Help! My Father-in-Law is a Bad Babysitter and I Don’t Trust Him.

Our resident parenting expert drops some knowledge on a concerned dad who wrote in about his father-in-law frustrations

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Childcare can be hard to come by. But what do you do when you’re worried about leaving your kids with a grandparent? In this week’s edition of Fatherly Advice, a dad writes in about his concern that his father-in-law is too absent-minded to be a good babysitter — a discussion makes his wife defensive. Is there a way to keep a not-so-great in-law engaged with the family while keeping the kids safe? It’s a complex issue. Here’s what our resident parenting expert has to say.

Dear Fatherly,

I don’t trust my father-in-law to watch my kids. I don’t think he’s going to hurt them or touch them or anything, I just don’t think he’s good at paying attention. He’s really absent-minded and sometimes he just kind of gets into his own head. Because I have a toddler and a kindergartner, I don’t think he’s the best babysitter.

He’s old, too. I don’t think he’s getting dementia or anything, but I think he just gets caught up in his own thing. Like, the other day he was over and my wife and I asked if he could keep an eye on the kids while we were outside doing some yard work. When we came back in the kids were in the kitchen and they had taken everything out of the lower cabinets. Like pans and stuff. We asked him what happened and he just didn’t know. He didn’t even know they were in the kitchen because he was watching TV.

Anyway, it seems dangerous to me to have him looking after them but when I talk to my wife about it she gets all defensive. I think she probably knows it’s not the best but doesn’t want to go there. What should I do about this? Is there some way we can keep him in the picture and not hurt anybody’s feelings and still keep my kids safe?

Son in Blah

Dallas, Texas

I don’t want to bright-side you right out of the gate, but I’m going to do it anyway. Look at the bright side: some people don’t live near their grandparents or have such bad relationships with them, that that they can’t lean on them at all. Not to mention the fact that grandmothers and grandfathers are simply a finite resource. I hear you when you say your in-law situation isn’t the best, and I agree with you that it’s not. However, that doesn’t mean that your father-in-law should be barred from helping out at all. Let’s not be extreme.

I think that might be part of the reason your wife gets defensive about this. Sure, it’s her dad and nobody wants to think poorly about their father, but also, the dude is providing free childcare — such as it is. If you’re like most American families, finding childcare takes a tremendous amount of resources.

A recent report from the Center for American Progress, for instance, found that 60 percent of families in the United States with children under 5-years-old are spending two to five times the amount of their household income on childcare than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers affordable. Which is to say that something is profoundly broken in the American childcare system. And that makes in-laws — grandmothers, grandfathers, aunties, and uncles — crucial.

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But what to do about yours? Clearly, your father in law does not mind being around, but the fact that grandpa is absent-minded is a definite concern. It’s important to stay sharp around toddlers and kindergartners. Absent-mindedness is how kids die in hot cars or drown in pools, so let’s not discount your fears here. They are, in fact, valid.

But that doesn’t mean you father-in-law can’t be helpful to your family if he and your wife want him to be. I wonder if there is a place he can help out without supervising the children. You mentioned you left the kids with him during yard work. Could he have helped your wife with yard work while you watched the kids? Is there a way he can contribute to the home and relieve some pressure? Can he cook? Is he a good handyman?

Do I think he should be left alone with your kids? No. Not if you’re concerned enough to write to me. But he should still be able to spend lightly supervised time with your kids. Having grandparents around is incredibly beneficial to children. When an in-law is present kids orients become oriented to the importance of family, they learn empathy and better understand a broader spectrum of perspectives. So the trick is keeping your father-in-law around, but keeping your kids safe.

Also, as your kids get older, it might be worth taking calculated risks with your father in law. Your kids emptied all the cupboards while he watched TV, sure. But as concerning as that is, it’s important to note that your kids were not injured by their exploration. It is just possible that if you place your kids and your father-in-law in a safe environment where the risk is largely managed, your father-in-law’s inherent lack of focus will allow your kids some much-needed freedom to explore and learn about the world. That’s actually a pretty good thing.

It is, of course, up to you and your wife. And the best way to figure it out is to bring all of this to hear and see how it pans out. I’m thinking it will be just fine.