Without getting into the circumstances, my wife's step sister and her husband are living with us while he's between orders with the US army. She's 28 and he's 42.

While they're living with us, it's very obvious that they don't know how to handle a baby. I'd be more than happy to share some wisdom, to offer suggestions, to just help, but I don't want to overstep the boundaries and make an already crowded and tense situation even worse.

How can I help these people how to be parents?

As a father of 5 (the 21 yo has his own place) I've been around that block a couple of times and my opinion is that they're doing it wrong. Of course I wouldn't tell them that in so many words, but it is what I think: if you're not truly trying to do it right, you’re doing it wrong.

Here are some examples:

  1. There's no baby level stimulus. They will watch adult (not porn lol) streaming shows all day and holler at their kid for getting into my kids' things (I've told them it doesn't matter; the things won't be damaged). Not even so much as Dora or even Pixar or the odd baby centric website.

  2. They have actual expectations on the baby's behavior... "you know better than that" with pulling the laptop off the couch and "screams and screams when he doesn't get his way". At 1 year old, no baby is capable of knowing better than anything other than what you teach them on a very basic level, nor is he capable of any level of manipulation. At all.

  3. There's no attempt at routine nor any baby level interaction. At that age, my kids were amazingly easy to care for once major daily rituals were developed. Want him to go down for the night without a fuss? Start doing about a half hour bedtime ritual.

  4. And therein lies the prompt for this post. Tonight, the baby lay there crying for prob 30 minutes in bed. It was a different cry... wasn't pain, but something was wrong. They said, "he's just crying because he didn't get what he wanted". Dude, he's 1, man... he doesn't desire something, he needs something.

I have attempted to talk about these things once or twice, but the response is of the "he's just" type. Dismissive. Yes, he's their kid and no I'm not the parent. I can accept that. However, being in the unique position of knowing that the approach I'm using for my 9 yr old was successful for my 19/21 yr old, I do have a little experience.

I can just see where all this is going to be in 4, 8, 15 years, and I'd like to help the boy by helping his parents. How?

[update edit june 20 2013]

I had to actually confer with the wife and it was only 5 weeks ago that this whole thing came to a head and I basically told them I'd had enough and it was time to go. The wife was 100% with me. It was the week of the Boston stuff, and the mother was irate that she couldn't talk about having a bad day. You know what? Sure, you can have a bad day. However, basic decorum says that you should just keep that to yourself while the news of extraordinary suffering is fresh on peoples minds. Bottom line is that I don't want to be around the person that I have to explain that to nor do I want them around my family. And with that, they were gone the next day.

Sad thing is that as good as I felt about not having to deal with them any more, my heart goes out to that child.

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    If you're willing, I'd simply ask if they'd be OK with you helping with the 1 year old. There's a ton of other issues here (obviously) going on with the parents that you maybe don't have much hope in fixing, but if you can reach out to the one year old, at least the one year old has you.
    – DA01
    Jan 23, 2013 at 6:56
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    @DA01 Unfortunately, I'm not in a social position to be able to do that. I'm working nights now, so when they put him down for the night, I'm typically napping just before work. I do however interact with him throughout the day. I play with him with his toys, roughhouse, stuff like that. maybe an hour a day. However, it is along the lines of what I was thinking last night after I made this post. The 11 (and maybe 7) yr old girl(s) would probably love to read him bedtime stories and help start a nighttime ritual. I'll mention it to the wife as well.
    – monsto
    Jan 23, 2013 at 12:06
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    Spending an hour a day with the child is huge. That's good of you. And good idea seeing if the girls can pitch in too. Good luck with it all!
    – DA01
    Jan 23, 2013 at 14:57
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    Have you thought of "observing" their stress? "Hey, so and so, I noticed that when 'baby' does X it really stresses you out. Do you mind if I offer up a few things I learned from my own kids?" . . . The phrase, "stresses you out" could be replaced with, results in yelling, doesn't seem to be making a difference for 'babies name' . . . Jan 23, 2013 at 21:52
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    I realize that I'm not nearly as been there-done that as you are, but isn't appropriate 1 year old stimulus playing with a parent or other children, not Pixar or Disney? There is the whole "try for no screen time before 2" guideline from the AAP. Of course for them to play with their kid would require them to stop watching streaming TV and movies all day...
    – justkt
    Jan 24, 2013 at 13:42

4 Answers 4


DA01's comment is what I would suggest as well. You feel more experienced with babies, and from the sound of it I would agree with you. I've got two main thoughts for you:

1. Show, don't tell

Of course -- sadly -- this requires that they accept your offer of assistance to the parents. I think I wouldn't specifically ask for permission to do things "your way" because that can offend them and they'll reject your offer.

