My mother-in-law constantly criticizes the way I raise my two girls, who are 7 and 10. She says I am too lenient with them. I may not be a perfect parent, but I don't think I deserve to be criticized all the time. I feel constantly on edge whenever she comes for a visit, which is often, because she lives just 10 minutes away. Got any advice for me?
Many parents are all too familiar with your problem, and much has been written about how to solve it.
Don't you think she should do her homework by herself? Why can't she choose her own outfit? I think one piece of cake is more than enough.
One popular response to criticism is to fight back. If you subscribed to this school of thought, you would list the ways your husband has revealed that your mother-in-law was an imperfect mother. The hope with this approach is that if you "put her in her place," you will shame her into holding her tongue.
Another school of thought suggests using passive-aggressive approaches that don't overtly demonstrate disrespect, like deliberately ignoring your mother-in-law when she makes a critical comment. While this may leave you seething inside, it does avoid a confrontation.
And still another response is to justify your position, defending your parenting philosophy in an effort to convince your mother-in-law to change her views on whatever the issue might be -- children should/should not be bottle fed, should/should not be allowed to have sweets or should/should not be permitted to go outside without a hat and gloves in winter.
Since most parents are familiar with these approaches -- fighting back, ignoring or being defensive -- let me explore another angle to your dilemma.
In my work, I am always interested in what compels people to behave as they do. I ask this question of my clients: What would have to be true for so and so to behave the way she does? I have found that if I can help people see that the other person's upsetting behavior is something generated within them, rather than about the target of their unkindness, it takes the sting out of the behavior and lets them deal with it more effectively.
I would invite you to ask this question: What would have to be true for your mother-in-law to criticize you? Let's look at a few possibilities.
• She may feel powerless in her life, and is using her relationship with you to assert herself. Some people have little going on that allows them to feel competent and accomplished, and they therefore try to insert themselves into other people's lives as an "expert," delivering advice that hasn't been asked for.
• She may think that the best way to show her love for her granddaughters is to parent them through you. In other words, she might not understand the difference between parenting and grandparenting, and although she knows that she isn't the one to supervise their homework or bedtime, she believes that her love for them needs to be expressed through micromanaging their lives -- through you.
• She may have a very low tolerance for frustration. If this is the case, then she may not be able to hold her tongue when she sees you doing even the littlest thing differently from how she thinks it should be done. Children are not the only ones who can have big challenges managing their impulsivity; many adults find it nearly impossible to not blurt out things they are thinking.
• She may associate loving someone with permission to tell them how to live their lives -- poor boundaries. Oftentimes, the more familiar someone becomes to us, the more we believe we have the right to tell them what to do. Your mother-in-law may actually believe that correcting your parenting is evidence of how close the two of you are.
Regardless of the reason, by considering possible explanations for your mother-in-law's behavior, my hope is that you can take it less personally. This is key. If you see her critical behavior as something she does, rather than an assessment of your parenting skills, you may be able to feel less hurt by it.
Taking it less personally means you can then choose how to respond. This might mean smiling and saying, "Thanks for your input" when she tells you what instrument your daughter should be playing. Or you could say, "You might have a point there" when she advises you to put them to bed earlier.
I firmly believe that when we stop pushing back against people who come at us with unwanted advice and criticism, their behavior simply loses its impact. Often, the offensive behavior -- no longer evoking a reaction -- begins to lessen.
Consider the underlying causes of your mother-in-law's critical nature. Hopefully, by lessening its impact on you, she will find her criticisms is of no use and gradually let go of trying.
It's a different approach, and may sound a little crazy, but give it a try!
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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