Q&A: how to be a buttinsky

Amanda writes:

"Here's a question that I think I already know the answer to, but I'd love your perspective.  I'm not a mom.  I'm an aunt with a wonderful brother, great sister-in-law, and an absolutely adorable nephew who turns 1 this week.

I have a pretty good relationship with my brother's family, since we share elder care responsibilities and I see them nearly every day.  I was very distant from my brother until the last few years, when we grew closer through caring for our elderly parents, so we're just starting to have a real adult friendship.  My SIL is a stay at home mom whose first language is not English, and she doesn't have many friends here.  I offer to babysit for them often, and I'm pretty much the only person they trust to take care of my nephew. To give my SIL a break, I try to spend about an hour a day with my nephew so my SIL can have some time to relax or be by herself, and I babysit for 2-3 hours about every other week so they can have some couple time alone.  I'd be happy to babysit more, but my SIL doesn't like to be away from the baby.

My question is whether there's ever an okay way to offer unsolicited advice to a parent, especially since I'm not a parent myself.  I love my brother and SIL, and overall they're doing a great job with my nephew - he's happy, healthy, and growing.  I frequently defend their parenting decisions to my judgemental mother, who thinks it's absolutely scandalous that my SIL co-sleeps with my nephew, still breastfeeds him (she sees it as "spoiling" him, and he's not even 1!!), and that he's never gone down for a nap by himself in a crib even once.  My SIL's never read books on Attachment Parenting or anything; she's just going by instinct and has done really well.  Since my mother projects silent disapproval quite enough for the whole family, I'm pretty much my SIL's cheerleader, assuring her that she's doing a great job, etc. 

I do have some concerns and ideas, though, and I'd like to share them with my brother and SIL, but I don't want to come off as a know it all or a buttinsky or alienate them in any way.  For instance, I'm a little worried about his verbal development, and since I'm an elementary school teacher, I have done a lot of reading on the subject of language acquisition. So far, he has said no words, not even "Mama".  I know that verbal development can be slower in boys and can also be delayed when an infant is exposed to two languages, but my brother and SIL don't talk to him very much at all. When I take care of him, I talk to him while I'm doing things, and he loves to walk around a room with me and point to things while I say the words for them.  In the short time I have with him, he really soaks it up.  From what I know about language development, naming things, repeating words, and having word rituals (like saying, "Do you want to nurse?" every time you nurse) is really important for language development, but they don't do this.  They don't have friends with children the same age and aren't into reading parenting magazines or Web sites.  Is there any way I can share my ideas or suggestions with them without alienating them?

Also, I've bought lots of board books, cloth books, and other books for him, but they very rarely read with him - maybe once or twice a month. They say he has no patience for it and wants to squirm and play all the time, but I feel like they're already giving up on reading to him and both they and he are missing out on something really special.  When I'm with him at their house I read to him as much as I can and, sure, he's squirmy sometimes.  I figure that's just natural, but that he'd be less squirmy if they had an enjoyable, snuggly, reading ritual, like reading every night before bed with Daddy or something.  But how can I bring this up?  (Or can I at all?)  Aside from buying them lots of books in English and Spanish and reading to him in front of them, I don't know what I can do or if I should just butt my nosy self out.

So far, I've steered clear of offering any "assvice" whatsoever beyond modeling this kind of language development stuff myself when I am with my nephew in front of them.  But the older he gets, the more worried I get that his little brain is really missing out on verbal stimulation, and I worry that I should speak up now or I might regret it later if I see he has verbal difficulties later on.

On a much more acute and serious level, I've worried a lot about how much my brother and SIL fight (verbally).  They're newlyweds, they face a language barrier, they have a new baby, and they've had a lot to adjust to.  They love each other and adore my nephew, but they're still learning to communicate well and they are developing a really disturbing habit of having scary, loud, screaming fights.  My mother had reported how loud and scary their fights are and how awful it is that they fight in front of the baby, but I blew off her criticism and told her to mind her own business because she seems reflexively critical of them.  But one day when I was stopping by, I happened upon one of these fights and was horrified -- I could hear them out on the street, with the baby crying in the background.  I stayed outside for a few minutes wondering what to do, but when the earsplitting screaming continued despite the baby's terror, I rang the doorbell.  When my brother opened the door, I smiled and said something cheerful like, "Hi, everybody!  Sounds like you two could use some time alone to talk, so how about me and Joey go for a walk in the stroller?" and they were cool with that.  Afterward, I wanted to say something to them, but again I didn't want to be a buttinsky. 

The backstory is that my parents were alcoholics and my brother and I suffered through countless horrible screaming fights between them. Neither was physically abusive, but the emotional abuse and sheer terror of growing up around that much fighting really had a negative impact on me (and I'm sure my brother as well).  So I really worry about the baby and don't want him to have to grow up like that.  I think stepping in to take the baby for a walk that day and let them cool off was okay, and I will not hesistate to do so if I come up on a fight like that again, but is there any way I can raise the issue in general?  Their marriage is not my business, but when I think back on my childhood, I wish some other adult had stepped in and told my parents to cool it, get into counseling, think of the children, whatever. 

Any thoughts you have on this would be very much appreciated!"

I think you're a caring person and a wonderful aunt to put this much thought into your nephew's situation, and that your SIL is lucky to have you as an ally.

