69

First some background information: I am a young woman in my early 20s, I lived alone since I was 18 relatively far away from home. I graduated top of my class and I am studying and working in IT. (side note: I am not financially dependent on my family) My cousin is 14 (almost 15) and he visits a higher school where he struggles to keep passing. No one in his close family graduated Germany’s most difficult school (in Germany there are 3 levels of difficulty to choose from), but they want him to study hard to make it. I am emotionally close to him and his grandmother, but no one else in his family.

Now the story starts!

My first cousin once removed and I used to play together when we were younger and I still lived with my parents. His family used to visit mine around 2-3 times a year. I was always like a bigger sister to him.

Naturally when I moved out he still wanted to meet me. His mother allowed it, and he also was allowed to go by train by himself. It is around a 5h trip. He visited around once a year. He is really mature for his age and I was able to take him around the city show him places, go to fancy restaurants and play videogames in the evening. He could also eat chocolate and chips and drink Coke as much as he wanted. (he is doing different kind of sports 4 times a week and is a naturally skinny child; he also eats healthy the rest of the time).

We also discuss his future plans, I help him with bigger school projects (also via Skype when he is at home) because his parents can't. I am always there for him if he needs academic, emotional or any other kind of advice.

Now that he got older and went through puberty his mother keeps saying that he wants to be like me when he grows up and that I am being a horrible influence. She blames ALL the negative side effects of puberty on me, even though he sees me 2 days a year and her 363 days a year. We do message each other every other month. Also she doesn't forbid him to visit me but she talks bad about those visits in front of my family. I was always the black sheep in my family because I chose a "male career path" but I never cared what they thought.

Sadly, now I care. Because I care for my cousin. I personally believe that having a weekend of fun once a year can't possibly harm him, and that his mother is just looking for someone to blame instead of blaming her way of raising him. At home he isn't allowed to drink or eat any sweets. He is only allowed to see friends if he passed all his classes with good grades. So that hasn't happenend in a long time. Video games are completly forbidden.

Now his father games a lot, he has been unemployed for a few years and played games almost the whole day. He even brags about doing so on social media. His father smokes a pack a day and recently my cousin told me he sometimes steals a few cigarettes and smokes them. I explained how harmful they are and that I wouldn't want him to smoke so he stopped. (At least that is what he told me)

I have the feeling his bad habits come from his dad or are just naturally because of his age.

  • Am I being a bad influence?

  • Should I restrict my contact to him?

  • Can I help him or his mother in any way? If yes, how?

  • Even if I am being a "bad influence", is it harmful for his
    development?

I do not have any children on my own but I am a godmother of one (2) and have 1 niece (7) and 3 nephews (1,4 and 9) which I spend lots of time with. I know it is not the same as raising the kids but being in a parenting like role is nothing new to me.

tl;dr: Is gaming and eating junk food with an almost 15 year old once a year harming his development?

UPDATE:

Thanks Francine DeGrood Taylor and other great answers, I did find a way of dealing with this situation. I did feel confident that I am a good part of his life after your answers and I just asked him first if he feels that way. What he replied was really close to what the accepted answer also described. I was overwhelmed by the maturity of our talk and the deepness of his thoughts. However I also found a time to talk to his mother in person and she did promise me to stop spreading any kind of information about me. Here a big thanks to Shauna! It really helped me seeing the role of a mother who wants the best for her child even though his mother was bad at showing so.

Even though the whole thing wasn't "only" a big understanding and there are still some kind of hard feelings on both sides, we (his mother and I) now do communicate more and I try to do some more things she also approves of.

To answer my own questions:

  • Am I being a bad influence?

No, I am not. Even his mother agreed after our talk.

  • Should I restrict my contact to him?

No, I actually do have more contact with him and his family now.

  • Can I help him or his mother in any way? If yes, how? Even if I am being a "bad influence", is it harmful for his development?

Yes, I am now a part of his weekly school routine as a compromise, I get to continue with "spoiling" him, but also help him catch up with his school (even though I still think he shouldn't be there, I understand now that it is not my decision to make, so I am making the best out of it).

