Enforcing the Rules When Family Isn’t Supportive

by | Sep 21, 2015 | Mailbag, Parenting, Parenting With Authority | 9 comments

Mailbag time! Today, you get two for the price of one, on a really challenging topic: how to handle family members who undermine our parenting.

– first question –

Hey, Kendra!

I was at the funeral for one of my relatives, and after at the cemetery, we went to visit the grave sites of some other family members. Well, one of my second cousins is in her mid 30s, and she has three kids- 1 girl and 2 boys. The youngest, I’d say, is about 7 or 8, and he’s quite the handful. Anyways. We were all gathered around my great-grandfather’s grave site, and said boy walks right up and starts climbing on top of the gravestone.

At which point, his mother tells him to get down. Two things happen. 1- he completely ignores her, and, 2- the rest of her family (parents, aunts, and cousins) completely undermines her authority and tell her and the child that it’s ok, it’s not a big deal, and then even make light of it.

I said nothing, but was outraged because 1- Mom said NO, regardless of what the kid is doing is unacceptable, she said no. End of story. 2- her family members unintentionally enabled the kid to completely ignore his mother by disregarding her authority as a parent.

I discussed it with my fiancee, and we both agreed that said situation was not acceptable, and would remove our kid from the situation for correction if it ever occurred. However, we drew a complete blank when it came to dealing with family members who undermine our authority as parents.

So. Question: Has anything like this ever happened to you? How would you deal with the family members who stepped in?


– first answer –

Hey Jen,

Thanks! Yeah. I think all parents have faced that one. And I think your instincts are completely right on it.

In those situations, I try to remember that the family members (or friends, or complete strangers) really do THINK they’re being helpful They’re not, of course, but they do mean well. It’s not like they’ve set out to undermine your parenting, they are just uncomfortable witnessing parental correction, since you just don’t see it out in the open these days.

So, I am polite to the meddlers, but firm in my discipline. I’d just smile and say, “Well, either way, he DOES have to listen when his parents tell him something.” And I’d try to find someplace more private to have a discussion with my child.

And if you do that often enough, the meddlers quit meddling, mostly.

I’m sure there are some grandparents out there who are (consciously or unconsciously) deliberately undermining parental authority, but I think in MOST cases it’s just awkwardness than can be handled by confident parenting. It sounds like you’re on the right track!


– second question –

Hi Kendra,

I am wondering how you would handle a situation I often find myself in. My husband and I are very, very blessed to live close to our parents, siblings, and close family. We see them often, at least once per week, usually more. I am so happy that my children get to see their family on such a regular basis.

I have learned so much about parenting from your blog, and a lot of the rules and expectations you have shared really seem to work for my family. The problem is that our extended families do not seem to respect our rules for our children, even when we politely explain or ask. Many of them think we are “much too strict” and that our expectations exceed the capabilities of a two year old (which is obviously not true, because my daughter has shown me that she is very capable of following my rules).

I used to simply give up and allow “free for all” whenever our family visited, but since we do see them so often, it is causing me a great deal of stress. And, not to mention, the amount of effort it takes to get my daughter back on track after they leave is difficult in itself.

I really want to be respectful of our family, and especially our parents. But where is the line between “honoring thy father and mother” and my sanity?

Thank you Kendra, and God Bless!

– second answer –


This one is really tricky. And how I would handle it depends on a few different factors.

If I thought I could do it without hurting their feelings, I might mention to individual family members, in as casual a way as I could manage, that I think consistency with our family rules is really important for my daughter and I’d really appreciate it if they could try to back us up on them.

But I know that’s not possible in all families, and in some cases people could be really offended.

In that case, you might be stuck doing your best and waiting it out a bit. I have a different mailbag post about how we try to babyproof the baby, rather than babyproofing the house. And, really, we are the same way with older kids. I want their discipline and standards of behavior to come from within. Of course, those standards are based on our family rules, but basically, my goal is that the behavior of my children would be the same inside my home as at someone else’s home, and the same under my direct supervision as under the supervision of another adult, or completely unsupervised.

I should admit here, however, that despite the fact that this is something we really do work with our kids on, IF my kids are going to do something crazy and ridiculous and that I would not believe they were capable of, except that someone is standing here telling me that they did it . . . well, you can bet they’re going to do it at someone else’s house. And make it appear to our friends that Tierneys are totally fine with locking toddlers in closets, or attempting to eat lunch with our feet.

But, in THEORY, we do expect our kids to hold themselves to the standards of our family rules whether someone is there to make them, or not. And mostly, it’s an effective technique. It really doesn’t matter at this point if other family members or friends agree with or want to enforce our family rules, because it’s what the kids are supposed to be doing on their own, anyway.

