Dear Carolyn: My boys are 4 and 6 and very high-energy, though well behaved for their ages. My parents don’t live nearby, and now that they’ve finally retired, they want to plan a weeklong family vacation along with my childless brother and his wife.
Sis-in-law is fantastic with kids. My brother and parents, however, are fairly high-strung and have age-inappropriate expectations. Their primary interaction with my children is scolding them (when my husband or I are in the room) for doing things like bickering, playing too loudly, being too active, etc.
I have learned to correct my family frankly but kindly when they overstep my parenting, and my husband (wisely) just seethes quietly. But it is stressful, and we feel like we can’t leave the room lest our kids be scolded for something unexpected; and when my kids are stressed, their behavior worsens. Not to mention the pressure we feel for our kids to be on their best behavior 24/7.
For the past three years we have limited visits with my family to three days for our sanity. The prospect of a weeklong visit is already making me anxious. We plan to schedule some outings away from my family, and we will stay in an appropriately sized and outfitted house (outdoor pool, big yard, games, etc.).
Is there anything else I can do to make this a better situation for everyone? Is it wise to have a “family conference” at the beginning of the trip to set expectations, or send an email (I write better than I speak), or say something in person beforehand? Or should I just cross my fingers, focus on my breathing and let things play out?
A: Why not all of the above, plus?
Yes, be frank but kind when your family oversteps; yes, minimize the time your kids and family are alone together; yes, plan to be out of the house for hours at a stretch; yes, practice deep breathing; yes, say something beforehand: “I know the kids are high-energy and can wear people down. I will absorb as much of that as I can. All I ask is that you let me handle it. In fact, please tell me when you’ve hit your limit with them. Thanks in advance.”
Plus: Consider a shorter stay. Just because your parents planned a week doesn’t mean you have to stay a week.
Plus: Consider going the philosophical route. What, exactly, has you so stressed out: Are you feeling judged as a parent by your parents and brother? For that, I suggest a mantra: “I don’t need their approval.” Are you worried the scolding will harm your kids? For that, there’s perspective. Your kids probably won’t like your folks a whole lot, but they’ll withstand these infrequent grumpy corrections. Are you annoyed that the scolding revs up your kids, thereby making your already tough kid-wrangling job even tougher? That’s a nuisance yes, but one that expires when the vacation does.
And so on. Bringing us to this: Your family may be the source of the scolding and impatience with little-kid energy, but the pressure originates inside you.
You can de-fang it all – the pressure, the grumps, the dread, the trip itself – by choosing not even to try to present a seamless, seven-day performance of best behavior. It’s not going to happen anyway, so it’ll be a “better situation for everyone” if you don’t give yourself the doomed assignment of prostrating yourself to make it so.