Adapted from a recent live Q&A.
Q: My husband and I have three very young children. Over the holidays, we stayed with my in-laws, and my husband’s stepfather lost his temper over a minor behavior issue with our 4-year-old; he grabbed her roughly (he left a mark on her arm but not a bruise) and screamed at her in a frightening and lengthy tirade. I removed her from him as quickly as I could. We have had a very positive long-term relationship with him (10-plus years) but are very troubled and confused about his behavior. My husband has reached out since this happened, and his stepfather has apologized for losing his temper but said that our daughter deserved his response and that he feels justified in “correcting” her. I am concerned for him and saddened by his choices (because, obviously this was not about the preschooler’s behavior — something else must be bothering him), but I’m not sure how to move forward as a family in a way that keeps our children safe. Our kids are particularly close with their grandmother, and she was very sad to hear that we would not be coming to visit unless he undergoes some counseling and is able to have a different perspective about his behavior (she does not agree with his behavior and has told him this as well, resulting in more tension). They are close in proximity, and we saw them regularly and willingly before this occurred. She has come to our home since, but none of us have seen him. Do you have any suggestions for moving forward?
A: Ugh. I am sorry, this stinks.
This is some old-school parenting here, and back in the day, grandparents (and random people on the street) were considered well within their rights to discipline any child in any way they saw fit (short of full-on whoopings, which were saved for the parents). Grabbing a child, yelling, lecturing — they were all part of the playbook of parenting, and grandparents were absolutely allowed to take part. I am betting that this step-grandfather was disciplined this way, and he clearly sees no problem with it.
Fast-forward to 2019, and putting hands on a child is a no-no. Especially if that person is not the direct parent of said child. And while I don’t think that grabbing a 4-year-old and screaming in her face serves any purpose other than scaring the pants off the child and I don’t recommend any one do it, it is worth looking at how different your discipline techniques are from the step-grandpa and see if there is any middle ground.
I am reminded of a time when I was at my parents’ home. My girls were youngish, and one of them was acting the fool at dinner, bad attitude, etc. My husband and I were slow to discipline her, and my mother let her have it. She didn’t grab my daughter, but she raised her voice and, if I remember it right, asked her to leave the table.
The whole table froze, as my mother had never really yelled at my kids. I was upset, but here’s the deal: There was misbehavior, it needed to be addressed, I should have done it, the dinner meant a lot to my mom, and she lost it.
So, should she have yelled? No.
Should I have been on it more? Yes.
Did my mom say sorry to my daughter? Yes.
Did I say sorry for letting it get out of hand? Yes.
And my daughter loves her grandmother more than life itself today.
Is there room for the possibility that your child needed discipline and granddad overdid it? Or was he so out of line, so unreasonable, so scary, and so out of control?
Please, unless you feel that violence is imminent (emotional or physical), try not to cut ties. Have them come over, and please stay with the 4-year-old the whole time. Objectively watch how it is going.
And then, put the kid in front of the TV and ask the granddad more about how he understood what happened — how he was raised, how he understands children. Then you can explain what you are trying to do. A sort of meeting of the minds so that you can both work together to stay a family.
It is worth it.
Find this over on The Washington Post.
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