This post is part of my special HAVE KIDS, WILL TRAVEL series to give you advice and wisdom on traveling with kids along with some reviews of travel-friendly items.
When we were recently visiting family this summer and fall, I wrote down some notes about awkward situations and uncomfortable interactions that might help you in your own visits with family and friends — whether at home, over the holidays, or traveling.
This is a list of negative interactions, which is not to imply that visits with other people are to be feared or avoided. I hope there will be mostly bright moments as you witness your children attaching to the people who matter most to you, but this is a list that might help protect you against the scattered storm clouds that threaten your peace — and your parenting ideals.
Types of uncomfortable situations you might encounter during family visits:Your child will rub up against attitudes and parenting styles that are different from yours. This always irritates me a little, but I console myself that his time spent with these people is very brief compared with the time he spends with Sam and me — so our style will win out in the end, through sheer repetition. On our latest trip, Mikko started telling us all, "Great job!" in an exact parroting of his uncle. I know it's a common cultural construct that we personally have chosen not to indulge in; we try not to praise Mikko in order to signal our approval or to interfere with his own satisfaction and appraisal of a task. When first his uncle started telling him "Great job!" for something like carrying a plate to the table, Mikko looked nonplussed and slightly as if he knew he was being patronized; later in the week, he came to expect it. So it annoys me, but I trust that things like this will wear off when we go back home. One day after we got back, Sam had him in his car seat and I came down to the car a bit later. Mikko watched me walk up and told me, "Great job!" as I entered the car. This shows me that at least Mikko has no idea what it really means; he thinks you just say it randomly to people all the time, as his uncle seemed to do to him.
Your child will behave differently. This is true for Mikko whether he travels or people visit him at our home. It doesn't matter how low-key we try to make the visits, either, and how little we try to disrupt his routine. He will be disrupted, and his reaction is ever and always to become super giddy for several days, refusing to sleep for all but a few essential hours each night, and then crash in tears and tantrums and, finally, rest — at which point the cycle begins over again. I imagine some children who travel take the opposite tack of becoming withdrawn and quiet, particularly if they're shy and lose energy through the stress of interacting with other people, especially those who might be strangers to them. Your child might also break down more often over things that would not normally induce tears.
It's been hard for us to explain the phenomenon of Mikko's marked behavioral change to our visitors (mostly family); we try, but since they never see him when he's not being affected by visiting with them, they have no idea that he truly is not that wild normally. Don't get me wrong — he doesn't behave badly, just differently. He's more apt to spill drinks, forget he has a vocabulary larger than a word or grunt at a time, race around the table at mealtime, and fling borrowed toys across the room; he's less likely to want to sleep or cuddle or calm down for even a second. It's frustrating for Sam and me, both because he becomes someone we have little experience with dealing with and because our parents are standing there judging Mikko (and our parenting skills) based on the behavior he shows under duress.
The only advice I can give: Expect this. Try not to let it get it to you (easier said than done). Tell the people you're visiting with as often as you need to for your own comfort how oddly your children are behaving, how stressed travel or visitors make them. Try not to blame your kids for their response to stress, and try not to take it personally when people who cannot understand that the behaviors are stress-based question your parenting. If they're your parents, probably they didn't make much allowances for your stress levels growing up, either, and you want to do better by your children, right? Of course, some children are more sensitive to change than others, and some thrive on variety and are future adventurers and travelers on their own; if you have (or are) one of the sensitive ones, try to be gentle and understanding — of them and of yourself.
Your child will be pushed to behave in ways that are different from usual. For eating, one grandmother might encourage all manner of junk food, offering cookies and cake instead of meals, and another might forbid it, frowning if your child has a sip of caffeine or taste of sugar. Both Mikko's grandmothers like to make up rules about what can be eaten when, and where: Food at the table only (not a bad rule in itself, mind you, but not what Mikko — and our couch and carpet, heh — are used to!), no sweets before a meal, no snacks too close to eating, a "proper" breakfast, etc.
We also have issues with what other people allow Mikko to do when visiting or being visited. He's frequently cautioned against or straight out not allowed to pick up or explore breakable or expensive objects (even everyday plates and glasses), contrary to how he can behave at home. At one place, TV might be ruled off limits, and at another, offered as the go-to babysitter. Mikko frequently doesn't like to get dressed or undressed, or to bathe; usually Sam and I take the path of least resistance, letting him sleep in comfortable clothes, keep his jammies on all day, and wait until a bath sounds like spontaneous fun to him. Rather than strict ideas about what sort of schedule a child must be on and when naptimes and bedtimes must fall, we take a more freeform perspective. Such allowances can seem like over-permissiveness to grandparents or others who parented differently. It can be hard to keep a semblance of your own routines and regulations (or lack thereof) going in the face of disruptions combined with opposition.
