Guiding Social Interactions
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 19 No. 6, November-December 2002, pp. 230
"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.
At family gatherings my husband and I find that our parenting style is very different from that of my in-laws. Now that our child is a toddler, the differences in parenting are very apparent in the behavior of our daughter compared to her cousins. While we try to stay with our daughter and help guide her through social situations, my in-laws believe that young children should be left alone to play and work things out on their own. This often results in adults yelling and children crying-not the way we practice loving guidance in our home. I fear that this situation will only get worse as the children get older, and I wonder if there is a way to find a solution now. We usually see our extended family once a month, and I would like our daughter to have the opportunity to play with her cousins.
My parenting style is very different from my in-laws, as well. We live near grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles and it is apparent that I am very much the "oddball" in my parenting choices. My husband isn't always in complete agreement with me, and by not standing up for me against his family, it appears he's on their side. I frequently feel isolated; it often seems that everyone is "against me."
I have persisted for years in this situation and continue to strengthen my resolve. While we still have difficult situations with the in-laws, I try to continue to do what I see is right for our family and I remove my children from situations that I think are unhealthy for them. My oldest child is a teenager and my youngest is four. I enjoy watching them develop into kind, considerate human beings. We enjoy their company and choose to be around them. Not everyone feels good about their children, but we do.
It hurts to feel like a stranger among family, but your family is the family that matters. Having your husband's support and encouragement is wonderful but even without it you can continue to parent your children in the manner you know to be right. I gave up trying to explain my parenting ideals but if you feel you want to, go ahead. "This is my family, and we are doing what works for us," is one place to start.
The toddler years are magical and go by so fast! Enjoy that baby while you can and actively help her learn how to play with her cousins. You are teaching her important socialization skills-to get along with others. Unsupervised toddlers usually teach each other lessons that have to be unlearned over longer periods of time.
Heather "Sam" Doak
Marietta OH USA
My favorite way to handle these situations is to acknowledge to others that their way is what works for them and my way is what works for me. I find that if I give the least little hint of feeling that my way is superior or that I am trying to change their mind, they become defensive. I just keep saying something along the lines of, "This is what we have found works for our individual child. Susie really does best when we do XXXX." This helps keep any competition down.
I have also found that it does improve as they get older. I can now explain to my children how things work at Grandma and Grandpa's house. They know what to expect but also understand that it isn't what we do at home. My older children help with the younger ones now, too.
Kissimmee FL USA
My family is very big with lots of cousins. My husband and I also stay with our son and help him interact in a positive way! My family made all kinds of comments to us and we just shrugged them off because we knew that in this situation our son really needed us. For my son, the overwhelming number of cousins made him so shy and scared. Being with one of us really helped him adapt and interact with other children while still providing him with a measure of comfort. I found that we helped give our son the social tools to communicate with other adults and children.
My toddler is now five and at the last family gathering the same people who could not believe how we were parenting were making comments such as, "Wow, Ben is so polite and social." Now I hardly ever see him at family events. He is having fun with his cousins, uncles, and aunts. Parent the way you feel your child needs you and you will not go wrong!
Lusby MD USA
I have a similar situation with my in-laws and cousins. We usually bring a few of our own toys that can be shared and I tell my little ones ahead of time that they need to stay where they can see Mommy. The younger cousins want to play with our toys so the children enjoy playing together in front of us. It is a struggle to keep them out of a playroom if there is one where we're visiting. In that situation, I stay in the playroom with the children and my husband stays with his family. (In my perfect world playrooms are attached to the family gathering area and everyone can be together.)
My husband's mother and sister have called me overprotective and have repeatedly warned about how important it is for parents to have space from their offspring and for the children to play independently. I giggle when they suggest that all the children go upstairs and watch a video or play so the adults can have some grown-up time. As I follow the little people upstairs, I look back and remind the grown-ups that I never let my children out of my sight. I smile as they roll their eyes. I can have adult time when my children are older or when my husband wants to take a turn playing with the children. I think it's worth missing adult time for now.
Think about what a great example your family is for your extended family. Children should always be supervised, toddlers or not. Good luck and more importantly, have fun with your family! Follow your instincts and don't let anyone cause you to doubt yourself. You know what is best for your family.
Mashpee MA USA
I would suggest not following the expectations of people who are not raising your daughter. If you feel that her behavior is best and she is the safest (physically and emotionally) when you are there with her, stay with her. Plead "enjoyment" of the children and their energy and pass on your regrets for missing adult time whenever they suggest, imply, or demand that you leave her alone with other children. You'll be doing them a service (that they'll probably never recognize, so don't expect to be thanked) and the children will experience another way of parenting. Often, simply being there changes the energy of the children whose behavior might deteriorate if they are left alone. (Children who behave badly and then get yelled at by their parents are usually in need of attention, so you'll be attending them, perhaps enough, to stave off the bad behavior, at least until you leave.)
The people at these functions that you have made connections with may eventually seek out your company when you're with the children-then you'll have adult company while you care for your daughter. Otherwise, you can take turns with your husband so each of you can get some time with the adults and each of you can ease your mind about the needs of your daughter. My children are now 13 and 10. I stayed with them for years and now they have the ability to socialize nicely with children of all ages. They naturally follow around toddlers because they recognize that young children need watching and they often let the mothers at the event stay with the adults. Everyone gets what they need: my daughters get to feel responsible while playing with fun and adorable little children and the mothers know that they aren't leaving their babies to the wolves while they get some grown-up time. I love win-win situations.