Now, I’m all for high expectations and starting discipline at a young age, but for my kids, two would have been too young to expect them to do a very good job of keeping our family rules on their own. Some things, like not getting food for yourself without permission, not going out the door alone, only drawing on paper . . . stuff like that, I do expect them to be able to handle. But not throwing toys if kids around them are throwing toys, or saying no thank you to snacks that are offered right before dinner, that’s probably too much to ask of a toddler.

So, if you don’t think you can convince the family to support you, I would focus on being really consistent with your rules at home, and calmly and repeatedly reminding your daughter that family rules are for all the time and everywhere and they are her responsibility to remember, even if mommy isn’t watching. I would make a point of really noticing and praising her when she does follow family rules on her own. But, probably, you’re going to end up having to let some things go for another couple of years. And it will be okay, she will still learn. She will still internalize YOUR family culture, because that’s the one she’s around most often.

Good luck!


Other posts you might enjoy:

Creating a Family Culture

How to Love Your Kids and Like Them Too


Mailbag Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You’re thinking of this guy.)
If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching,
please consider it my error (and let me know!). I’m not a doctor or an
expert on anything in particular. I’m just one person with a lot of
experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in
marriage, mothering, and my faith.

you’ve got a question, please send it along to catholicallyear @ gmail .
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  1. mel

    Good post…I think in the first instance,,,,I have experienced that one *a lot*…I think people are trying to be helpful? Like, trying to make you not feel bad or something about your child's behavior? I don't know. That's the vibe I get. I honestly don't think they really expect you to listen to them, it's just kind of a reflex response, like when someone says, "Does this dress make me look fat?" "I'm sorry my kid is climbing on the tombstone", "Oh, that's ok, haha! Crazy kids, always climbing tombstones!" Anyway. We have so far not had to deal with the second scenario. We see my family most often, and they are good about respecting our rules, thankfully. When my mom has had issue with something (which has happened at times) she talks to me privately. And, frankly, she is usually right. 😉

  2. Ally

    I'm totally guilty of #1. As a not-yet-parent, we're still around a lot of kids. Sometimes, a kid will do… well, a kiddish thing. Bounces on our couch, opens drawers just to peek in them in the kitchen… you know, kiddish. And a lot of the time, the parents will tell them no, with a "I'm so sorry my child is behaving like that" kind of a way. And I tell them,"Oh, he's okay."

    I excuse behavior (and undermine authority… albeit unintentionally) because I want the parents to know that even though I don't have kids, I understand that kids aren't adults and sometimes they act like, well, kids.

    For me, I know it would be helpful if instead of the parent seeming exasperated with the behavior, they could reinforce that it's the same discipline as at home- that they're not just saying no to protect ME from their kids. You know? Something like, "Johnny, you know that we don't open the fridge without asking," instead of "Johnny! You may not go into people's fridges!"

    Semantics, I know, but I do sometimes wonder if parents are harder on their kids when they're at my house because I don't have children myself and they're concerned that I'll be… I don't know… appalled that their child spins in circles for no reason. =)

    • Kendra

      Aww, you are so sweet. And you make a good point, how the parent responds to the child really sets the tone. If the parent seems overwhelmed and looks to you, and you say, "no, that's fine, he can jump on the couch." . . . that's nothing but VERY generous of you. The difference is if the parent says, "Johnny, get down off of that couch." and you say, to Johnny, "No sweetie, that's fine, you can jump on the couch."

      But I can totally see what you're saying. If the parent is half heartedly chastising the kid, while looking to you, and you don't know if they want your permission or your backup. That would be really frustrating.

      We parents should be clear about what we are hoping to accomplish.

    • Dixie

      Yes, and you know, sometimes I also think saying, "Oh, it's okay! Kids will be kids" or the like is a way of saying, "I accept your apology for your kids' behavior, and I'm not offended that he's not behaving perfectly." It doesn't actually mean, "Please! Go ahead! Jump on my couch!"

      But I guess it depends on what the words really are. This is sometimes all part of our social niceties and the process of an apology in a tight spot, though, you know? Parent apologizes, host says they don't mind, then parent corrects anyway and host thinks, "Thank goodness." As in, the host doesn't really mean "Go ahead," but it's part of the dance of being both careful and gracious.

    • Dixie

      (Even in the case of an implicit apology, like the parent telling the child in front of the host to stop the behavior.)

    • michelle l

      So much depends on how well you know the parents, doesn't it. I've been on both sides, and the way I've started to handle it is to quietly (so hopefully the kid doesn't overhear) say to the mum something like, 'It's fine with me if they keep their shoes on/have another biscuit/play with the toys etc, don't just say no on my account, up to you".

