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When family values collide

We spent several days this week with my parents, who I love dearly and who are terrifically loving and patient with my boys. Except for this one thing: Oh My God. My parents consider this "swearing." They are non-negotiable on this point. And my children have been raised in a house where "oh my god" is a far more acceptable phrase than, say, bleep bleep bleep mother bleeper. You get the picture.

My younger two are pretty good at accepting the will of the authority figure. At grandma & grandpa's, they follow the rules most of the time and -- if they were the sort of kids to slip now and again in an exclamation -- it would probably be something else (mama says "sh!t" sometimes. she always apologizes).

Not so my oldest. His faults tend toward the repetitive and the profane. When he's upset, he says "oh my God" and worse. (Note: he has also decided that he doesn't believe in God, which doesn't help his compliance any.) The more horrified the adults around him seem to be, the more he's likely to slip up. His obedience works in inverse proportion to the number and intensity of reminders and explanations.

My mother lost her patience entirely a few times, and there were several consequences meted out. I -- well, we'll say I didn't have the relaxing family togetherness time I'd hoped -- at least, until after the kids fell asleep each night. However I might prefer "OMG" to other things, my parents don't agree, and consider all his exclamations as equally unwanted.

Grateful as I am for a child who speaks his mind to power (he'll lead rebellions one day, I'm sure of it), it's not easy when such seemingly small differences in nuclear family values collide. As you (perhaps) prepare to spend some time with extended family this weekend, are there any particular conflicts between your kids, your partner, or even yourself, and your family members? I had to laugh, a little, when I heard on NPR someone saying that they wouldn't talk about weather patterns any more after a rather heated exchange at dinner with a large family (if we can't talk about the weather -- oh dear!). Is there any way you prepare for these inevitable differences of opinion? Are your families able to talk about it, or is it best to avoid certain toxic combos?


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'Oh my God' is not acceptable in our grandparent's house either and so a firm reminder that oh my gosh is the alternative and a lesson that it is simply good manners to respect the rules in other's homes is reinforced. I don't personally consider willfully showing disregard for established rules while in another's home healthy questioning/rebellion but more like insensitive, selfish and hurtful. I wouldn't bring meat into my vegetarian sister's house, or blab about Jesus at my Jewish cousins home, or any number of things that would demonstrate a basic disregard for their beliefs while enjoying their hospitality and I expect the same when they visit my home.

The dog. I have a huge issues with the dog and values. My children really don't like dogs, and one is very afraid of them. My brother's home has a dog and an attitude of "they have to get used to dogs at some point." And, "she's really friendly." Ugh. The friendliness of the dog isn't the point. They crate her for awhile while we're there, but otherwise let her loose and I really struggle with what to do. We'll be at their home again for Christmas, and I just try to relax about it, but it's really hard. I do wish they had a better solution when they invite non-dog lovers to their home.

Dude. It's about showing respect in someone else's home. If your kids are old enough to "swear" they are old enough to know when it is inappropriate and show some self-control and respect for their hosts, even if it's *just* grandma.

Kelly and chambu: if I gave the impression that I was pleased with or even accepting of my oldest's behavior, I apologize. nothing could be farther from the truth (I was, in the spirit of the holiday, attempting to find *something* to be grateful for -- perhaps my intended humor didn't come through). my oldest has behavioral problems and has since he was very young. I think your (chambu's) comment is unhelpful -- where did I argue that grandma should be disrespected? -- he may be old enough to show self-control and respect, but he can't, and using your sarcastic voice is only making me feel badly. please don't do that. I already feel badly enough.

The fear of the dog thing is tricky. I have a friend who insists that all people remove all dogs from the premises or hide them away completely before she will bring her kid over. Her child is almost 10 and is fearful but not allergic. They will show up unannounced sometimes and be upset that our dog is in the yard.

At some point these kids need to have some exposure so their fears will dissipate. I have a lot of tolerance for this sort of thing for toddlers and preschool aged kids, but after that I think it is the parents who are nurturing the fear.

That said, it can be annoying to have a large or pushy dog inside when there is a house full of people. I've been in that situation too and it can be pretty unpleasant. And I'm a dog lover.

You said "Grateful as I am for a child who speaks his mind to power..." which casts the behavior in the wrong light. It is not an act of courage but one of inconsiderate hurtfulness. You seemed with that statement to tacitly approve of the behaviour and even to hint that it is a quality you encourage. Sorry if I misunderstood.

what i dislike is when people have a get-together, their house reeks of that "dog" smell, and the hosts insist on keeping the dog wandering around, begging from all the guests the entire evening. the host doesn't see anything wrong with this, as their dog is seen as part of the family. but *especially* when they're big dogs who are following me around, sniffing my crotch and begging, and the host doesn't have a clue. i have friends who do is all the time. why don't people catch a clue?!

anon, you are presumably not forced to attend gatherings in their home so why go and then kvetch? Outside of safety or health comcerns I do not understand why people believe they have the right to comment (or dictate!) on how others live their lives or keep their domiciles.

