In-laws, better known as Grandma and Grandpa, will soon arrive in their grandkids’ lives for the holidays. While that can be delightful, it can also represent something of a challenge for parents used to operating on their own and not looking for oversight under their own roof. Even those grandmas and grandpas we adore can bring disruption, especially when they’re eager to spend time with kids. But that doesn’t mean that they should be kept at arm’s length. Rather, it means that they should be treated with the respect one would afford any adult: They should be given both honesty and, just to be practical, something to drink.
The reality of in-laws is that they need to be given boundaries, while also being allowed in. That dynamic can create a distinct tension. However, in-laws are important to a child’s development, so parents need to to find the balance, as tough as that may be.
Harsh Truth #1: Kids Shouldn’t Be Forced to Hug In-Laws
The second grandmas, aunt, or uncles see a kid, they will call for a hug. And generally, if a child refuses a hug they will express hurt feelings, making kids and parents feel guilty. But children should never be forced to hug in-laws. As parents try to teach a child independence and personal autonomy, forced hugs are basically a way to tell children that their boundaries don’t really matter. Worse, forced hugs also model the idea that other people’s boundaries don’t matter either. It’s really just terrible messaging.
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That said, nobody wants to hurt a relative’s feelings. Luckily, there are optional ways of showing respect and appreciation without forcing physical affection. Parents can suggest blowing kisses, shaking hands, high fives, or even happy dances.
Does that mean a parent just bows out of the interaction entirely? Not at all. Parents can and should talk about why relatives want a hug and why they might be insulted if they don’t get one. That’s part of helping a kid build empathy.
Harsh Truth #2: Parents Need to Talk to Kids About Problematic In-Laws
It’s a well-established fact of life that nobody gets to choose their family. That means that occasionally a family gets saddled with an in-law who is aggressively political, a racist, an addict, a criminal, or simply passive aggressive. And often, when joining family events, these less than ideal in-laws can start drama. It’s a parent’s responsibility to prepare a child for the drama, model appropriate reactions to it and use it as a teaching moment.
One of a parents main jobs is to help a child build a sense of values. Problematic In-Laws offer parents an opportunity to draw contrasts between values in and outside of the immediate family. That process can begin before a family event by role-playing possible difficult scenarios. Parents can offer their child graceful ways to exit uncomfortable situations and give them time to practice. Should any actual confrontations arise, parents can model their values by being respectful in their interactions and disagreement. Once back home parents can talk about what happened and why an in-law’s views might be out of line with the values of the immediate family.
That said, it’s important for parents to model kindness with awful in-laws. Again, it’s about modeling good behavior and building empathy.
Harsh Truth #3: In-Laws Need Boundaries Set By Parents
Like any good relationship, in-laws need to be given boundaries. In-laws should not be allowed to dictate when they visit or how they interact with children. That’s a parent’s responsibility. However, that doesn’t mean boundaries should be set arbitrarily. Good boundaries are built with good communication.
That means that a parent should take their in-laws’ interests and lifestyle to heart when building boundaries. An honest and open discussion is always more desirable than a blunt demand. Work with closely with in-laws to find regular times to visit or call children. Set spending limits that allow them to feel like they’re spoiling their niece or grandchild, but remind them that their presence is more important than gifts. Finally, make sure a kid gets to meet them on their turf, occasionally to indulge in their interests.
But one place where parental boundaries should remain firm and non-negotiable is discipline. Help in-laws understand discipline tactics and ask they help keep discipline consistent.
Harsh Truth #4: In-Laws Can Make Your Baby Sick
It’s a downright biological urge for humans to want to put their filthy mouths all over a baby. This urge is particularly pronounced for in-laws. Given that the holidays coincide with flu season, the harsh reality is that grandma’s kiss can be dangerous, particularly for babies. Luckily there are ways that grandma can indulge her baby-mouthing whims while also making sure the kid doesn’t get sick.
The first and most obvious step to take is to make sure your baby is vaccinated. But babies don’t get their first vaccinations until two months and it’s possible, and likely, in-laws will want to visit before two months are up. Another line of protection is to make sure that everyone who comes in contact with your kid washes their hands first. Don’t worry about them being insulted, it is a reasonable request. And if you can, limit kisses to the top of the baby’s head. After all, babies have a tendency to put hands and feet directly in their mouths. The top of the head, however, is pretty safe.
Harsh Truth #5: In-Laws Are Important for a Kid’s Development
It’s pretty standard for parents to be primed to struggle with in-laws because in-laws present a huge opportunity for conflict. Some of that conflict is related to changing relationship dynamics. Some of the conflict is generational. But as difficult as it can be to keep up good relations with in-laws, it’s important because close relatives are really good for kids.
Studies suggest having older in-laws around helps keep kids from being ageist. Uncles and aunts are actually excellent helpers if given the chance. And when those uncles and aunts come with their own kids, cousins are understood to build family bonds that help kids build empathy.
The upshot is that in-laws can be a huge help to children. And modeling a good relationship with those in-laws can help kids develop family bonds that will help them in the future. And that makes all of the harsh realities of in-laws a little bit more worth working with.