Even more egregious are people who blatantly disregard rules you've set up for your child's own health and safety (such as not eating certain foods for allergy avoidance) or that align with your family's beliefs (such as no spanking, or not eating meat); some things you might be able to let slide, but you'll have to determine where your lines in the sand must be drawn. Sometimes you can let the naysayers experiment as an object lesson: When Mikko was visiting at seven months old, my mom was determined to feed him mashed bananas, despite our insistence that we were doing baby-led solids and that he didn't like to be spoon fed purees. Because he had no food allergies, I stepped back and let them have at it. The end result? Projectile vomited banana all over my poor dad, who was holding Mikko. Plus, a fresh understanding for my mother that maybe Sam and I knew what we were talking about when we had said it was a bad idea.
There have been other times we've stepped back and let them experiment, however, when we've regretted it, such as when it's a moment of discipline. This summer, Mikko didn't want to put shoes on to leave the cottage and walk down to the beach, so Sam offered to carry him. My mom insisted he wear shoes and walk on his own, and a mini-battle ensued as she shooed us off so she could "deal" with the situation. Sam and I were ten steps down the path by ourselves before Sam stopped and angrily pointed out that, no, we were the parents, and we got to decide. We marched back to find Mikko screaming, with shoes on, and my parents insisting they had the situation "under control." Mm-hm. We shooed them off and sat with Mikko until we all calmed down. So choose your battles wisely, and remember that you're the parents and you have the privilege and responsibility of trying to choose what's best for your child.
Your attachment parenting values might be undermined. If you're breastfeeding (or particularly, breastfeeding an older baby or toddler) in an environment where nursing is uncommon or even unwelcome, you might be asked to leave the room, cover up, or explain yourself. If you cosleep, your host (ahem, my mother) might subtly encourage not doing so by offering separate rooms or separate mattresses. If you babywear, your parents might complain loudly that they never get to hold the baby when you're home and offer to buy you a stroller so they "get a turn" when you're out, even if you offer a comfortable baby sling and instructions on how to use it. If you practice elimination communication, you might get some sideways glances and raised eyebrows — or worse. With an older child, talking about your unschooling might lead relatives to suggest all the ways traditional schooling is so much superior.
In a more passive-aggressive situation, as is my experience, you can just continue to do your thing and try to let the implied criticisms roll off your back. This can be especially hard when you're a new parent, but you'd feel worse if you changed your parenting just to suit their comfort levels.
In a more straight-out aggressive situation, where you're told you are not allowed to do a particular thing in their house (e.g., breastfeed in public), that's a far stickier situation. You could choose to keep the peace in that moment and have a private discussion later about how you don't feel welcome and won't be returning unless they change their tune. Or you could continue your actions as they are and power through the tension, which might make the most sense if it's your own house (where your rules should take precedence). Neither's a perfect solution, so you'll have to see what you feel most comfortable with, personality-wise and taking in to account your child's age (is it something likely to make your child feel uncomfortable or threatened as well?). In a more neutral moment, you can try to find an ally to stick up for you (start with your co-parent, if you have one, and move on from there), and also talk honestly with your accuser about how you have chosen a certain path and would appreciate respect. If it's not forthcoming, you have to make the hard choice about whether to keep interacting with that person, for your children's sake.
Your parenting choices may be questioned. Sometimes you'll receive questions from relatives about how or why you do the things you do. They can seem innocent but sometimes aren't. My mother-in-law once asked me why we had chosen to practice EC, and I tried to explain it, before she cut me off to tell me that a friend of a friend of hers had tried it and her children hadn't potty trained any earlier. Ah. The lightbulb went on. She had initiated the topic just to tell me that I had made a wrong decision, based on a faulty understanding of what our goals were for EC (in other words, early potty independence was not the point, in my mind). Other relatives of mine frequently do the same thing, where they'll ask a question just as a springboard to insert their own opinion. Once in awhile, I'll get a honest question from someone who really wants to understand, or even adopt the practice themselves — but they're so few and far between, I often don't recognize them the first time they're asked!
My recommendation, when your parenting practices are questioned, is to be polite but wary. If a relative asks why you're still nursing after a year, they probably don't want a rundown of all the research you've done to show the benefits of long-term breastfeeding and the natural range of child-led weaning. If they do, a couple short responses ought to suss that out. You can say something neutral like, "It's still working for us," or something funny like, "We plan to nurse to college age — but her dorm will need to be a double," and see if the questioner's response is a genuine, continued curiosity or whether they launch into their prepared and uneducated monologue about how breastmilk has no value after a year, blah blah blah. If that's the case, you can use the "Pass the bean dip" style of communication, where you just repeat something neutral and then deflect the conversation, like "It's what works for our family. Please pass the bean dip."