I wonder if a lot of the lack of verbal interaction your brother and SIL have with their son is a result of the problems they're having between the two of them. Sometimes when a couple is having relationship problems they throw all their energy into the child as a substitute for interacting with and pouring love into each other. But sometimes feeling bad about your romantic relationship makes you pull into yourself and not have as much to give to your other relationships. I wonder if that's much of the reason your brother and SIL aren't as verbally interactive with their son as they should be.

Whether or not the silence is stemming from relationship troubles, the silence isn't the biggest problem. A child can grow up happy even with a limited vocabulary. But it's pretty tough to thrive when your parents are in constant discord. If you feel like you have the energy to throw into trying to nudge them gently toward improving their son's life, I'd focus on helping them get their relationship back on track.

It sounds like there are two forces working to cause their problems. The first is that they have a child. I think people really underestimate how much strain having a child puts on a relationship. Even couples that have been together for 15 years before becoming parents will experience a total shake-up and reevaluation of their roles and priorities. Another dirty little secret of parenting is that it might bring you closer during the first few weeks you bring your child home, but almost every couple is having some problems 6-18 months out.

Including my husband and me. We suffered the strain, just like everyone else does, and were fighting all the time when our older son was an older baby. I didn't want my son to grow up in a household with constantly fighting parents, so we needed to make some hard decisions.

We ended up buying the book Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, reading it, and doing the exercises at the end of the book together. It saved our marriage and made us a lot stronger as a couple. The concept behind Hendrix's Imago relationship therapy is that the reason we're attracted to the specific person we've committed to is that that person has characteristics, both good and bad, that we were conditioned to respond to in our childhoods. That means that when things are good, our partner can make us feel better than anyone else does, but when things are bad, our partner can hurt us more than anyone else can. The goal of the exercises in the book (and in weekend workshops run by Imago-trained therapists, if you want to do it all in two days with someone else guiding you) is to help you figure out what the hurts are that you each have, and how you can help each other heal instead of hurting each other (either on purpose or inadvertently).

Every time I mention this book (either online or IRL), someone jumps in to say that they did the book or did a weekend workshop and it changed their relationship for the better. It's not a "miracle," because you do actually have to do the exercises for things to improve (about 2 hours each, 10 sessions total--we did them every Wednesday night after our son went to bed). But if both of you want to find a way out of the mess you're in, this book will give you a framework to start putting things together again. it would also be helpful to read even if your partner doens't want to cooperate. (The book refers to "husband" and "wife," but Hendrix has a special note at the beginning of the book stating that the method applies equally to same-sex couples, and many of the weekend workshops are either welcoming of or specifically for same-sex couples.) At $10, the book is the cheapest, best DIY couples therapy you can find, whether you're having mild problems or are on the brink of divorce.

It sounds like the common background of a scary childhood is the entry you can use to discussing your brother's problems and offering him the book. You can approach him by saying that you both know how scary it was to grow up with parents who were fighting and that you wish someone had butted in to say something to your parents. You know you're risking making him angry, but you couldn't live with yourself if you didn't point out to him that his fights are going to have the same effect on his son that your parents fights had on the two of you. You know he doesn't want his son to grow up with that, so you hope the Hendrix book can be helpful to them. I hope that he won't get too insulted about your mentioning it, because you both went through this traumatic childhood together and know how awful it is for a child to be in the middle of constant fighting.

The second force against your brother and SIL is that they're isolated from peers. They may have lots of friends, but unless they have friends with young children, too, they're not going to feel like they have real peers who can understand what they're going through. It doesn't seem like much, but it can be incredibly stressful to be the only people you know in your situation. They need other parent friends. In addition, your SIL needs at least one mom friend who speaks Spanish.

How they're going to make these friends is the problem. You'll have to look around to see where parents of toddlers can find new friends. Parenting groups or classes, classes for your nephew, church or other religious organizations with parents' groups, library storytime, the playground, etc. If they'll go to these places they could meet friends there. If not, you might have to get a little creative, and set them up the way you'd set up a single friend with your attractive neighbor. Find another couple with a baby of similar age, and tell your brother and SIL that this couple needs some kind of help or advice or something like that and wants to meet them. (Can you tell I'm not that great at setting people up?) You need to think of some pretense for meeting and hanging out that will entice your brother and SIL to do it.

I think getting your SIL to make some mom friends who speak Spanish isn't going to be as hard a sell. If she's with your nephew all day she's bound to crave some adult company, and she's probably hungry to speak her native language sometimes. The problem here is going to be finding them. You could look up your local chapter of La Leche League (I know I always mention LLL, but it's a great local resource even if you're not going to the actual meetings) and call the leader and ask her if she knows of any mothers' groups in Spanish. You could see if any local Hispanic cultural associations have playgroups. Or you could try Googling your city name and "madres" or "niños" to see if any groups pop up. Once you've found a resource, you can offer to go with your SIL or do whatever she needs to help her clear her schedule to go.

I think that an improved marriage and more social contact with other parents will have the natural result of making your brother and SIL more receptive to casual suggestions about interacting more with their son and reading to him. It is extremely frustrating to try to read to a kid who just wiggles away or tries to chew the book apart, but it's a normal stage you just have to press through. If they are feeling less stressed in general, and are getting some positive feedback from other parents about a more interactive style, they'll probably just instinctively fall into better patterns with your nephew.

Whether or not feeling better about themselves and their relationship makes them start giving their son more verbal and mental stimulation, you've done the best thing you could possibly do to help your nephew by helping his parents be happier. And as he gets older he'll probably want to spend more and more time with his reading aunt Amanda.