Monday, November 25, 2013

So What, Who Cares?: In-laws in the House, and Toddlers at the Thanksgiving Table

Dear Erin,

            My in-laws live a couple of hours away, close enough for them to visit fairly often.  They have described our home as their "vacation house."  So when they are here, they behave as though on vacation.  They expect to be waited on, for food to show up when they are hungry, beverages when they are thirsty, and for it all to be cleaned up when they are done. They also leave magazines and newspapers strewn all around the house.  When we are tired of waiting on them, we'll decide to go out for a meal.  We always end up paying for everything - they don't even offer.  They are otherwise nice people and are very good with our kids so I don't want to offend them.  How can we get them to pitch in?


This is not a bed-and-breakfast, -lunch, and –dinner

Dear This is not a bed-and-breakfast, -lunch, and –dinner:

 I knew a guy in New York, who had a dog named Rosy.   Rosy’s owner dated a woman for several months before he realized the relationship wasn’t right for him.  He silently agonized over how to tell her his feelings.   Then one night, after they fooled around, he got up to use the bathroom.   No sooner had he closed the door, than the dog raced into his bedroom, jumped up on the bed, climbed on the girlfriend, and peed on her.  

Awkward!   The girlfriend was horrified, of course.   But she was also offended because she could tell he wasn’t that upset.  He did feel bad.   But he also sort of believed that the dog had sensed his ambivalence about the relationship, and had taken action on his behalf.    In so many words, and none at all, the dog had told her to leave.  Which she did.  She broke up with him the next day.

Not-bed-and-breakfast, I don’t tell you this story because I think you should pee on your in-laws.  Not yet, anyway.  But hold that thought.  I’ll come back to it later.

Here’s my overall sense of your dilemma.  You’ve made a cozy home.  Your relatives are well intentioned, involved grandparents.  You care about their feelings.   And yet the fact remains that-- unless your in-laws are very old, and infirm, and short of money -- they are being terrible house guests.

I’m guessing that, over the years, you’ve tried to express your feelings in a million indirect ways.   You pick up their papers and ask, in a hint-hint voice: “Hey, are these yours?   I just wondered because the kids can’t find the couch.”   You finish a meal and declare, “Well, I guess I’ll do the dishes now! ” and then, you do the dishes anyway.    You get the restaurant check and declare, “Wow, that’s a lot!”  But your in-laws are busy sipping their tea, and praising the digestive benefits of Rooibos.  Your insinuations get you nowhere.

I understand why you’re worried about offending them.   Relatives are a lot like normal people, in the sense that they have widely different reactions to straight talk.   Some relatives-- particularly the ones we acquire through marriage – bristle at any emotional sharing.  Others serve it up for breakfast.  My husband and I know something about this.  He likes to say that his family keeps the peace, while my family says our piece.   I always think about that when we visit his people, and make sure never to act like my actual self.

My problem with subtle hints is that they are often lost on those who need them most.  It would be great if, when you politely pointed at the dishwasher, a helper switch went off in your in-laws’ vacation brains.   But hearing a polite hint requires more than just ears and a hearing aid.  It also requires empathy.   I don’t know your in-laws.  But people who let their grown offspring pay for all their meals, clean up their dishes, and moonlight as their chamber maids probably didn’t bring the gift of empathy along with them as a housewarming present, either.

So if you want things to change, you will need to express your feelings directly.  Just here and there, at first.  Test the waters.   This approach may cause minor discomfort – for both of you - -and it does run the risk of hurting their feelings.  But remember: Being direct doesn't necessarily mean being confrontational, getting angry, or acting like a total asshole.   There are good tricks for making straight talk less painful.   Here are 3 of my favorites:

                  1.  Couch your remarks in a compliment or lighthearted joke. 
                  2. Take on some emotional responsibility.  Make it about your feelings, not their behavior.
                  3. Tell a white lie, as a spoonful of sugar.

So, next time you see their used copies of Ladies Home Journal strewn across your TV room sofa, you could say: “Wow, Joe Bob and Betty Sue, you guys are such avid readers.  You must know so much.  Speaking of knowing stuff – maybe we forgot to mention this – we have a bigger recycling bin now.  It’s under the kitchen sink. So you can toss your papers in there when you’re done with them.”  

Or, when you finish breakfast, and they absentmindedly push their plates across the table at you while they search for a six-letter word for a sponge made from Old World vines, try something like:  “Hey, Mr. Magoo and McBarker.  I know you love the crosswords, but could you please load the breakfast stuff into the dishwasher today?    My house chores are piling up and right now, I have a hot date with the cat litter.”  