It would also mean spending time and attention with the baby; scarce resources that you'd have to take from your own family.

As long as his parents are watching a movie, you can interact with the baby. They'll probably be happy to be "off the hook" for a while, but there's a hope that they would actually notice that what you do works better than what they do.

You could provide the stimuli, interactions, and toys that you feel are age-appropriate.

You could offer to take care of the bedtime routine, they might be happy to be "off the hook" of that, too. I know that you can't establish a routine with the baby over a short time, but you can demonstrate to the parents that following a fixed daily program helps.

2. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink

This is advice I often hear in the context of someone wanting to help another person who is in dire financial trouble (or headed straight for it) -- it applies to parenting as well. You'll have to accept that you can only offer your help but you can't make them accept it. Even if they do accept your help and the boy has the time of his life in your home, you're not in control of what happens afterward. This is tough to accept. You'll have to tell yourself that you did all that you could, and the rest is not in your hands.

I realize that the family is very mobile but try to keep in touch with the family even after they leave you again. Whenever possible, offer your help. If it's not possible, or rejected, then walk away. As long as there's nothing unlawful going on, you can't force them to change their parenting style, even if it hurts to see their son treated sub-optimally.

  • I suppose I could pull rank. "While you're living here, you will be required to listen to my advice on parenting. First..." Seriously tho, as I replied to DA01, I'm not personally in a position to do these things at the times they're needed most, but I know I could enlist the wife and probably my kids. And with all of us pitching in, we may be able to make an impression that will last beyond they're time with us.
    – monsto
    Jan 23, 2013 at 12:26
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    And then there's the fact that "I've done it before and I don't feel like doing it anymore"... after many yrs straight of toddler-age children, we're both pretty weary of the whole thing.
    – monsto
    Jan 23, 2013 at 12:29

I don't think you do tell them. There's not necessarily a right or wrong way to much of parenting, a lot of it is opinion and personal style. If they haven't asked for your opinion or help it's probably not wanted or welcome, and telling them could damage your relationship. I think you have to ask yourself how much of this is down to their parenting style, and how much is down to you not liking having a small child and 2 extra people in your house.

My point is that there may be no solution. You can drop a subtle hint or two "hey, I was going through my attic and found some parenting books I don't need anymore, you want them?" or "wow it's annoying when they do that, mine used to do that and it drove me nuts until I figured out what it was about", and see if they bite. If they don't either put up with it or get them out of your house before you hate each other.

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    +1 for "it drove me nuts until I figured out" - excellent bait-and-switch :) Jan 24, 2013 at 14:17
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    You're right, style or method is a lot of it. Thing is that he's not getting much of anything at the moment. Except getting hollered at for crying too long or not going back to sleep at 4 am.
    – monsto
    Jan 24, 2013 at 19:57
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    Humans tend to fall back to what they know when they're under pressure, and for many military types that means lots of shouting, which doesn't work with children. As painful as it is to see the only reason it is your problem is that it is in your house.
    – GdD
    Jan 25, 2013 at 9:15
  • @GdD Actually, you're right but it's a different result... What any middle-class, first world citizen knows best know best is how hey were raised. Knowing what I didn't explain about how they wound up with us in the first place, assumptions of manipulation come straight from that.
    – monsto
    Jan 25, 2013 at 14:46

Sometimes parents just don't know what to do, or can't accept that they have to change their priorities now that there is another member of the family in the picture.

However once they see an example, and they find that it's making life easier for both the parent and child, things start to change.

I would suggest that without being preachy, start treating the child they way you think it should be treated whenever you get the chance. Ask them politely, for example, "Can ask your child to do xxx with me?" and then make sure you do xxx while they are watching. It should be easy to do since they are living with you.

There will be a sense of relief, because the kid is out of their hair for a few hours, and at the same time once they see the child is taking to the way you are handling it, you might notice a change in their behavior too.


In my experience subtlety has never been as effective as a good old telling off. In this situation, you may be able to take dad by himself out somewhere quiet where you can give him a "word or two". When discussing a persons behavior divorced from "who they are" in this way, you are able to avoid pulling your punches and get across to them the long term consequences of their actions. I have had the opportunity to be at the receiving end of a couple of these during my life and generally it has improved my me :)

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