No it is not harmful to his development, see the accepted answer.

  • 61
    You are not wrong, his mother is probably just using you as an excuse for her failure at raising a child. – Alic Jan 12 '17 at 17:01
  • 33
    Not a full answer, but I think you have every right to be proud of yourself, and can hardly be seen by any reasonable person as setting a bad example for your young relative. It's a bit hypocritical for the parents to prohibit gaming while the father is unemployed and games all day. However, simply breaking the family's rules is bound to put someone's nose out of joint. – anongoodnurse Jan 12 '17 at 17:48
  • 8
    What is a "great cousin"? Is that like a second-cousin? – Kevin Jan 12 '17 at 18:19
  • 4
    @Kevin It is the son of my cousin. I used Google Translate because English is not my native language. I am sorry if I used it incorrectly. – Pudora Jan 12 '17 at 18:32
  • 13
    Sounds to me like you might be one of the few positive things in this kid's life. Don't abandon him. He clearly has some issues in his life if he struggles with school to such a high degree. Consider referring him to a tutoring service, or otherwise identifying the real issue keeping him from achieving higher grades. It's critical that he get into a decent school, otherwise your help with his homework is not going to count for much. – AndreiROM Jan 13 '17 at 19:49
114

I lived in a family which was fairly restrictive. They were quite religious, we always ate healthy, never any junk food, all our activities were vetted and scrutinized. It was also emotionally repressive; my father had a very bad temper and would strike us whenever he was angry.

When I got out, went to college, got a job (like you, in the IT industry), I vowed I would be an emotional support to my younger siblings. There were six of them, ranging from 3 years younger than me to 18 years younger.

At least once a month, I would invite the ones who were still at home out to a day of role playing games (which my parents did not approve of but didn't object enough to tell the kids they couldn't come). We had a great time, ate a lot of junk food, and stayed up way too late.

Now, twenty five years later, my youngest sister tells me it was like being thrown a life preserver while drowning in freezing, choppy waters. She also is a programmer, and has a great career, a great marriage and four kids. I don't think playing games all night seems to have hurt her at all :)

I can only speak to you from my own experience; I was suicidal all throughout my early years of college because of emotional abuse, and a large part of that was feeling isolated. I didn't have a single ally to turn to, and we moved so often I never really got to have friends. Having a friend who was a relative (as so could not be "left behind" when we moved) would have made a huge difference in my life.

Your great cousin's mother is right now feeling frustrated and maybe overwhelmed. It is natural that children should emotionally separate from their parents, and become adults in their thinking and habits. Some parents (especially mothers) have a difficult time being separated from. They worry about their children, and when they do things outside of mother's control control it worries her even more. Maybe you could reassure her a bit by finding some things you could do with your great cousin which his mother would approve of (in addition to the fun stuff)

Another factor might be that she does not want to acknowledge the bad influence of her husband, and so she is looking for another cause for bad behaviors in her son. When people feel angry at a person who is close to them, they sometimes cannot accept that anger, so they turn it on someone else. I did that...I was so angry at my father that I hated him, but I could not deal with my father being "the enemy" so I diverted to myself. That was why I was suicidal; I hated myself. So try not to take what she says personally. It might be that you are receiving anger that is actually for your great cousin's father, and she is saying to you what she wants to say to him but is unable.

My final advice would be not to abandon your great cousin. You might be one of his only life-lines right now during a difficult time. But don't make an enemy of his mother. Try, if you can, to reassure her that your influence is good. But don't do it by trying to convince her that the things she disapproves of are actually good. Find good things to focus on and tell her about. I don't know what they might be, as I do not know her, but I'm sure you (and your great cousin) could think of some. Then tell her that you are concerned by what she has said and that because of it, you are going to (do something approved and positive) with him. (again, in addition to the fun stuff, but focus her attention where you want it to be)

This will have multiple effects. In any good communication, you should give feedback. You are telling her "I have understood what you said and I accept it". This will make her feel less frustrated and perhaps less angry at you. And it is the truth, as you have said in your question. You want to be a good cousin, you are concerned for his welfare. It will also make her feel as though she has some control over what you do with her son. Get together with your great cousin and come up with some "acceptable" activities, and tell her "I was thinking we might do this or this; what do you think?"

