Background: While my wife and I provide an independent, creative and supporting environment for our kids, we also work very to hard to demonstrate "predictable consequences" for any behavior be it positive or negative. When friends come over, we cover the golden rule and everybody is happy with the occasional reminder from time to time.

The Trouble: We have a closely related relative who lives very close to us. Their son is the same age as our boy. The troubling part is their boy is poorly behaved. He's on his second pre-school due to the fact he was expelled from the first. Throughout the years, his behavior has become worse and worse. The only thing his parent's do is undermine anybody who attempts to do anything and simple console him when he's upset. This kid's bad behavior rubs off on our son too. We spend time before and after playtime conditioning our son in order to keep him on the right track.

Complicating Factor: When this relative's son is at our house without his parents. He behaves well, not perfect, but well. He is respectful and we have only had to review consequences a few times in the 2 years we've had him around.

It seems clear that the parents are the issue. This son's Dad has asked us "how we do it" (as in keep his kid in line), and we've been candid in our response. No surprise though, nothing came of it. As we have already limited interaction as much as possible without causing family strife, I really only see two options ahead of us. 1) Cut ties altogether, 2) Confront the parents and cause strife. At any rate, it seems option 2 is just a matter of time.

What is an option we haven't considered?

  • Whatever you plan to do, also consider how you children might view it.
    – rajesh
    Commented Nov 13, 2013 at 5:00
  • Omg! If you find a magical answer to this then please let me know. We have this exact same problem with one of my sister-in-law's 2 boys. The parents are also the common denominator.
    – Meg Coates
    Commented Nov 13, 2013 at 8:04

5 Answers 5


Is it possible/feasible for him to spend more time with your family without his parents around? Since his parents don't seem to be particularly interested in discipline and their son's behavior, his best bet for a calm, predictable environment is your home.

The more time he's around an environment where there are predictable consequences for behaviors and a supportive structure, the better. You might be this child's only chance for a bit of structure in an otherwise unstructured upbringing.

  • A good suggestion. Especially useful since this boy will be put into the public school system next september. Then he can get structure there and at my place.
    – WhatThe
    Commented Nov 11, 2013 at 21:30
  • As as aside, bless you and your family for opening your doors and hearts to this child. We need more people like you in the world.
    – Valkyrie
    Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 13:02
  • Great suggestion, +1 we have found this method to be absolutely essential. The parents will eventually start to wonder if it is one-sided and WhatThe's kid doesn't ever go over to the nephew's house. Just something for the family to consider and be prepared for. Commented Nov 13, 2013 at 3:35
  • If they do, @balanced mama, maybe that'll be the opening the OP requires for starting the conversation about how their parenting (or lack thereof) is affecting their son.
    – Valkyrie
    Commented Nov 13, 2013 at 11:15
  • 1
    @Valkyrie absolutely! And in the end, if handled sensitively, that could be a very good thing. Commented Nov 13, 2013 at 12:42

I would advise against cutting ties or confronting. Cutting ties punishes the child for something that is really not his fault. He needs allies in the family. Confrontation could do the same, it is unlikely to help, and it introduces a negative dynamic into the larger family that you will never be able to take back. These people aren't raising their son badly because they want to be mean. They are just clueless (and perhaps lazy) - not enough reason to write them off completely. Continue to teach by example, but don't expect much!

I think you have other options as well. Inviting the boy to your house without his parents, as Valkyrie suggests, is one thing you can do. You will be a positive influence, though a limited one when compared to his parents. A few other considerations:

  • Meet in a neutral space. When my kids were small, we had friends that we always met at neither house. Sometimes it was a park, sometimes an eating place with play area. It gave me a little bit of control over the situation - we could end the get-together if it got to be too unpleasant.
  • Talk to your young relative the same way as you talk to your own child. This not only benefits the boy, but it shows your own child consistency.
  • Remember that every experience is a learning experience for your child. Your son will experience undisciplined children when he goes off to school without you. He will need to know how to talk to them, how to stand up for himself, when to tell a teacher... This is an opportunity to learn that all children will not be as nice as he is or as well-behaved as he is, and to help your child learn some phrases to say in different situations he encounters with his cousin.
  • Invite other children at the same time (again, a neutral spot is best). A group of children are less likely to put up with a badly behaved peer, and the boy may try harder to fit in. If his parents are there, they will see (perhaps) how their child is not fitting in.
  • Remember that the young relative may outgrow this phase, particularly if he is fortunate to have good teachers.
  • And if he doesn't, kids do grow in their own directions, and as they age they choose their own friends. In a few years, they will be negotiating their own play dates instead of playing with friends or relatives their parents organize for them. This problem is somewhat time-limited - hang in there!

Boy can I empathize! We have a very difficult situation with my in-laws in general and have run into this very problem in various incarnations ourselves. I see your question as truly being three-fold in terms of the issues you need to deal with here: How do we keep the peace? How do we go about confronting them without needing to cut all ties and how do we help our son sort it all out?