If you're feeling like a raging debate, you can always go for it, of course — you're unlikely to change the minds of people who are determined not to understand you, and you might upset yourself and your children with an argument. Then again, there have been cases where someone's mind has been changed through debate — maybe not even the person questioning, but a bystander who reconsiders some long-held beliefs. You'll have to decide what makes you most comfortable. After many cases of having my counterarguments ignored and dismissed, I've become a "pass the bean dip" type of gal with anyone who's not honestly interested in hearing my side.
Types of people you'll run across during visits with family and friends:People who are awkward around children. Out of this list, I am most charitable toward such people. It's a sad fact but a true one that our culture does not promote an inter-mixing of generations. Unless someone purposely seeks out the company of children, it's entirely too easy to go through your teen years and twenties with practically no contact with kids. The people I can think of who fit this list include twenty-something siblings who are eager to connect but don't know how, younger tween and teen cousins who've forgotten their own childhood years but are not sophisticated enough to act cool yet, and child-free friends who love your children but don't know exactly how to talk to them. This list can also include people who are awkward in general, and I will point out that it includes the me from my pre-Mikko days, as well as the me who's forced to interact with any age I haven't yet experienced.
These people will try but might misgauge the age level of the child, treating them as younger or older than they are. Often all it takes is a subtle redirection in the form of interacting with your child in an appropriate way. You might also act the part of a host bringing two guests together at a party by giving them a mutually interesting topic of conversation (particularly for an older child) or, for younger children, an activity they could perform together (such as putting together a puzzle you've brought with you or encouraging your artsy sister to draw an amusing animal).
People who are dismissive of all children, including yours. They'll ignore your child or even say disrespectful things in front of him. This will sting a little, because by saying your child is unimportant, they are by extension implying you are unimportant since you (I figure) value your child. It also leaves you with less to talk about, since anything parenting-related is off limits for such people. I tend to be equally dismissive of these people and just try not to take it too personally. Often, they're people who have not had children (e.g., child-free friends, siblings, or cousins) or have not had the sole care of them in the past (e.g., grandfathers). The first category might change their tune if they end up becoming parents themselves. Now, I can see this being more hurtful in a situation where you really want your child to connect with this person (say, if it's a parent or dear friend) or if the dismissive behavior is hurting your child's feelings; in that case, you might try ways to get them to notice your child and for the two of them to interact in ways that benefit them both.
People who think they're great with children but…not so much. For me, this is a sort of grin-and-bear-it situation, because usually my child will make this distinction clear for them. Whether or not the adult picks up on it, of course, is chancy. That same uncle who said "great job" every two seconds actually works with preschool children as his job — and he kept correcting Mikko's pronunciation: "No, kiel-bas-a." And Mikko would stare at him blankly and repeat it in his own mangled way. When, if his uncle had studied child development at all, he'd know that correcting a three-year-old's pronunciation is completely pointless; they think they are saying it the right way, and they will say it the right way in time. I don't usually try to enlighten people like this unless it's distressing Mikko. I usually just watch and wonder if the experiential lesson the adult is receiving will ever sink in.
People who try to parent your child. These people tend to get my goat. They include mothers and mothers-in-laws as a matter of course but also uncles and aunts and other people who think their vested interest in your and your child's life is license for them to take over your parenting job. They think, since they've done it before or can see more clearly than you, that they know how to discipline, correct, or teach your child. They think they know what's best: what's best to eat, how best to behave, what phrases to parrot, what tone of voice to use. This is where I can't urge you strongly enough to stand strong in your position as the parent. It's hard for me, because I am also my parents' child and was taught to respect my elders — but I need to remember my job as my own child's advocate; if I don't stand up for him, who will? How do people who see him once or twice a year know better than his parents do what he needs or wants? Every time I haven't stood up for my child, I've regretted it, because it's an experience of failing his trust in me. It can be hard to speak up, to insist, to walk away, but your child needs to know you're there for him.
It doesn't always have to be a confrontation — sometimes you can gently say, "This is how we do things in our family," and continue with your own way. Sometimes it will need to be a conversation you have away from your children, particularly with older children, so they're not pulled into the debate or made to feel responsible for the conflict. Sometimes it might cause hurt feelings in the other adults — but it's not your responsibility to parent them. Try to preserve the peace when you can; when you can't, err on the side of protecting those who are most vulnerable: your children.
Overall, we were happy we had traveled to visit our families, and we love to see Mikko interact with friends and relatives he doesn't see often. It's a challenge for all of us, and every vacation and family visit takes some recovery after the fact, but I think it's valuable for Mikko to meet the people who are important to us, and for all of us to learn ways of interacting with people who think differently from the way we do. The more Sam and I practice, the better we get at sticking to our values and standing up for our beliefs and, more importantly, our child.
What bothers you most about interacting with friends and relatives who parent differently — or think you should? What are your tips for getting through with your smile intact?
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