When they come downstairs after a long nap and ask what’s for dinner, consider saying: “Good morning, Captain and Tenille!  You know I like to cook.  But I’ve been doing it a lot lately.  Are you interested in cooking dinner for the group tonight?  I'm sure we'd love it!”

The restaurant thing is the hardest, to my mind, because it’s so egregious.  How does someone just stare at a check and not offer to contribute?    That’s all the more reason to say it directly.   “Listen, Fresh Prince, Bel-Air.  We’d love to go out again.  But we’ve been spending a lot at restaurants lately.  If you’d be okay with picking up the check this time, we’re totally up for it.  Otherwise, let’s just order pizza.”

There will always be glitches, when grown adults come together in the dead of winter and spend long periods of time together under the same roof.  But in my experience, emotional directness is often less scary and damaging than you anticipate.   You may even discover something surprising.  That they didn't want to impose.  Or they actually didn't know where the recycling bin was.
Which leads me back to the Rosy story.   There are people who will not change their behavior, even when you directly ask them to.    I hope this doesn’t describe your in-laws.  But if it turns out that they are impervious to change --or alternatively, you decide you just can’t say something direct -- your only recourse may be the Rosy option.  

Make their vacation home less comfortable.  
Stop cleaning their dishes, even if it means their mess sits on the table all day.   Stop cooking when they come downstairs.  If they ask for a meal, excuse yourself from the room without explanation.  Or, calmly shrug and point at the Pop Tart shelf.   Make plans at dinnertime yourselves.  Or just order pizza every night, without asking their preference.   And if they leave their stuff everywhere, don’t recycle it for them.  Just gather it all up in an untidy pile, and dump it right on their guest bed.   

That may sound harsh but look, it’s not pee.  And it might just be the nonverbal signal they need, to figure out their behavior is not wanted.  Good luck! 

Postscript:  It obviously would have been better if Rosy’s owner had been direct with his feelings.   But he did meet another woman shortly after that peeing debacle, and they ended up getting married.   So, was Rosy so wrong?  You tell me.


Dear Erin,

I have a three year old son who loves nothing more than driving his match box cars across the dinner table and using the serving spoons to play drums on my wedding China. And, although it doesn't often bother me, and I have accepted the chaos at our smaller family meals as a stage we will one day out grow and master, this year my strict Irish Catholic mother and my well-mannered and reserved Jewish father-in-law are coming to celebrate the combined Thanksgiving and Hanukkah celebrations. Tell me please, how I might find a way to tame the toddler beast and get my son to practice some table manners at our holiday table this year. I should emphasize, as is the case with most little boys, our son can color and eat a meal and make nice dinner conversations about Spider Man for about ten minutes before he starts turning the crystal water glasses upside down and starts pulling down his pants to show us his Batman underwear. 

Godzilla's Mother 

Dear Godzilla’s Mother,

Oh mommy, I so hear you.  

 I actually used to like Thanksgiving.   Sitting in a cozy house.  Chatting with drunk relatives.  Eating starch-on-starch pie.  Until one year, when I invited a few guests  – a playwright friend of ours, and one of my husband’s legal associates, who was visiting from China – to join our family feast.   I spent 3 days buying all the food, schlepping it up to our apartment, and looking over menus.   I spent all of Thanksgiving Day cooking the bird and its accompanying sides and gravies, while my toddler pulled down my pants and my infant wailed for more rice mush.

At dusk, we finally sat down, and I assembled my plate of food.  At which point, I got exactly six minutes of nibbling – which progressed to quickly shoveling food into my mouth -- before both of my children started fussing, crying, jumping in my lap, and throwing my carefully prepared food onto the floor.   No, I said to myself.  Never again.   Because 3 days of work -- for 6 minutes of rest -- is not a good formula for holiday happiness.  

And yet, I hear Godzilla, too.  Like his cinematic namesake, Godzilla sometimes feels out of control.  He sometimes gets so MAD.  He is cuddly and sweet, then turns on his parents on a whim.  But Godzilla, that poor confused monster, just can’t help it.  Because he’s three.  Or worse yet, three and a half.  He's still figuring out who his enemies and allies are.  Most days, they are both his mother. 

All I really know about child development comes from having raised two of these lizards, and from books.  I read a lot of books when I became a parent.  I also got many from my mother, who’s a child psychologist.  My favorites were the older developmental classics she had in her home library.  They can be old-fashioned in some ways, but they are actually full of super helpful information. Consider this juicy advice nugget from Louise Bates Ames, on how to cope with three year old resistance:     “Day care when necessary can reduce the time you will need to spend together.”  Her book on 3-year olds is deliciously subtitled, Friend or Enemy.    

Neither your reserved father-in-law, nor your strict mother, should be remotely surprised by his disruptive or obnoxious behavior.   They’ve seen the Batman underwear; they’ve cleaned up the broken stemware.   I do know from personal experience, however, that grandparents have a way of conveniently forgetting the unpleasant details about raising small children. 

