This year we had Mother's Day dinner at our house. Our son and daughter-in-law were over an hour late, as usual, so the rest of the family started eating. When they finally arrived our daughter-in-law was angry and started shouting "Your family always does this," and said she is sick of us. Our daughter calmly explained that they were more than an hour late and that 12 other people were also invited for dinner. Our daughter-in-law then left the house in a huff, and told our son, as he was entering the house, "They did it again." The next day I called our son and he said that they felt left out and that we should not have eaten without them. Our daughter-in-law did not call to apologize, nor have we since heard from our son. I am tired of the drama. We have four other children and other grandchildren and generally we try to get along with everyone. The other kids have asked me not to include this son and daughter-in-law until they apologize and change their behaviour. Should I exclude them, or give up on having family dinners?
Ugh. How teenage.
Actually, I take that back – it's unfair to teenagers. My house is full of teens, and most of them are the most courteous, thoughtful and soulful creatures you could ever meet. I love teenagers.
Your daughter-in-law sounds more toddleresque: solipsistic, tantrum-prone, no concept of time. When she doesn't get her way, she spits out her soother, yells, stomps her feet, and storms off, leaving an unpleasant odour – the aroma of fresh-filled diaper.
So how does one deal with a toddler who is acting out? Let me see if I remember. Oh yes: with a combination of patience, forbearance, firm-but-gentle discipline, and time outs (my wife Pam and I used this technique with our kids, though I know some parents are against it).
Time outs are a brief period of isolation imposed on the toddler so she can reflect, calm down, and let the emotion and adrenalin subside. So it's definitely time for a time out for your daughter-in-law. Not a long one, necessarily. But a family dinner or two without her annoying and unapologetic antics would be a nice period of healing and grace for the rest of the brood.
Now to the firm-but-gentle discipline. Your daughter-in-law owes you an apology. So does your son. Explain, without emotion, but also without wavering, that you expect and indeed insist on one. (Shocking as her behaviour was, it's particularly galling it was on Mother's Day, when they should have been honouring you for all the years of service and sacrifice and hard work it took you to get your son, your daughter-in-law's husband, up and running.)
Explain, also, that in polite society, when one is invited to dinner, it is acceptable to arrive up to about a half-hour late, but any time after that (without good reason) is rude. I'm always amazed by people who will blithely sashay into a dinner party an hour and a half after it was to begin, and not say a thing. Preparing dinner for a group is a lot of work, with all kinds of planning, shopping and co-ordination. The least a guest can do is be reasonably punctual. Explain that if they cannot be on time, you will continue your practice of starting without them.
On to the patience part. Even my most supportive readers will sometimes accuse me of being "too conciliatory." But this column is called Damage Control, after all, and it's the way I'm made. I like to see people get along. Family, friends, life, your career – it's all a long game.
So: Continue to reach out to your son and daughter-in-law. Perhaps get together with them for a couple of non-dinner events, such as having them come by for a drink (those big family dinners can be stressful). Try to find out what's going on with them. Maybe there's some simmering resentment causing them to act out at the family dinners, and if they get a chance to vent about it, the sturm und drang will subside.
They are family. It's best if you can find a way to get along.
What am I supposed to do now?
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