Victoria BC Canada
I wish I could offer more definitive help in this area, but I have the same situation with my extended family. My brother and his wife have a little girl who is only one month younger than my son. Their personalities seem to be opposites-my son is laid back, cautious, slow to approach newcomers, and more introspective; his cousin is boisterous, out-going, and much more outwardly spirited. The parenting style we have chosen is 180 degrees away from that of my brother and his wife. The fact that my son still nurses and sleeps in the family bed solicits ridicule and outright contempt from them. In their minds, children do not deserve their own personal space nor basic respect for their feelings and personalities.
The best way my husband and I have found to deal with these attitudes is to talk to our son about the things he might hear, either said to him or about him, and to stick close by him when he is interacting with his cousin, aunt, or uncle. That way we can practice loving guidance when difficulties over toys or simple personal incompatibilities surface. We have also found that sometimes the best solution is to offer to be the adult to watch and interact with the children. That way we can do our best to control the environment the children are playing in, and we can be the ones to react when the inevitable squabbles arise.
If you feel that you could find a way to speak to your extended family without causing more of an unfavorable situation, then I would suggest doing that. I know at least with my family that the differences are so great that my comments, no matter how nicely stated, would be taken as criticism or judgement. So we just try and deal with situations as they happen, and hope that the gentle nature of our parenting style will speak for itself. We believe that because we have attachment-parented our son, we have given him the tools to deal with difficult situations-his parents' constant concern and involvement.
Jefferson County WV USA
My husband and I are in a situation similar to yours, where children close to us are being raised quite differently from how we have chosen to raise our children.
The adults in these situations don't understand why we take turns shadowing our toddler in the toy room while the other socializes with the grown-ups. We've assured them that we are not in any way avoiding their company, but simply keeping an eye on our child. We've been questioned about this parenting choice and we've pointed out that, like all parents, we are finding our own way in parenting and that this is what works best for our family.
While shadowing our toddler, we've clarified to the other children present what behavior we expect. We will kindly but firmly call other children to task for grabbing toys or other offensive behavior just as we would our own son. Children have a great capacity for learning what is expected of them and that expectations may differ depending on the situation. The children in the circumstances I've described are learning that when my husband and I are present with our children, they are expected to treat others in a kind, respectful manner, and that they will be treated so by us.
Brookeville MD USA
How wonderful that you have family close enough to see them often! It can be difficult when gatherings bring together people with different philosophies. One thing that helps me when I'm in a situation like this is to remember that people with different beliefs can get along very well as long as everyone is treated with respect. While I practice loving guidance, some of my friends don't. I parent my children my way, they parent their children their way, and we all respect each other's choices.
It helps to show appreciation for people who do respect your decisions, however different from their own, and to let those around you know that you respect their right to make different decisions. I find it sets a great example for my older children to let them see that we can be friends with people who make different choices from our own. Good luck!
Charlottesville VA USA
I can certainly empathize with you. Not only was my son the first breastfed infant in my husband's family in close to 75 years, he is also their first experience with toddler nursing and respectful, loving guidance as a parenting style. Asserting my right to mother my own way has been an uphill climb and I often revert to the best advice anyone has ever given me: "Always remember that you are the one who knows what is best for your child." I share this with you because it seems that the solution to your situation is simply to do as you have been doing and raise your child according to the way your heart knows is best for her. We do not have the right to tell our in-laws to raise their children differently, just as they do not have the right to question our parenting style.
As my LLL Leader keeps telling me, "The proof is in the pudding." It sounds as if your daughter is a happy, well-behaved child. That says it all. My son's delightful temperament keeps astonishing my in-laws, who are not used to the loving, cooperative children who are raised with breastfeeding and mutual respect.
Leaving young children unsupervised to work out their problems is just looking for trouble. As I said earlier, it's their prerogative to do so, but you are not obligated to change your parenting style because you are with them. Maybe you and your husband could try taking turns keeping an eye on your daughter as she interacts with her cousins. At least this way you can ensure that she won't end up getting in over her head. If the other children do end up having difficulties, at least you won't be the adult yelling and your child won't be the one crying.
Baiting Hollow NY USA
The only advice I can give is to stand strong and unwavering and to grin and bear it. Our parenting practices, which consist of extended breastfeeding of our almost-three-year-old daughter, co-sleeping, and positive discipline, have come under the attack of our well-meaning family members. Some members of the family have questioned our "lack of discipline" for our very active child.
We are always on alert at family gatherings, ready to distract, defend, or remove our daughter from stressful situations before any other family member has the opportunity to frighten her and discipline her the "old-fashioned way." I know that it can really hurt when your family doesn't support your parenting decisions, but that's just what they are-your parenting decisions-not theirs. You are the one responsible for bringing up your child according to what your heart is telling you. You are the one who must be there for your child. She is still too young to negotiate social situations on her own. Stand by her and defend her. The cousins may even learn some lessons from her in years to come. Don't be afraid to be different and your daughter will learn by your example.
You may want to remind your adult relatives, as we have, that she is your child and you have carefully thought about your approach to parenting her. Books that you may want to offer them include The Attachment Parenting Book or The Discipline Book. I also told relatives very close to me that if they had anything they wanted to say against my parenting choices, I would be happy to hear them and then discuss with my husband whether or not we would want to incorporate them into our choices. That seemed to stop the ridicule, at least out in the open.