When you approach a conflict (or potential conflict) with a loved one, I think it is good to do so seemingly from a position of weakness. When you make yourself weak to them and ask them for help in your "weakness" you can turn an enemy into an ally. You are suggesting to her "I am worried that I was wrong and you were right, help me to be right". You tell your cousin of your worry about being a bad influence, and concern for his relationship with his mother and enlist him as an ally to change that. Hopefully, that can make the situation better, though don't expect to end all conflict.

A side note: the idea of approaching a conflict from weakness only works if the other person cares about you, and it doesn't work with bullies (or in situations of bullying by loved ones.) Yes, you are in a male dominated profession but that is something to be proud of. You are a fish who swims upstream instead of down. Good for you!

  • 6
    Wow, Thank you so much for your answer! It made me smile and gives me strengh! Thank you! – Pudora Jan 12 '17 at 17:40
  • 6
    Wish I could upvote more than once! – anongoodnurse Jan 12 '17 at 17:49
16

From my perspective as a mother, the only thing I cringed at was the unlimited junk food part, largely because I have family that sees my (6 year old son) fairly frequently, and their "we're supposed to spoil him!" mentality has caused actual interference with teaching him good food choices. However, your cousin is at the point where he should know enough to make his own choices, so I doubt that's an issue except in the teen rebellion sense of "but she lets me eat whatever I want!" From my point of view, I don't see your influence being objectively "bad," and it does sound a lot like his mother is looking for someone else to blame.

However, this is a situation where you need to try to approach his mom as an adult. Try not to make her defensive by turning the blame back on her or your cousin's father, but also don't just roll over and take the accusations of being a bad influence. Try to approach it as an effort in finding a solution to the problem of whatever behavior your cousin is experiencing. Ask her about what behaviors he is exhibiting that she is attributing to you, and assure her that (especially on the stuff that matters -- smoking, homework, etc) you two are on the same side.

Showing that you're willing to work with her and are not trying to undermine her parenting should go a long way to dealing with this, even if what you do doesn't really change (theoretically, at least; you can't fix stubborn denial).

  • Thank you for your answer. I haven't talked to her in quite some years and I wouldnt really know how to approach her. She never said to me directly that I was a bad influence, just to other parts of my family. Do you have a suggestion how I can approach her? And btw: I do understand the "spoil" part, and normally I would agree with you! He isn't talking with his parents about me at all, and he hasn't in the last years. Only sometimes something like: "oh yes, she helped me with that assignment" when being asked. EDIT: She doesn't know that he smoked. – Pudora Jan 12 '17 at 17:11
  • 9
    You could approach with something along the lines of, "hey, I've heard from some other family members that you've been feeling like I've been negatively influencing your son. It's made me realize that we haven't talked in years, and I'd like to change that, at least so that we can be on the same page with regards to [cousin], since I don't want to step on your toes as far as raising him." The exact wording, of course, depends on your family politics (which sound like they might be pretty thick), but I think you get the idea. – Shauna Jan 12 '17 at 17:21
  • Thanks, that actually sounds really helpful. I don't think it would work, but trying can probably not harm our relation any more. – Pudora Jan 12 '17 at 17:24
  • 1
    Yeah, sometimes it's just family politics crap. It wouldn't surprise me if her beef with you doesn't actually have anything to do with you influence on him, but other family politics stuff. Attempt to handle it like a mature adult, and if/when that doesn't work, just keep on doing your thing. If she really has a problem, the ball's in her court to do something at that point, and your cousin is old enough to know what matters to him. – Shauna Jan 12 '17 at 17:29
  • 4
    @Pudora, possibly I should put this in a separate answer, but for getting in communication with the mom I wouldn't start with the subject of biggest disagreement—in other words, don't start by bringing up the supposed negative influence you have on her son. Handling an upset of any sort requires first that you have a communication line with the person who is upset. Just get in communication by gradually improving the agreement and friendliness. – Wildcard Jan 13 '17 at 3:51
6

At home he isn't allowed to drink or eat any sweets. He is only allowed to see friends when he is passing all his classes with good grades. So that hasn't happenend in a long time. And Video Games are completly forbidden.