Suddenly, at age 55, their holiday table was as orderly as the Last Supper.  Jesus was there, buttering up the challah, and the apostles made a chestnut stuffing that was to die for.   It’s crazy wrong, but I get it.  I have a habit of hearkening back to my early twenties, and remembering myself as being leggy and very fashionable.   Maybe I wasn’t, but who knows?  It was a long time ago.  

 In my opinion, the best thing you can do when balancing the needs of toddlers with the critical opinions of relatives is to remember – and confidently insist -- that you know your son best.  And plan accordingly.  Don’t let him sit next to anyone but you.  Don’t expect him to wait for the salad course.   If you sense that he’s about to launch a pre-salivated crouton into Grandpa Dave’s pumpkin soup, then redirect with a word game.   If you see that he’s getting bored by Grandma Sally’s story about how she kicked an imposter out of garden club, get him early dessert.   If he stands up and starts doing the superhero strip tease – and you really don’t think your mom would enjoy that more than listening to Grandpa Dave talk about derivatives – then excuse yourselves from the table and have it out with Godzilla in private.   You know he can’t help it.   

I give you this support and encouragement about table manners because I sense that you want him at the table.  But I also must ask: Why do you want him there?   I don’t know who convinced all of us modern parents that family dinners had to include both leafy greens and reptilian toddlers.  I suspect it was either yuppies, or Italians.  

If you really want to spend that time micromanaging Godzilla’s conquests, then you should.   But I predict that letting Godzilla leave the table after six minutes -- and giving him an attractive reason to stay away -- will make the holiday meal more pleasant for all of you.  If you need one more boost of confidence in that plan, here’s what Louise Bates Ames says about eating with the 3-year old:

  “It has always amazed me that families put up with mealtime struggles with the preschooler at the family table when a little planning to feed him before dinner would solve the problem so easily.” 

Amen, Louise.  

Whatever you decide to do – whether it’s taming the toddler beast, or letting him play on the Ipad so you can get your poultry on in peace --  I wish you good luck.  I remember those days.  You’re doing a great job.   It gets easier!  Until he turns four and a half, and King Kong arrives.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Unknown said...

I am SO enjoying the recent developments here! Advice and Cocktails: What could be better? I guess having them at the same time, but I can wait a few weeks between. Nice one, Ernie!

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Yay! Thanks. I'll keep it coming then but I do need more letters. Need any advice on the coast?

Anonymous said...

oh boy, i am going to come up with some questions for you. i constantly have etiquette dilemnas, usually i'm outraged at something someone has done and am not sure if i'm being reasonable, that i'd like some input on. i'm still thinking about that first letter, and realizing how conflict avoidant i am- there is no way i could ever be honest in that situation. i'd have to make my husband do all the talking- and i feel like most kids are more than willing, even as adults, to tell their parents when they're doing something wrong. maybe i'm wrong. anyways, i'm excited for this new feature.

debra burke said...

Wonderful advice for Godzilla's mom\dad.

Tara Gallagher said...

such a great idea to do an advice column, and such wonderful advice imparted in your maiden voyage! you're a smart lady with a great sense of exactly what to do in any situation and I can't wait to see where this goes...

Debra said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Debra said...

Dear Erin:

What can we do about people who go out in public who are sick and then spread their germs and make others sick? I am not really talking about people who might go grocery shopping and other necessary chores in life.. I am referring to showing up to a Thanksgiving dinner after their kids just got over a bad bad flu and now they themselves are coughing, sneezing and blowing their nose. They KNOW they are sick. They feel sick. Their kids were just sick for an entire week, but they selfishly show up to a Thanksgiving dinner and infect the host and her family. My friend, who was the host, is now sitting home this weekend with strep throat and missing many fun events because of this thoughtless person. I told her to write him a note letting him know how selfish and irresponsible he was.

I see this all the time. I'll be at the movies and the person behind me is hacking away and sniffling. When I ask them if they are sick or is it allergies, if they admit to being sick, I move my seat. Sometimes even if they say it's allergies, I move my seat because I don't believe them. Okay, I understand if you are really sick, sometimes you need to get out of the house.. but then, you should just go for a walk. Or go to an early matinee and sit on the side, away from others.

I also see this at synagogouge. People look forward to coming to a special event like a bat mitzvah or birthday of someone special.. but they are sick. They have their coat on, a pack of kleenex in one hand, they look pale and green.. yet.. there they are.. in a small room, coughing and sneezing because they are too darn selfish to realize that they get people infected.

Okay. You get my point. What can be said to someone like this? Something that might even make them go home. Or at least think about their behavior next time.