      The most uncomfortable thing for me is when other kids are in my house doing things against our house rules (eating in the bedroom, playing with more than one toy at once etc) – I never quite know how and what to say there. I don't want my kids thinking the rules don't apply when other people are here, but I find it awkward to discipline another person's kid, or ask another adult to discipline their kid on my behalf. I've tried giving a collective rule reminder: "in our house, we only eat in the kitchen", but if that doesn't work, I am stumped… so many minefields we have to navigate.

  3. Ann-Marie Ulczynski

    Thoughtful post. I struggle with this. Especially when my brother told me to please not discipline his children, including statements like, "please don't touch the Christmas tree," and "it's time to clean up the toys." That led to a very frustrating conversation about expectations when we are in their home. I realized the conversation was going nowhere at this point. . .
    Brother: "if a child is acting up in our house, we just bring it to the attention of the parent, and let them deal with it."
    Me: "So if a kid grabs a knife from the kitchen and starts chasing after another kid you would . . . "
    Brother: "bring it to the attention of the kid's parent."

    We were at a playgroup one time and my daughter did something completely out of line to another child's mother. I immediately disciplined her and then had her apologize to the mom. I was SO THANKFUL that the mom didn't brush it off and say, "it's ok, no big deal." Instead she said, "thank you for apologizing. Please do not behave that way again." I thanked her for NOT saying "it's ok" later and she said that she recognizes how it minimizes the offense. This opened up a lovely conversation. She is South African and shared about how teaching in schools in South Africa is soooo different than it is here. It was a great conversation and I was very thankful she shared it with me.

  4. Alana Barranco

    I have a lot of experience with the #2…in that I could have written that question. We have a 2 year old and one on the way. I've had to be firm with our family but also be flexible (definitely my hard for me).

    For instance, "T, you know that jumping on furniture is not allowed. Please stop. Thank you grandparent for trying to make his time fun but you know what- he loves to dance too- so why not turn on some music."

    I also stay pretty close by to make sure he is following OUR house rules..manners, etc. I hear A LOT about how strict we are but NO ONE is complaining when he is picking up the toys he pulled out or putting his (or others) dirty dishes in the sink or throwing trash away from snack. I believe our family is beginning to see the trade-off.

    All that to say- I've had to lose some battles too. We don't do juice and constant snacking at our house. But (as requested by family) there are special rules as some people's houses. He can have juice at my in-laws, candy at an uncle's house, a constant stream of snacks at my parents'. On the way to said house, I coach him, "Yes, you can have juice at Gigi's- isn't that a special treat!! But we only get 1 juice and when its gone- that's it." I will do this several times on the way and when we get there "remind" him in *front of family*- "Remember what mom and dad said in the car- 1 juice while we are here. You should go ask Gigi for your juice!! It is such a special treat!" I try to emphasize the special part because then it doesn't feel like a "breaking a rule." For us it boils down to everyone wants their house to be the "fun" house. So, I try to make things seem special or exceptional when we are there.

    I will ask in front of others, "Mom and Dad would not allow this at home but we are at Uncle C's- you will need to ask his permission." A simple statement like that also allows the family member to deny the request and we can back them up or if they allow it- it starts the conversation of, "how special that you get to do X activity at Uncle C's house!" We try to emphasize the "at their house" part.

    It seems to be working for us….for the most part. He's 2 and gets a little rowdy and crazy sometimes but one thing I have noticed is…other people our learning our house rules…even when we are other places. "T, I've heard mom and dad say you only get 1 juice- you should go ask them." Then the decision falls to us. I know things get by us and people sneak things around us but it for us we are beginning to find balance.

  5. Jen

    Hi, I’m a mom of five and had a similar family scenario as your 2nd questioner. Ultimately we handled it by moving a bit further away from the extended family… but before that (when we still saw them a few times each week & they would sigh and say “poor things!” in front of the kids every time we disciplined them), I began stating firmly to the adults: “If you wish to have the priveledge of continue seeing my kids frequently, you have the responsibility to not undermine me in front them them when I discipline them. If you choose to undermine my discipline (sighing, rolling eyes at me, or saying ‘poor kiddos!’ in front of the kids) you won’t be able to see them as often.” Then I’d follow through. We’d be “unable” to visit that week if the previous week’s visit had been disrespectful of me. I’m sad to say it never really helped much but I think it COULD in some cases so I share it here. Moving (thereby allowing only monthly visits instead of weekly/daily) proved the only solution for us.


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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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