I gave my sister-in-law a huge responsibility over my kids. I think I made a mistake.

I gave my sister-in-law a huge responsibility over my kids. I think I made a mistake.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m changing my kids’ legal guardian in the event of my death, and I’m wondering—do I tell the person (my SIL) who is being removed? Or just hope she never needs to find out? My husband and I were very happy to have her to ask when we had our first child six years ago (and then another two years later). She has a great relationship with the kids and very similar values to ours. But then two years ago, she met and quickly married a man that is so cold and distant. He has been around our kids twice in the two years she has been with him, and we live 20 minutes away and regularly do things with my SIL at either of our houses or out. He either doesn’t come or stays elsewhere in the house, not interacting with us. We’ve tried to get to know him and he just seems to have no interest. He has a 9-year-old daughter of his own, and the few interactions I’ve seen between them have been similarly icy to those with us.

My husband and I had discussed that his sister would still be a great guardian, but her husband doesn’t really seem to want anything to do with our kids. Which is fine as long as he’s just their uncle, but if he’s married to their legal guardian and in the home they live in, do we really want that as an environment for our kids? Since having kids, we became very close to another family with a similarly aged child in our neighborhood and basically consider them family. Last year they asked us to be the legal guardian for their son, and we gladly accepted. Then my husband died a few months ago, and it made all of this so much more real to me. If I die, I don’t want my kids in a home where one person doesn’t interact with them in any positive way. I’ve asked my friends to be the kids’ guardians and they’ve accepted. Do I tell my SIL she won’t be anymore? And how detailed do I get in my reasoning if I do?

—Stressed Over Death

Dear Stressed,

I’m so sorry for your loss, and I can understand why this question is weighing on your mind right now. This is one of the hardest parenting decisions to make. I’m glad you have a guardianship plan you feel good about.

I hate to throw this back to you, but it’s really your call whether or not to tell your sister-in-law about the change. It depends on what feels right to you, given the relationship the two of you have. One possible reason to let her know would be if you wanted to keep her as a backup or alternate guardian in case your first choice is unable to assume the responsibility. Another reason could be if you worry that she or someone else in your family would contest your revised guardianship plan. But again, you don’t owe your sister-in-law or anyone else an explanation. Odds are that she’ll never need to know—and if she ever did, her feelings wouldn’t be your problem.

If you ever do feel it’s important for her to know of your decision, for whatever reason, keep your explanation as brief as possible and don’t let anyone put you on the defensive.
You’ve made the decision you feel is right for your kids and their wellbeing (perhaps the one that would cause the least possible disruption to their lives?). That’s the only important consideration, in the end, and the only thing you have to say. If I were you, I’d go ahead and make the change legally, and then continue to think about whether or not to say anything to your sister-in-law. You don’t have to make that particular decision right away. And honestly, it doesn’t seem like a good use of your time or energy to be worrying about it—or trying to have what could be a fraught conversation with her—right now, while you’re both grieving the very recent death of your husband.

One final note: Not all kids think to ask what would happen or where they would live if both parents were gone—but some do. So just bear in mind that if you don’t tell your sister-in-law of the change and your children ever ask you about the guardianship plan, you might then need to tell them not to discuss it with anyone but you—at least, not if you don’t want your sister-in-law potentially hearing it from someone else

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Our 2.5-year-old has started expressing interest in playgrounds, and she’s enjoying climbing, slides, and swings. Today the playground was particularly busy, and eventually the hammock-style swing was empty so we brought her over. Within seconds, a boy of about 5 said he wanted the swing and tried to push our daughter off. There was no adult in sight.

Obviously, safety comes first, but this got me thinking—is there an established etiquette surrounding playgrounds? I’m, to my detriment, a people pleaser and lean toward “there’s a lot of interest, swing twice and find something else so someone else can have a turn.” But my daughter has the right to play as much as anyone else. What’s a good amount of time where we can have fun but not hog from others? And how should this particular, albeit extreme, situation be handled? The boy ran off as my husband caught our daughter, so we couldn’t say “don’t hurt people” as he was running away. We saw him with adults much later—should we have taken them aside at that point, even though a lot of time had passed? I know more playground time is in our future, and I just want it to be fun but also safe for everyone!

—Playground Etiquette

Dear Playground Etiquette,

I can’t say that I ever stood by the swing set with a timer! I would probably let my kid swing for a few minutes and then, if there was a line forming, maybe suggest that we give someone else a turn.

If the other kid hadn’t run off, I think it would have been fine for you to say (not shout, obviously), “It’s still her turn, you’ll get yours next. You shouldn’t push people.” As for telling his adults much later, it could really go either way, since your daughter wasn’t actually injured. Had they been standing right there when it happened, I would have looked to them to speak to their son, or gone ahead and said something to him in their hearing if they didn’t.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m 20. My younger sister is 16. Our parents, especially our mom, are really overprotective of her. She’s always been “different” from her peers in some way that our parents used to justify it. In elementary school, it became apparent that she was severely socially anxious, though it took until two years ago for my parents to accept that and start sending my sister to therapy (the therapist has also talked to my sister about maybe being autistic, but my sister is afraid to bring that up to our parents). My sister had a medical condition that required repeated hospitalization and surgery when she was in 6th grade, and that just made my parents even more overprotective.