The way you've worded your post makes it sound like his mother is the 'bad guy' because of all the restrictions but it sounds to me like she just wants him to do well and be healthy, especially considering how his father has turned out because she doesn't want her son to be like him.

The whole 'bad influence' thing probably comes through because she's getting feedback that he wants to do fun things because you do them etc. The problem is that your cousin isn't taking into account the fact that you're smart and have a good job and so can afford to do all those fun things.

Rather than focusing on the 'fun' things he is missing out on like video games (I am also a gamer and know how addicting those can be, especially for teenagers), I would focus on helping him do better at school, which is really the underlying problem.

Maybe you can talk to his mother about getting him a tutor to help. Since she is concerned about his grades, she might be open to the idea. An ideal candidate would be an older (smart) student who is going/went through the same system and shouldn't be too expensive.

I'm sure she won't be so restricting if he is bringing good grades home because she won't have to worry as much for his future. Since he's a kid, he will also have plenty of breaks/holiday time to have his fun too.

  • 1
    Thank you for your answer. I didn't word it this way to make her seem bad. He has never eaten chocolate before at home. He didn't even dare to eat cake in school if someone else brought any. A 15 year old should be able to go to a supermarket and buy chocolate if he wants. Also no he doesnt have "Plenty of breaks/holiday time" for his fun. He has to study Latin in that time. I did write in the question that I do help him with bigger projects. But it really isn't my responsibility to help him through a school I know he shouldn't be in in first place. – Pudora Jan 12 '17 at 23:23
  • So now you're making conflicting statements. You "didn't word it ... to make her seem bad" (despite all the evidence in your original post) then go on to say "a 15 year old should be able to go to a supermarket and buy chocolate if he wants" which betrays your real thoughts. You ask in your question "can I help him or his mother in any way" then say here "it really isn't my responsibility to help him ..." - which is it? You either want to help him or you don't. Sounds to me you're just looking for self-validating responses to tell you what you want to hear. – emiwark Jan 13 '17 at 1:25
  • 2
    I didn't conflict myself. The wording was exactly how it is right now. "able to go to..." is my opinion. And I want to help with his development but not MORE with his school as I am doing right now. Life is more than school. – Pudora Jan 13 '17 at 7:05
  • 2
    It sounds like his mother just wants what's best but is putting too much pressure on, not letting him be a kid at all. The poster is a "bad influence" because she understands that life isn't 100% study, study, study. – Loren Pechtel Jan 16 '17 at 6:37
  • 3
    @Pudora Latin? Seriously?!? I can understand wanting your kid to be successful, but forcing them to study a dead language that has no practical use in the modern world is a bit much... – Mason Wheeler Jan 16 '17 at 12:52
2

First of all, you seem to be doing the right thing. Whatever the minor details (food etc.), your compassion shows, and the fact alone that you are reflecting this much about your actions makes it very likely that you hardly can do wrong.

A few comments though:

  • The eating topic is complicated. It is not easy for parents to do this right these days. I would urge you to cut his mother some slack and appreciate that she tries to get him to eat healthy. The fact that she maybe overdoes it a little bit by allowing no sweats at all may be as it is, but at least she takes some stance on the issue.
  • His mother generally seems to have control issues and does not seem to be able to let go, which should happen at around this age. This is also pretty normal in my experience. I do not say it is good or "defendable", but it is what it is.

Am I being a bad influence?

I don't think so. As long as you don't tell him bad stuff about his parents, and don't put the "eat what you want" thing up as a kind of balance for his mother's way to eat, you're doing fine, as far as I can tell from your description.

Should I restrict my contact to him?

Definitely not!

Can I help him or his mother in any way? If yes, how?

By understanding and compassion, I'd suggest. She does not strike me as the type who thinks much about herself, or is open for discussion about things like that. It also looks like she has a strong feeling that she is the only person allowed to tell things to her son. You'll have a hard time actively doing anything about that.

