Q. My father-in-law is causing huge problems in our family. He doesn’t respect any decisions we make as parents and occasionally has been heard to say to our children, “Ah, don’t mind what Mammy says…” or “Sure, Daddy won’t know…” when it comes to feeding them sweets or buying them toys. My husband says he’ll talk to him, but I think he’d afraid to upset him too much as my husband tends to rely on his Dad a lot and they are very close. I think my father-in-law spoils our children by way of compensating for the tough childhood my husband had. I don’t want to cause any family feuds but I feel it’s up to me to try to sort this out with my father-in-law. What’s the best way to go about it?
This is a really difficult issue. Why do you feel it is up to you to sort out? The main relationship that needs to be addressed here is that of your husband and his dad. From what you have said there seems to be a dependency on your husband with his dad. This is not healthy. When he says: “Sure, Daddy won’t know” he is really undermining him. You say that he had a tough childhood it sounds like it is still going on. Important aspects of a healthy adult son to father relationship are respect, boundaries and a faith that your husband can be a competent father and man. Without this it will affect your husband’s confidence and belief in his ability to be a strong male figure and role model, which really affects self-esteem and is likely to incur much self-doubt. Ergo, why your husband will revert back to asking his dad for more advice and continue the vicious cycle of co-dependency.
Talk it out
If they have a close relationship then they need to be able to have difficult conversations. These conversations are uncomfortable because they question the way things have been done. This can lead people to become defensive and sometimes dismissive with possible comments such as “you are being too sensitive”, “I didn’t mean it like that”, “it was only a joke”. The problem here is if, the conversation gets cut prematurely the issues build and ferment upon each other. Sometimes, a small incident may result in what seems like a huge over reaction, but it is the underlying emotions that haven’t been addressed that can be the catalyst for strong anger or emotional outbursts, or a passively aggressive response of silence or not articulating clearly how he really feels about the situation.
Have a conversation with your husband about how you feel. Explain to your husband that when your father-in-law says: “Ah, don’t mind what Mammy says…” it makes you feel … and you fill in the blanks. Then ask him to identify specifically how he feels when his father says, “Sure, Daddy won’t know…”. Ask your husband how his father showed his emotions when he was growing up? Ask him how his father reacted if your husband stood up to him. I am looking for where the dynamics of their relationship have led them to. The past is still being reflected in this situation by your father-in-law not respecting the way you want to rear your children, as if he is still the main male authoritative figure.
You decide your children’s boundaries
Even if your father-in-law is compensating with food and toys, it is disrespectful to you and your husband in terms of you deciding healthy boundaries in terms of your children. You can spoil children with things and by not putting limits in place for treats; you can’t spoil them by giving lots of love, attentive focus and time.
It is not a good idea to give children everything they want; you literally take the wonder out of childhood. It is certainly negative to always associate certain foods as treats, and can possibly set up a lifetime of bad eating habits that could have a long term impact on their life. Obesity is a serious issue in our society and we set many of our eating frameworks in childhood so it is imperative to set boundaries for children. Overloading children with gifts also takes the joy out of play as there is no special aspect of it being for an occasion or earned for good behaviour. It creates a marketing manager’s dream; creating a ‘want’ or a ‘need’ in the child who can then be pulled into being a little consumer before their time.
This is an opportunity for growth – difficult childhoods can be recovered from. Your father-in-law sounds like he is over-compensating in a hedonistic way not in line with your parental values. He may think he is trying to do the right thing. Give him the chance to know that he can contribute and be part of the family in a way that would benefit all. Much deeper meaning and depth could be established within all the relationships, that would ultimately be fulfilling as opposed to temporarily winning children over with ‘treats.’
I wish you all luck with creating new healthy and hopefully joyful boundaries that could heal some of the hurts from the past. Words, actions and heartfelt acknowledgement of mistakes from the past can lead to a powerful sense of being able to enjoy the present in a very new way.