My sister struggled for a long time socially, but starting therapy has helped her a lot. She has friends now, for the first time in a long time, maybe the first time she’s had close friends ever. She’s been calling me to complain a lot recently. Our parents won’t let her do any of the things that typical 16-year-olds do, things that I was allowed to do at that age—they won’t let her walk to a friend’s house 15 minutes away in our relatively safe neighborhood or go see a movie with a friend when the movie ends after 9 p.m. One of her closest friends is a boy, and they’re worried that they’ll start dating or that they’re already dating, when they were perfectly fine with me dating at that age (as long as I was being safe, responsible, etc.). My sister wants me to intervene on her behalf, but any time I’ve tried to point out that I was able to do something when I was her age, my parents just say it’s different because of her medical history, or her personality, or whatever. I’m not sure what to do now.


Dear Worried,

It’s too bad that your parents are infantilizing your sister in this way, and I get why you’re both frustrated. You can certainly keep speaking up and trying to advocate for her with them—and/or consider having a more serious, in-depth talk with them about your concerns. They may not fully realize that they are both stifling your sister and underestimating what she can do, or that these things could be to her detriment, no matter how “good” their intentions. Hearing it from someone else who knows and loves your sister might help them consider all this from a new perspective.

Of course, they might not listen to or welcome your input. And you’re not your sister’s parent or guardian, so you don’t have much control over her day-to-day experience. In the event that your parents stubbornly continue on as they are, you can still make it clear to your sister that you believe in her right to make decisions for herself and her ability to do things independently. Your sister will turn 18 in two years, her choices will be more her own, and she will know that you support and trust her to live the life she wants. Even if neither of you are able to convince your parents to loosen their grip before then, it’s great that you have each other.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a sweet, wonderful 5-year-old son who has some social anxiety and is just generally slow to form friendships. He started a new preschool about six months ago, and while he seems to be adjusting okay and plays fairly well with others, I think he’s mostly on the periphery and hasn’t formed a deep friendship with anyone. His teachers say he’s doing well, but still doesn’t integrate into play as much as the other children (for instance, always wanting the teachers to run around with him on the playground).

We’ve gotten friendly with another family in our neighborhood whose daughter, A, is in my son’s class. He had issues with her calling him a name he didn’t like during his first few months at this school and still seems resentful about this, and doesn’t want to play with her. We had a playdate this weekend, more orchestrated by the grown-ups who wanted to hang out and are also worried about their kids’ socialization (though this was not an explicit goal of the playdate, it was a motivator for us, and I think for them as well). A’s mother told us that she’s really struggling at preschool right now. I asked my son later if anyone plays with A at school, and he said not really. This morning when he was leaving I asked him if he’d think about playing with A today, and he said no and got very stressed, saying that he didn’t want to get in any trouble. After some more probing it appears that two other boys don’t like A and get mad at her and anyone who plays with her, which is really heartbreaking. My husband dropped him off and said A ran up to him when he got there and asked him to play, and he said no (he also has separation anxiety and was also sad about drop-off, so I might be reading into that too much).

How much should I insert myself into preschool social dynamics? I’m not sure my son and A have ever really clicked, so I don’t want to push a friendship on him. But on the other hand, I think he’s lonely at school and I feel really bad for A. Should I stand aside and let kids figure their own stuff out, or try to push this a bit? Might be a moot point as it’s not like my son does everything I ask him to do. To be clear, A’s parents haven’t asked us for help. They will go to the same elementary school, but we don’t have classroom assignments for kindergarten yet.

—Extrovert Parent with an Introvert Child

Dear Parent of an Introvert,

You’ve already pushed a bit with the playdate last weekend. It would be one thing if your son was neutral about A—he doesn’t have to be super excited in order to develop some kind of friendship with her. But it seems that he’s had plenty of time to get to know her at school and when your families hang out, and still has no interest in playing with her.

Maybe he is lonely and could use more friends. Maybe he is somewhat influenced by some mean boys at school—if so, that’s unfortunate; you can and should talk with him about how bullying is wrong and he needs to try to be kind to A and all his classmates. But it sounds like he has his own reasons (maybe the name thing?) for not really wanting to be close friends with her, and that’s his choice to make.

It hardly ever goes well when parents try to direct their children’s social lives. If you steamroll over your son on this, not only are you likely doomed to fail in nudging him closer to A, you are showing him that his stated wishes regarding who he spends time and plays with don’t really matter. I’d be more worried about ignoring his autonomy than the state of his social life (though I do hear your concerns and understand them). I hope your son is able to make more friends through school or other activities—or, worst case, next year in kindergarten, at his new school. But I just don’t think it works to try to force a particular friendship on a kid who isn’t interested, and more to the point, I don’t think you should.


More Advice From Slate

My son is 6. Among other things, he loves fairies, unicorns, stories about girls, and the color pink. Good for him, right? My son and my daughter have both been brought up to know that everything is for everyone. Only trouble is the other kids haven’t been brought up that way. The other night my son couldn’t sleep because he really wants to read a unicorn book at school but doesn’t want his friends to laugh at him. My question is should I keep asking his teacher to step in and try to teach these kids that your gender doesn’t have to determine what you like? Or would I just be setting my son up to be bullied by causing him to be singled out? When it comes to issues like this, does the teacher have any sway, or are they always fighting a losing battle against parental influence?