Q. My Sister-in-Law Makes Our Kids Compete: My sister-in-law and I are both mothers to beautiful girls who are about the same age. What I find disconcerting is that every time she visits, my sister-in-law wants to know about my daughter's grades, how many friends she has (and their social status!), what toys she has, and even compares the girl's sizes with comments like, "My daughter is so tiny and petite, and yours is getting so big!" These comments are incredibly hurtful; usually I've just walked away when she starts with the comparison game. But now these games are clearly affecting her daughter, too. I've noticed that my niece will often pry my daughter for the same answers, and appears visibly distraught if my daughter happens to be doing better in some area of life. Apparently, my sister-in-law was upset one night that my daughter is, in her words, "more beautiful" than her own—and this was something my niece told me. I'm heartbroken for the pain my sister-in-law is causing this child. I grew up with friends who were constantly told they were not good enough, and as a result, they could never make friends because they ended up being so competitive. I'd hate to see the same happen to my niece. I have also tried complimenting my niece or my daughter when I notice my sister-in-law getting critical, but I am unsure about how to approach this. I wouldn't put it past my sister-in-law to keep my husband and me from seeing my niece.
A: Did this sister-in-law post updates every five minutes on Facebook when her daughter was born? Or maybe the girls are too old to have been subject to that. Every week I am sadly reminded of how many people use parenthood as a stage on which to relive their own damage. How sad for this little girl, and I'm afraid there's not going to be that much you can do. You can try modeling good behavior. "Both our daughters are beautiful and smart. I'm not going to do any point-by-point comparisons." When the kids get together, beforehand you can instruct your daughter that she doesn't have to answer certain questions. You can even role play with her and let her practice saying, "I don't want to talk about my grades or how much I weigh." Let her know she should come to you if she's being badgered. Maybe there's someone in the family who is seeing these awful patterns and can intervene. If it's possible, you could try getting your niece to come over without her mother and be a sane, kind presence in her life. The kind of psychological damage you describe unfortunately often goes unchecked. You just hope there are enough contravening influences in this child's life so the mother's craziness doesn't permanently damage her.
Q. Newly Married ... and the Honey Is Slipping Away: My husband and I have been married for three months and did not live together before we married. We have a great relationship and are in a stable if not wildly wealthy financial status. For years I've kept a honeypot of spare change and save it up to buy something fun or extravagant every so often. Over the past three months, my new hubby has been dipping into it for parking or beer, or … to the point that I feel like I should just hand him my wallet. My comments of "Where did the honeypot go?" or "How much does it cost to park nowadays?" are met with bland "Seriously?" rebuttals. How can I get him to stop dipping in without seeming cheap? I've offered to save for something we both like to no end.
A: Even if you've decided to share your life and your bank account with your beloved, you each are entitled to your own separate source of money. So get your honeypot out of his sight. Explain to him you've always collected your spare change then treated yourself later with it. Explain you're moving this temptation out of his sight so it won't be taunting him, because you want to continue having this private indulgence.
Q. Re: My sister-in-law makes our kids compete: I was that kid. My mom made me competitive with all of the other kids growing up. She always told me I had to beat them. I was never striving for the A grade, I was striving to beat the kid next to me. I can tell you that it really stunted me because I didn't know how to be a decent friend to anyone. People would like me in the beginning, then realize that I just wanted to beat them, and then our friendship would sour. It wasn't until college that I realized what was happening and grew out of it. I had a very lonely childhood because I had no friends. I would suggest talking to the mom ASAP. The goal should always be the A grade, not beating your peer.
A: I'm encouraged to hear you were about to see these destructive patterns and leave them behind. I agree intervening with the mother would be good. But unfortunately some bad parents are very resistant to change.
Q. Unsolicited Sex Ed: Yesterday my two daughters, they're 7 and 8, were on a play date with a classmate of the older one. When they were playing with the girl's tablet, the classmate showed my daughters a sex game with very explicit images. My girls weren't comfortable and asked her to change the game. After, when we came home, they told me about it. My question to you is, should I contact the girl's mother to make her aware of this, and if so, what's the best to broach the subject? We are not friends.
A: That's concerning and yes, I think you should say something. I'm hoping the little girl just got her hands on a tablet that belongs to the adults and was doing some unauthorized searching among undeleted websites. Don't be alarmist, just stick to the facts and explain what happened, and say you’re sure she would want to know.
Q. No Lost Love for Dying Sister: I grew up with an older sister with a severe drug problem who left home 15 years ago, and I haven't seen her since, although my parents keep in contact. Due to the fact that she is significantly older and started using when I was quite young, I have NO good memories of her. I'm not hostile toward her; I think of her as a distant cousin who has no impact in my life. Recently she was diagnosed with cancer and has been forced to become clean because of it. Naturally my parents are heartbroken, but now they are laying on a guilt trip about how sad they are I don't have a relationship with my sister and how I need to forgive her and forge a relationship with her. I feel bad that she's dying and so ill, but I feel bad in the same way you feel bad about a co-worker being sick. She missed graduations, my wedding, and the birth of my child without even a phone call or a note. How do I respond to my parents in a way that says while I feel bad for her, their trying to force the issue only makes me resent the situation.
A: Try to understand that they are displacing some of their grief about her life, and possibly her death, on you. This of course is not pleasant, but it will help if you can acknowledge their pain. Perhaps you could go on an occasional hospital visit with your parents. That is the kind of thing you might do for a distant cousin or a co-worker. Listen sympathetically when your parents talk about your sister. But if they keep pressuring you for more than you are willing or able to give, you have to gently draw the line. Just explain you are sorry for your sister's addictions and the estrangement it caused, but they are only going to make all of you miserable by trying to force a relationship now where none exists. Say that you will do what is comfortable for both you and your sister, and that they need to concentrate on their own relationship with her, and not try to manage yours.
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