"How do we keep the peace, or do we give up and cut ties with these family members?

  • Ways to delay or avoid as much confrontation as possible: The other answers here all really seem to focus on answering this one. There are some great ideas and considerations here. However, the idea that any of the listed solutions will help you avoidconfrontation altogether are probably simplistic. Since I believe that at some point the extended family members are likely to see through it, I have given some ideas about how to manage the confrontation when it does occur. Really, having the family see through these methods might be a good opening for a "soft" confrontation that will help improve things for everyone. With the holidays fast approaching - the issue might come up faster than you think.

  • While I don't suggest cutting ties I don't think it is a good idea to just hide from confrontation when it is needed either. Avoiding confrontation at all costs, sets an example for your son that doesn't demonstrate how to stand up for yourself in a positive way. Plus, getting kicked out of preschool is a pretty big deal - I'd imagine some of these behaviors can be a bit physical at times - your kid needs to know you've got his back.

  • Having said that, I do suggest avoiding confrontation to a point. You don't want to host some sort of intervention meeting either. Any confrontation that arises, is likely to be best received if it arises naturally out of an unplanned situation. I recommend strongly, sitting down with your wife and really making sure the two of you are on the same page about where you want to draw the line about what can be let go of and what will result in direct, but careful confrontation. This way you avoid uneccessary confrontations, but are also not in danger of sending mixed messages either.

If confrontation is required or inevitable, how can we go about it as gracefully and lovingly as possible and avoid cutting ties altogether?

  • Be Sensitive. This probably goes without saying, but just in case: You are family, so, if this young man is simply going through a passing phase (which, believe or not, does happen) no worries. If not, and confrontation is required, it is important to be loving and as non-judgemental as possible. These parents, while overly - doting and indulging, are probably doing the best they can. There is a long list of reasons parents over-indulge from making up for the fact they are always at work, to laziness and just bribing/consoling to keep the peace, to trying to make a kid feel okay despite difficult differences (handicaps, emotional disabilities, etc. . . ) Things are bad enough he was kicked out of a preschool - his parents are aware there is a problem, they are probably lost, overwhelmed and possibly in semi-denial as a coping mechanism. You were asked how you keep him in line at one point. That is a good sign this isn't going on because they are clueless. Deep down they think things need to be different too. That is a good sign that things can get better with enough time and sensitivity.

  • There are ways to confront in the moment that are just about expressing limits and expectations. I'll just offer an example of this one. On neutral ground - or even at their house, a calm and collected, "Excuse me, (name) I am disturbed by the fact that you just hit your cousin. If my son did that to you the consequence would be _, (parent's name) what are the consequences of such behavior at your house?" Is a perfectly reasonable response that confronts the parents by communicating you expect a response that includes discipline, but respectfully leaves the specifics up to the parents (while also offering up an idea if they want to take it). On the other hand, at your own house, "Excuse me nephew, when _ happens at my house, the consequence is _ ." When the parent argues with you or swoops in to rescue their son, a response something like, "Well, when _ happens at my house, the consequence is _. My house, my rules. If you won't help me uphold these basic standards in my home, I'm going to have to ask you to leave for now and we can speak about it again another time." Then, if they do leave rather than exerting some form of discipline, make sure you tell the nephew you love him very much and hope he'll follow the rules next time he comes - having play time cut short like that will be a negative consequence for him and frees you up to do what you need to do to help sort things out with your own son.

  • Try not to get emotional about it. This is your kid, a kid you care about deeply, family and parenting - all things that easily get emotional. However, the less emotion you show or put into it, the more likely it is to be recieved. Demonstrate empathy, talk about how you care deeply about the well being of both boys, but try really hard to remain somewhat emotionally detached from the issue itself when discussing it - trust me, it just works better (experience speaking here!!)

  • Use I language: I suggest if you choose not to go to their home, or only meet on neutral territory from here on forward, be honest when you are asked why. Just use "I" language when you are. For example, "It has been very hard for us to be at your place because our rules are so different and our son finds it confusing, while we find it worrisome that x is allowed to happen without consequence." (or whatever works for you but that makes it your problem and not neccessarily theirs) They can read between the lines, but you aren't being accusatory. You are only doing what you need to do to do what is right for your family and requiring nothing of them beyond asking them to respect the boundaries you feel necessary for your family to function.

"How do we help our son sort all of this out too?"

This part is, perhaps the most important part in the end. Life isn't fair and your child might just have to learn that a little earlier than most kids. That's okay and in some ways might even give your son a leg up when it comes to conflict resolution and coping skills as he gets older - it certainly has for our daughter.