Even if I am being a "bad influence", is it harmful for his development?

Certainly not. Having alternatives; "heros" to look up to; an outlet for frustration and so on is very important for adolescents. Considering the fact his mother even restricts him from having friends, you're likely a very very important part in his life. Don't let yourself be put off by his mother.

In your case, really, I would ignore his family situation and be there for him like what you are - like a friend and/or senior coach or something like that. If he brings up the topic himself, I'd recommend to stay clear from condemning his parents; if he has problems with that, you can help him by acknowledging his problems, but you are maybe not the one to actively solve them. I'm afraid this would put even more fuel into the fire, and run the risk that his mother tries to shut you out of his life completely; and then you cannot help him anymore.

Finally, it might just be the case that you are doing her mother injustice (for whatever reason, maybe because of the way he tells the things and so on) and that he (maybe unknowingly) tries to play you against his mother. By not really going into those topics, you avoid the risk of getting involved in a futile war between mother and son.

You might have a talk with his mother just before his next visit and ask her about things she would want you to do or not to do with her son. On some level this would acknowledge that she is his mother, and that you are not actively trying to undo what she does. It is a can of worms though; what happens if she wants you to only eat healthy with him and play no video games. Then you're in a pretty pickle; either the fun is over, or you will actively do what she asked you not to do. I'd say you have to decide this yourself, you know her better than us, after all.

  • Thank you for pointing out the side of his mother a little better. I do believe like you that she wants only the best for him. I never talked bad about his parents with him. Actually this post was the first time I ever wrote/talked about this topic. The "food topic" is pretty difficult, I do see that. And I am probably not the best role model for eating healthy. But thanks for pointing it out again, it really makes me think, – Pudora Jan 16 '17 at 14:44
-2

While it might be unfair and your side of this story says you mean well and likely are not the cause of problems -- it is always the parent's prerogative to decide what is okay and what is not okay for their child. I cannot defend you. I can think they are right or wrong -- but it has nothing to do with me. I think this is more about opinion than a question with an answer.

It is perfectly fair for you to talk to the mother and attempt talk it out. Whether she changes her mind, no one can say.

  • 2
    You are right! It is her right to decide. But like I wrote in the question, she isn't prohibiting the visits and still pays for the train ride and allows the contact. She is only talking bad about it later. While my first question truly is opinion based, the others can be answered relativly neutrally. at least I hope so. Edit: Also I never stated in the question that I want to change the mind of his mother, I know I can't change her opinion of me. She only sees a silly child in me. – Pudora Jan 12 '17 at 16:57
  • 7
    Here's another angle you might consider. If she isn't saying it directly to you, but she is not forbidding it, it may be that she doesn't actually feel that you are a bad influence but either 1) she feels she must say that because of family pressure, or 2) the people you are hearing it from are distorting what she said because they think it, or they want you to feel like you are. Again, just a thing to consider, not suggesting it is true. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Jan 12 '17 at 18:16
  • 2
    “it is always the parent's prerogative to decide what is okay and what is not okay for their child” — er, no, it isn’t. For example, in Germany (where the question takes place) parents don’t have the right to withhold school education from their children. Likewise, the state has in some cases obtained the right to overrule parents when it was believed to serve the children’s well-being. Parents do not have an absolute right (neither moral nor legal) to decide for their children. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 13 '17 at 11:57
  • @KonradRudolph this is not a question about whether the child is going to the doctor or getting schooling. I have a limited number of words in a comment. I felt the part about it being a discussion between relatives was understood. That said, I also understand that my opinion/answer was not the best one. – WRX Jan 13 '17 at 12:46
  • 2
    It's not only about getting school or medical treatment. Some judges have decided that a kid should be allowed a person even if the parents were against it. Recently there was a case of a 16yo girl that was in a relationship with an older man. The parents disallowed them from meeting and keeping the relationship. Judges overruled that decision. Reasons were, the girl was mature enough to decide with whom she spends her time. So the child opinions matter a lot. – Skalli Jan 13 '17 at 16:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.