Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.
My kids are triplets (two girls and a boy) who are very close friends. My niece is an only child of the same age as my three kids. She is living part time with her dad and part time with her mom. Her parents divorced some years ago when she was very little.
My problem is that she is not very nice to my son. She seems to have a mean streak and takes it out all verbally on him. She refuses to play with him. I feel like she should be part of our lives, but a huge part of me wants to stop inviting her and my brother to our events.
She seems to have this nasty, ugly, "mean-girl" side to her which comes across as selfish and snotty. I'm not sure that I can change her, but she is still young enough (all the kids are 8) that I hope that by either talking to her dad or to her directly she can see what she's doing and be more compassionate towards other people. She rarely smiles except when she's being mean, saying things like "we don't care" to my son and recruiting my two daughters to be mean and snotty, too. I know it must be hard to come into a situation where you are the "odd man out" (i.e., not a triplet sibling). But the answer to being included isn't (in my opinion) making others feel excluded.
...she seems unhappy and self-centered and just plain mean-spirited, which I don't want rubbing off on my children.
How can I approach either her or my brother with ways to be more loving and kind? Is it just a phase she's going through, or is the battle already lost at this point in her development in making her see what she's doing with this mean behavior? She is the only cousin they have on "my side" of the family. It seems cruel to my kids and to her to exclude her completely from their lives.
However she seems unhappy and self-centered and just plain mean-spirited, which I don't want rubbing off on my children. It seems to me that with the lesser importance of religion and morality in our current culture, that we are left with just formal education that leaves "moral education" (the importance of kindness, compassion and warmth towards others) hugely lacking. Parents (and teachers) need to stress the importance of kindness in addition to math facts!
Thank you for listening.
Mother of Three
Dear Mother of Three,
I have three kids as well, including a 7- and 9-year-old, so I can understand how painful this situation is all around. It’s hard for us, as adults, to watch children behave in an unkind manner, especially toward one of your own children. But I do think it’s possible to hate the sin here, not the sinner.
In other words, to step back and recognize that your niece is not being mean to your son because she’s an evil person, but because she’s in pain. Pain is what distorts our love into cruelty. Chances are, her acting out has more to do with the instability she feels in her own family than with feeling excluded by your children. She shuttles from one house to another, and one parent to another. Think about your own children having to do that. In a larger sense, your niece may be resentful that she’s excluded from your family. That’s no excuse for the behavior you describe. But it is a possible explanation — one that might help you summon more patience in dealing with her.
To be clear: you have every right as a parent to stand up for your son if you feel he’s being bullied, and if your daughters are being swayed toward callous behavior.
I don’t know what your relationship is with your brother and sister-in-law, how much trust exists there, but I would consider talking with one or both of them directly. Not to tell them that their daughter is a bully, but to describe, in an even-handed way, the disturbing behaviors you’ve witnessed. (And I stress that — behaviors that you’ve actually witnessed.) Talking with parents about their child’s conduct is fraught terrain. It can turn ugly in a hurry if you’re not respectful. But that’s part of the point here: you should respect them enough as parents to tell them what their daughter is up to. If one of your kids were acting out in these ways, you’d want to know, right?
You’ve asked about whether the die is cast for your niece. The answer is no. She’s 8-years-old. What she needs is what any kid needs: love and limits.
There are other measures you can take, the most obvious being to model compassionate behavior yourself, and, when necessary, to articulate to your niece the rules that prevail in your family. The idea is not to single her out, but just to make sure she knows that (for instance) excluding people isn’t okay in your house, or on your watch. None of this need be personal. It’s just how your family does business. Your own kids should receive the same message — in particular your daughters.
You’ve asked about whether the die is cast for your niece. The answer is no. She’s 8-years-old. What she needs is what any kid needs: love and limits. If she bucks against your limits, and/or her parents don’t seem willing to provide those limits, and these upsetting interactions keep happening, you would be wise to limit contact with her until she’s able to respect your house rules. But she should be given a chance to shape up before being banished from playing with your kids.
One final note: I agree with the gist of what you say at the end of your letter — namely, that it’s important for teachers and others who work in schools to stress kindness. But I’m not sure why you feel the disappearance of religion in schools is to blame. The virtues of human kindness are not dependent on religious faith, as powerful a force for good as it can be. What’s more, the primary mission of school is to educate the mind, not to burnish the soul.
This is by way of stressing that the meanness you see in your niece, as disturbing as it is, indicates to me a child who is in pain — one who needs clear limits, no doubt, but also mercy.
I wish you courage and grace.
Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.