  • When discussing discrepencies that will arise with your son, try to speak about why you make the discipline decisions you make positively. Do away with as much judgement of the others as you possibly can. You can get the idea across without being directly disparaging - For example, when my daughter was asking about her cousin's treatment of toys and why stuff they break gets replaced while stuff she breaks doesn't,(they break things - a LOT, and often it is not an accident) my answer was, "I want you to know how to care for the things you have so you don't live in a way that means you have to buy things lots of times and waste your money that way in the future. If you break something because you weren't being careful or because you broke it on purpose you don't get a replacement so that you will learn that not all things can easily be fixed or replaced." Notice, the answer is about what her Dad and I want for her, and not at all about her cousins or their parents. Now, she is a smart kid and realizes the implication is that her cousin's parents aren't teaching them the lesson she is getting. Her response was, why don't aunt _ and uncle _ want my cousins to know that?" My answer, It just isn't one of their priorities apparently honey. I don't know, I only know what I am trying to teach you.

  • It is also important to teach your son how to speak up for himself. We taught our daughter the same kind of "I Language" I mentioned earlier. For example, we taught our daughter that she could say, "I don't like it when you . . . please stop." and "I don't like that game, lets _ instead." We also taught her that she was well within her rights to say, "No" to anything (including hugs, . . . ) AND there is no shame in asking for help if she needs it.

  • We invited our daughter to blame us if she needed to. For example, when she didn't want her cousins in her room, we instated a household rule that bedrooms are not for play-time. Playing was to happen in a room where there was an adult present (really not a bad rule for a lot of reasons when there is questionable behavior involved). She simply had to say, "I know, it stinks, but house rules and I have to follow them. . . "

  • As you are probably already doing, maintain the same consequences for your son you always do where-ever you are. If he argues, but _ doesn't have to do it. Tell it like it is. "That is true. _ doesn't have the same expectations you do. Doesn't change anything though. You know what we expect." No more needs to be said.

Finally, some reassurance

We've been consistent in our honesty, use of "I" messages, and seeking of a balanced approach between letting certain things lay while standing our ground on others for a few years now. Between the kids getting a little older (and calming a little) and our efforts to be supportively respectful of the parents of our nieces and nephews we have actually seen some progress.

Additionally, they are seeing how polite and well-mannered ours is. We can go out to restaurants without total chaos etc. The Mom has even come to me for advice regarding a couple of things her oldest daughter has gotten into at this point. Like you, the first time didn't really seem to have any results, but every time the see a positive interaction between you and their kid, you and your kids, or talk to you about discipline and how you go about it, you are planting seeds - Not all seeds grow, but some of them, eventually will. You just have to give it time.

We also feel that our duaghter is learning valuable lessons about how to look for win-wins and how to hold her own without being judgemental and things are looking up. Slow and steady does win the race - at least at this point it seems to be - so take heart, and good luck. I hope between my answer and the others already posted, you find the right balance of ideas for you and the specifics of your situation.

  • 1
    I wish I could +100 this. Spot on analysis with excellent explanations. Your child is lucky to have you as a parent.
    – Nicholas
    Commented Aug 22, 2014 at 18:31

I can sympathize with you because my husband and I have had similar experiences. The boy in question in our family, though, has multiple sources of discipline and he knows how to work the system. My nephew lives with my parents, but spends time each with his mom and dad. Each different household has different rules and it use to take days before my mom could get him to listen to her again after being at one of his parents houses.

His actions rub off on our son. We feel, though, that it punishes both children by keeping them apart. As they get older it has been getting better.

Give it time and just reinforce things in your hose. If they protest to your rules, then do what another poster said and meet in neutral territory. Do the best you can do with your own child. You do have to realize that once your child goes to school that you are not going to have control over what he learns from other children. You just need to teach him the difference between what is right and wrong in hopes that he can make the distinction by himself.


These are all great answers. Thank you everyone. My wife and I discussed this in great detail and came up with the following options:

  1. Cut all ties - (Not particularly feasible as there is a lot of family in the area.)
  2. Half cut - Only attend the required events, major holidays and birthdays. Also not feasible for us. (These relatives live 2 miles away as the crow flies.)
  3. Confrontation - Confront the parents and encourage them to do something. (We are pretty sure this will make for a very unpleasant holiday season).
  4. Immersion - Bring the child in question into our home more often and allow him to learn consequences. (We love this idea but don't feel the boy's mother will go for it. She is a big time coddler. Part of the issue actually.)
  5. Passive Observation - Basically, keep doing things as is. Except, our kids are not to be left alone with this boy. There should always be supervision so we can intervene before things get out of hand. And boy they have gotten out of hand! If the boy gets out of hand, tell his parents. If he's alone at our house, then we can do what is necessary.

So for anybody coming across this post in the future. I hope this aggregate helps. All the people who responded had such great ideas. I have purposefully kept this generic as we don't need to get lost in the details. Good luck all!

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