Aloha. My family is spending the holidays in Hawaii. Shopping! Surfing! Drinking too much! That is, for everybody except me – the single, childless aunt. Every day, my sister and her husband are, like, "The kids are so psyched to spend the day with you!" then drop them off for "quality aunt time." So yesterday I told my sister, half-jokingly, "I need some serious time away from the brats tomorrow." Only problem: My six-year-old niece was standing there. (I didn't see her!) She just crumpled. My sister is furious. How do I fix this?
I wouldn't worry about it too much. First of all, you're on vacation. Rules and behaviour, along with everything else, are supposed to be relaxed, all resentments should recede like the tide, family frictions baked to a crisp by the hot, hot sun ….
Hmmm, I just realized: I'm envious. My family isn't going anywhere this year – at least, not anywhere where you might have to watch out for falling coconuts. I want Hawaiian problems: faux pas at the luau, grass-skirt mishaps, flip-flop flaps, mai-tai mix-ups.
Where was I? Oh, yeah: Second of all, kids are amazingly resilient. And, in my experience, they have an enormous capacity for forgiveness, much more so than adults. My youngest, Adam, who is now nine, is the most forgiving person I know. No matter how mad he gets at me, if I (sincerely) say "sorry," he'll wrestle with his emotions, and – sometimes with tears still streaming down his cheeks – give me a big hug and say: "It's okay, Dad." Two minutes later, he's laughing and playing.
The trick with kids, in general and specifically when it comes to apologies, is to treat them – well, perhaps not like adults, but certainly as equals. They're young, not thick. You hurt her feelings, so get down on your haunches and apologize like a mensch. Tell her what I'm sure is the truth: that you didn't really mean it. In fact, you love her and love spending time with her. You were just trying to be funny, and it didn't come off. She'll understand. I predict she'll be happily building sandcastles in no time. (Me with a mai tai and a lei around my neck, reading a fat thriller a few lawn chairs over – no! Stop it, Dave! It was not meant to be this year!)
Vis-à-vis her mom, your sister, there's no need to apologize, really. In fact, it should be the other way around. What she is doing is known in parenting circles as "fobbing." What you are doing is called "babysitting." All this "quality aunt time" and "the kids are psyched" is horse, um, feathers and a stone-cold smokescreen.
Babysitting someone else's kids is always a big favour. Babysitting someone else's kids when you're on vacation? Priceless. The fact that you have to ask for a day off from them fobbing their kids on you so they can shop and surf is seriously skewed. You're the kids' auntie, not their nanny. Make sure her parents are aware of that and don't take you for granted.
Okay? In the meantime: Aloha yourself, and (said through clenched teeth) enjoy.
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