will only help that along. And talk to your son about this concept frequently, too. Try it out at home. Model consent whenever you can. Your son, and those he develops relationships with in the future, will be healthier and happier for it.
You got this!