Dear Carolyn: This summer, as a favor to my recently divorced sister-in-law, my husband (her brother) and I agreed to take her 13-year-old daughter for three weeks. My sister-in-law surprised us by delivering her daughter AND another 13-year-old to “keep her company.” We buckled down and welcomed the girls, took them on summer adventures, introduced them to neighborhood kids, met all their needs.
Before they left, they stole clothing from me and my 11-year-old daughter. I pointed this out to my sisters-in-law and mother-in-law but was told I was mistaken and not to speak of it again.
Then the Facebook photos started rolling in. I regularly get shared photos of the girls in our clothes, out and about enjoying the rest of their summer vacation. They really took in a haul!
I’m under no illusion that good parenting will deal with our visitors’ stealing issue or that my family will receive an apology for the stolen clothes. I have dropped the subject with my in-laws and want it to go away.
But the family relies on me to host all major holiday gatherings in my house. I do not want my sister-in-law or her daughter in my house until I am over this. How do I gracefully get out of being the hostess without bringing attention to my feelings and making a statement?
– Oh Help
A: I wish you could wish this away, but you can’t make just selected parts of the problem disappear.
Specifically, you can’t drop the subject but hold on to the grudge. Either you put the incident behind you in its entirety, or you face it in its entirety; it’s either too minor to pursue, or too big to dismiss.
This parent, for one, urgently votes “pursue,” and here’s why: I, like any parent, hope my kids never take such a flagrant turn for the delinquent. But all kids screw up; the only variables are how, how often and how severely.
A much more realistic parental hope is that when the kids screw up, as they must, the village doesn’t give them a pass.
Unless your sisters- and mother-in-law know the girls are Facebooking the loot, you and your husband are the only villagers with the whole story and therefore the moral imperative. If they do know and declined to act, then you and your husband are the villagers to whom the moral responsibility devolves.
It stinks, you shouldn’t be, but you are.
It harms all of these kids, your daughter included, to see impunity win. You owe it to the girls to insist you’re made whole or your niece won’t be welcome in your home. Your husband, meanwhile, owes it to you to deliver that message to his family, Facebook photos in hand.
That’s because family issues this sensitive are best handled “in-house.” It won’t prevent the in-laws from scapegoating you to protect their own; expect them to try, in fact, because it’s easier to call you a jerk than their daughter/niece/granddaughter a thief. But your husband – backed by that photographic proof – can stanch such misplaced blame with the authority of a lifetime with them, and insist the attention remain on the fact of a troubled girl. Trust this: She needs you. More than you need them.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.