I tend to have some rather different views and values than many of my family members and I have learned to live by the phrase "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." I may be the purse, I may be the ear, but either way, I am me, my family is my family, and we are not the same. I avoid all hot topics around family and leave the room when I hear others beginning them. It's just not worth it to me. And so, yes, I limit the time spent in these settings but do the obligatory ones as needed. When those happen, I acknowledge I am a guest in someone else's home and use my best guest manners. I'll leave early if I really need to.

I hear what you are saying about the language, Sarah. I have a boy who has some "eccentricities" and often don't relax when we're around folks who have expectations of him that aren't a good fit, or who want to judge the way I handle him. I limit time in those settings as well.


I know what you mean about being grateful for having a kid who speaks his mind to power. I too have strong voiced children and am mindful everyday not to squelch that trait. Too many children, especially girls, are taught that their thoughts and voices should be quieted when in truth most people should be speaking up more.

I, too, teach my children about the importance of respecting others beliefs even if we don't believe in them ourselves. We are not a religious family, but I still teach my children not to say 'oh my god' simply because I don't want them to get in the habit of thoughtlessly profaning something so important to so many people. The only other word we actively try to remove from our children's vocabularies is 'hate'.

As to your original question about taboo subjects, I think my family is fairly open on all subjects. My parents and I had a falling out in my late teens and we didn't speak at all for almost a year. Since then, I think we all realize just how devastating it would be to not have each other in our lives and things like religious or lifestyle differences aren't things anyone lingers over. We've become fairly accepting of each other, faults and all.

It's hard for me to see how Oh My God is anything but silly/benign. Like the people who banish "heck" and "fudge" because it SOUNDS like swearing. So glad this isn't an issue in any generation or branch of our family, even the more religious ones.
Also hard for me to see why people with dog problems accept invitations to houses with dogs. If the dog is shut outside or in another room, then (many of them) will be whining, howling, barking and scratching the crap out of the door to rejoin the family - because most dogs get anxious when separated from their families. Then the obsessively fearful child will spend the party staring in horror at the door where the scratching, pounding and barking are coming from. If you can't stand to be around dogs - and I agree, some of them can be annoying - then don't go around dogs. The party will go on without you, full of people who like or can tolerate them. If you are waiting for people who love their to understand why you hate their dog, you'll be waiting a very long time.

P.S. You should teach your child to say Mamma Mia instead. But maybe they'll object to that, too.

I hear what people are saying about the dog issue, and that seems to be the heart of the OP question. Do we suck it up or avoid? If we decide the dog is too much for us and don't go, then the grandparents don't get to visit the kids on Christmas because this is where the annual event is. Period. This is a big deal to them, so we go and suck it up. But I don't tend to go to this home any other time of the year. I disagree with the characterization that I am "nurturing the fear" given that I do make my son spend the afternoon in a setting where ends up being hypervigilant about an animal, but you are free to have your own take on that, I suppose.

Ideally, all parents would be able to help their kids over fears of animals. For some kids, it's going to be a longer process than for others. And the best way to work on it is probably with a new dog (no history) in a neutral setting and with no other agenda and big rewards for each minor step in learning to tolerate the dog. But in the course of daily life, there's usually so many things I want to work on with my kids. I can totally see how fear of dogs might have a permanent home at the bottom of the list and just turn up as an "oh, crap" moment when the holiday gathering roll around.

As for the language issue, it'd be nice if we could all set clear boundaries and then have consequences (that are easy to apply outside of our own homes) and all would be lovely. And I think that's kind of the gold standard of parenting, but it gets messy when you factor in personalities. As with the dog thing, it could be that inappropriate language (however you or other authority figures define that) is just not in the top three. Maybe it's not even in the top ten.

In which case, maybe it's worth it to say to Grandma "This is a problem, but it's not one we can work on this weekend. We all know what the rules are, so you don't need to restate them when my son has a slip up." And at the same time, if it were me, I think I'd tell Grandma one thing that we are working on--one that my son had a chance of succeeding at: "Grandma, what we're working on right now is my son being nice to his sister. So please give him an extra hug if you see him helping her or using a nice voice with her." Refocus the adult (who should have more ability to break the pattern than the kid) onto something where both people can see successes.

