My brother does not live near his children, so he tries to do something fun with them during their month together each summer. He usually brings them to see us for a few days during those visits, but this year, he has asked to stay with my kids and I for two weeks. I love my brother so I said yes, but his children are wild. They don't clean up after themselves, fuss over their meals and never say thank you. My brother doesn't get to see his kids much so he tries to be their buddy instead of setting them straight. How can I keep this visit from driving my family crazy? I want my kids to have a close relationship with their cousins, but I am already dreading their visit.
It is not uncommon for parents who have limited contact with their children to resist stepping into an authoritarian, parental role when they finally get to be together. I feel for your brother; when time with his kids is so precious, I understand how tough it could be for him to say no or set limits.
Still, his children need to know that he is their dad, not their buddy; knowing he is what I refer to as the "captain of the ship" in their family actually deepens their sense of safety and closeness with him.
If you and your brother are close enough to have an open and honest conversation, then by all means, make yourself available to talk about the dilemma he faces. Let him know that you understand how hard it must be to help his kids get comfortable with him after long stretches of time apart. Acknowledge the challenges he faces in wanting to feel like a regular dad who establishes structure and discipline while ensuring his kids leave their visit with happy memories and a closer connection with him.
If your brother doesn't feel judged, he may admit to being troubled by how wild his kids are when they are in his care. Show him that you understand how much he wants to use the limited time he has with his kids to have fun with them. Share with him the idea that his kids may test his limits as a way to feel that he still is their dad, even though they no longer live together. Talk about how their acting out may be their way of dealing with excitement at finally getting to be with him or a natural symptom of adjusting to being with dad instead of their mom. Make it clear that you are his ally, and there to support him.
After sharing how excited your kids are to be with their cousins, ask if he has any thoughts on some guidelines the two of you could come up with to share with all the kids at the start of the visit, to make sure your time together is relaxed and easy. Collaborating with him will help your brother feel included in the expectations you are setting, and more parental.
When his family arrives, sit everyone down and together, run through a few guidelines that the two of you have determined will make your visit a great one. You might say something like, "You all know how machines need oil to make them run smoothly? Families need "oil" too, so they can run well. While we're all staying together, we have figured out some things that will help me make sure we have a really fun visit:
"1. Before dinner, we'll all spend ten minutes tidying up the house. That way, small messes won't turn into big ones!
2. Everybody is responsible for taking their own dishes from the table, rinsing them off and loading them into the dishwasher.
3. If you're unhappy about something -- maybe your brother or sister or cousin won't play with you, or you're mad about what we're having for dinner -- you can let either of us parents know. We might not fix things, but if you have a complaint, it's a lot better to get it off your chest."
Successful families make it clear that when there are problems or hurt feelings, they can be discussed, rather than ignored or buried. By modeling for your brother what it sounds and looks like to lovingly but firmly create structure and set limits, he may become more comfortable with doing the same.
Build connection with your nieces and nephews -- it is much easier for kids to cooperate with those who they feel like and enjoy them. Look for and acknowledge small successes. If they forget their manners, take a deep breath and don't let yourself get too bent out of shape. Enjoy your time together, and strengthen those important bonds of family.
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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