Rabbi Ross. My wife’s younger brother is what we’ll call an oddball. He says and does weird things, but our 3 kids think he’s hysterical. Although I don’t want to stop him from spending time with the kids, I would like to give my children a heads-up that things he does might not be appropriate. My wife seems to think I’m overreacting. Please back me up. Sam - Woodmere
One of the most difficult parts of responding to these questions, is that there is crucial information missing. How old are the kids? What “weird” things is he doing. How would you give a heads-up? Then again, I don’t want to write an article about a once-in-a-lifetime situation, so I guess we’ll have to discuss various scenarios.
Many families have that one sibling who is a bit more “colorful” than everyone else. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, some parents don’t know how to deal with a child who’s different than the others, and this frequently has interesting results. A very Yeshivish family that I know has a fifteen-year-old not-so-Yeshivish son, who I taught years ago. When his older sister brought a prospective young man to the house to meet her parents, they warned her brother that he had better come into the kitchen with a hat and jacket. He did, although he was wearing a bathing suit instead of pants! (The Shidduch worked out, B”H).
I digress. We as parents like to protect our children as much as possible. I can certainly understand why you want to warn or prepare your children. They are impressionable and tend to pick up bad habits quicker than we can imagine. It’s even scarier when they are dealing with a relative or family member – there’s a much greater chance they’ll imitate him!
The first point I would like to make, is that you need to take a step back. If your brother-in-law is not acting dangerously or being hurtful to others, it might not be such a big deal. If it’s simply that he’s acting immaturely, such as making faces out a car window or breathing in helium while singing, then it’s not so bad. On the other hand, if he’s making fun of others, using inappropriate language, or joking during Davening, that is a problem.
If you’re not sure exactly what he’s doing, simply ask your kids. This shouldn’t be a serious sit down with stern looks. It’s more of a casual, “So, what did uncle Bob do with you guys today?” Then listen. Don’t comment or make snide remarks. Just hear them out so you can evaluate and make an educated decision. It might be prudent to have your wife hanging around the area while you are schmoozing with them. Kids do tend to exaggerate, so if they say, “We robbed a bank machine,” it could just be that he withdrew money from an ATM.
In regards to giving your kids a heads up, I’m not sure if that’s the best solution. Even if you do a great job, it might cause hard feelings in the long run. If you don’t do a great job, it can have severe long-lasting repercussions. In other words, trust your wife. No good will come out of talking to your kids about this.
Talking to your quirky brother-in-law, on the other hand, well, that might be smarter. He may be a little off the beaten path, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand children. I would just tell him, “Do me a favor and tone it down a little with the kids. They respect you so much, and I’m scared they might be focused on some things more than they should be”.
Obviously without knowing all the intricate details, I can’t give stronger or more specific guidance. However, here’s one of the key rules, being honest is usually the best solution. Obviously, if that doesn’t work, you would need to rethink your strategy. But, initially, I would always go with the most honest and direct approach.
I just want to make clear that this is assuming you trust your brother-in-law around your children. If you have even the slightest suspicion that something very inappropriate may be going on (hamyvin yavin), I would immediately terminate the relationship between him and your children, unless it’s closely supervised.
Wishing you all a wonderful Shabbos,
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.