But if the family expectations are just not developmentally appropriate for your child (even if they're reasonable expectations otherwise) I think it's your job to be the liaison with the family and help communicate that. My daughter is extremely shy. She is making huge progress but for years she was completely stressed and terrified by people talking to her--even close family whom she saw multiple times a week. Clearly, this is not normal behavior. I did not need her grandmothers to scold her for her failure to say please and thank you, hello and goodbye. I needed them to let go of those expectations because they did not at all reflect her abilities. In the same way you wouldn't scold an infant for making noise while someone else is talking or expect a toddler to have perfect table manners, you can't expect some children to sit still, speak politely, etc. Those are still goals to work towards, but most of that work is going to take place at home, in an otherwise un-stressed atmosphere. Extra pressure from family really isn't helpful, especially if you are the kind of parent who is only too painfully aware of all the ways that your child isn't "normal."

And if the inappropriate language or the dog issue or speaking to strangers issue is what you've decided to work on this holiday season, I put in a big vote for doing away with the idea of consequences. Instead, reward the behavior you do want. Challenge your kid to go for an hour (or a half hour or ten minutes) without saying anything on Grandma's list. Each swear-free hour = a sticker, 5 minutes on a computer, an extra minute in the morning when they're in the shower and don't want to come out, extra time reading bedtime stories, whatever. Reward the behavior you want; make sure whatever goal you set is something your child can comfortably achieve; tell family members exactly what you are and aren't working on and ask them to please let other things slide unless it's a safety issue.

j, that's all fantastic advice and wise analysis... I appreciate it all. I've been trying to incorporate the rewarding behavior... I even made a chart with swear-free hours! but it's been slow in taking off because it takes such vigilance on my part. I'm sure it will pay off, but boy is this parenting stuff occupying my headspace right now!

' It's hard for me to see how Oh My God is anything but silly/benign. '
there are too many people like this, which is the problem! having no regard for god or even a higher power is really just so uninformed. kids deserve a spiritual education, which includes being cognizant of thing higher than yourself.

Isn't it easy to be wise about other people's lives? :)

I read a parenting book once that recommended that you (and your child's other parent/your spouse) make lists of every single area you wanted your child to improve, every single behavior that bugged you or made life difficult for your family. Then you were to pick just three things from the list (three things that showed up on both adults' lists). You were to work on those three issues/behaviors--I don't remember if the author recommended rewards or consequences--and everything else would just have to slide.

And I think I'd add in that extra category that you're implying above. Pick three things that you can "afford" to work on right now. Things that you have time/energy/focus for. And when you have more than one kid, that might mean ignoring how Sam picks his nose because you're far to busy trying to track how many times Sally has wet her pants and whether or not she has a UTI.

And when we tackle too much at once . . .it takes up so much headspace for us, but it also is just too much for the kids to keep track of when we're reminding them all at the same time to have good table manners, use appropriate language, be nice to their brother, finish their homework, keep their hands to themselves . . . it turns us into nags and they either get stressed or learn to tune us out. I'm terrible at focusing on the top three and letting the others slide, but I do try to keep it as a goal.

I don't think this is the place to get into a spiritual debate. I will say that while we are not religious, and while we are not raising our children according to a religion, we do teach them to respect others' choices as to their beliefs, and we teach them that it's generally a good idea not to say things that other people may find offensive, religious or not.

So, according to that, we've taught them to say "oh my goodness" or "good grief." We don't get upset when they yell out Oh my God, but we do remind them that some people might get their feelings hurt, so it would be better to say something like good grief.

As for the another anon who made the commend about people having no regard for God or another higher power... I'd just say that there are different strokes for different folks. Just as I respect your views to believe, you should respect mine not to. I don't believe in a higher power. That does not mean that I am a bad person. I am kind, honest, respectful, and treat people how I want to be treated. I don't need a church to tell me how or why to do that.

You just sound very judgemental concerning those people like myself who are raising their kids without religion. It takes all kinds in our community, and in the community of our children. Modeling respect for that and open mindedness is one of the important lessons we can give our children.

As for the original post - we have vastly different beliefs than our families. We avoid those awkward moments by keeping visits short and at times of the year not charged with all the emotions of the holidays. We spend the holidays at home, with ourselves!

I also meant to address the dog thing...

We have a dog. He's big, and although he's very friendly, people tend to be afraid of him because he's big. My kids love him. He spends his time with us, indoors, and generally has a good dog life. He's also an old dog, so tends to find a spot to lay down and generally leaves people alone. That said, I know other people don't like dogs, and I totally respect that. I don't think that family meals, parties, or even playdates are the right time to address the dog fear. So, when we have events with anyone who is dog averse for whatever reason, we put him behind a gate in the basement, where he also has access to a warm bed, his food and water. He has learned over time that when he's put down there, he's not to whine, scratch or bark. You can teach a dog to be calm by rewarding calm behavior.

I frankly think it's rude to force my dog on others when they are over. I just don't think it's very respectful. Part of being a good hostess is accommodating your guests. If that means the dog needs to spend a couple of hours behind a gate, so be it.

A.A., I've got plenty of regard for God. Just not for people who are horrified by "Oh My God," "Mamma Mia," or "Mon Dieu," to name three different ways that - in my religion, at least - a person can express mild shock by referring to/leaning on God. In other words, people who see swearing where none is meant or intended.

I explain to my daughter about holding words or subjects (anything from oh my god saying to farts or poop) in public vs. at home. At home, I'm lenient on her saying the "OMG" and joking about body functions, but not much in public at a restaurant or daycare.

I apologize that my earlier comment came across as sarcastic and unsympathetic. I did not *get* the tone of what you wrote on my first read. I applaud any mom digging in and doing the hard work of parenting, which you definitely are doing. Also did not realize that you may be dealing with a special set of behaviors and issues. No offense was meant, and I do enjoy your writing.

Hmmm. Television. I wish that some of the people who invited us for the looooong journey to their homes were not addicted to television. Partly because many of the images, mainly commercials, are not appropriate for young ones (hello Hannibal Lector and tidal wave destroying a city, why would a network use a commercial with your images at 10 a.m.?) and partly because - even though they say they love this child and are desperate to see this child - when the television is on, they don't seem to be able to look at or talk to this child. But this is probably my fault, for not letting my kids watch television to get used to the images/ignoring in the first place?

chambu -- thanks. I appreciate your kind words!

anon -- I have to agree with your sentiment. while I, too, dislike commercials, it's the distraction that bothers me. it also seems to bring up those political topics that would be best avoided! I face this a lot with my in-laws, who (as I think I'm mentioned before) grew up in an environment where the TV was always on. even now, on the rare times when I bring my children to visit my husband's grandmother and her brother, it's to the tune of TV. my oldest addresses this by asking to watch a show *he* likes (something he always does when he visits my in-laws with my husband); I don't know if this makes things any better, but at least it changes the tone of the commercials!

tv anon- we have this issue at one of my family member's home. We avoid it by staying in another room, which so far has worked for us. The people who want to spend time with us usually hang with us, and those that would rather watch tv, spend their time in front of it. I figure it's their loss if they would rather watch "A Christmas Story" for the umpteenth time than chat with folks they see infrequently, but that's their choice. At this point, my kids tend to hang with us or go play upstairs with other kids. I imagine one of these days they'll find the allure of the box better, but not yet.

Nice to see others support children speaking their voices, because my daughter's VERY outspoken (surprise, surprise) and I encourage it. In her tweenness, she's discovered cursing and it's something I do curb with her, simply because it's inappropriate---but Grandma swears like a sailor, so it isn't a huge issue with her.

What IS a huge issue for us is that, right in front of me, my child-free brother and sister-in law like to correct my kid's behavior and tell her what activities she should be doing (she's heavily into art and drama, along with anime/manga, so it isn't like she lacks interests). So basically every time she sees them, they tell her what she does isn't good enough and she's kinda grown to hate them. Yes, creating its own vicious cycle.

As for the pet thing, we've always had pets, as has my family, so it's generally not an issue. I do think that if you're at someone else's house, they have the right to have their pet around if they like thier pet.

One year at our Halloween party, a rather controlling guest started to shut my old, indoor dog outside because her kids were afraid. Without even venturing to ask if we were okay with it. The dog had zero interest in her children and was on the other side of the room. So I said "no".

As for TV, again, while I'd rather find social stuff to do (and I loooooove TV), I think if someone wants it on at thier house, that's their business. It's even possible they turned it on because a DIFFERENT guest requested it. Just as we're usually excited to meet our hosts' pets when we visit their homes.

We are raising our kids with the idea that there are no "bad" words, just appropriate and inappropriate times to use some words, and that swear words are for adults to use only (or kids to use in the privacy of their own rooms). We also try to teach them not to say Oh my God because it can be offensive to some people. There are plenty of other things to say (I like Cheese'n'Fries!), but like everyone, we slip up sometimes. It seems that the problem is that Sarah's family isn't recognizing that her son doesn't have the same ability to control this, and they should let this one go.
My mother cringes and admonishes me every time she hears me swear in front of my children, which happens often. She is convinced that they will swear, too, though she has never heard them do so. Our compromise is that I try not to swear in her house, to respect her values, and she bites her lip at my house.
The tv thing: agreed! Family members will have the news with all of it's gruesomeness, sports with CSI commercials on, or just CSI on, with our kids around. I have to remind them to please turn it off or change it to something kid-friendly (and for goodness sakes, turn it down!). I think that they honestly just don't even think about it and it's up to us parents to request it be turned off or changed to kid programming, at least, or switch to a music station if they have cable.

When my daughter says "OMG" I reply "Oh my what??" She has been given other options such as gosh, goodness, or stars. Stars is my favorite. Very Bewitched.

I am from southern India where it is not just permissible but required to use God's name for everything :-) so if you said O M G, people would think highly of you :-)

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