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3 year old unfairly compared to autistic cousin

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Dr. Laura,

I live in an extended family. My in-laws come every 6 months. We live with my husband's brothers family. They have 2 kids (eldest son 3 and half yrs old and daughter 18 months). I have a son who is 3 years old.

My nephew is diagnosed with autism. For a year he has been in intensive therapy. He is a high functioning autistic. Very smart in academics. Knows to spell, count, additions at a very young age. So I think he is a sort of a genius and everybody in the house thinks so. I am extremely happy for him since it broke my heart to see him go to so many therapies at a very tender age. So all the family members tend to praise him a lot and concentrate a lot on him which is again very good. My in-laws interact with him a lot. Keep him occupied. Challenge him and other stuff. My nephew is obsessed about numbers and letters. Anything repetitive is soothing for him. So he likes spelling and he has excellent memory which is one of the common traits of Asperger's syndrome.

Now coming to my son. He is a happy go lucky kid. Well on his developmental track. Knows his numbers, letters and rhymes. But he does not keep repeating them every time and especially not in front of others. But i know he knows all this because I hear him counting and singing when he is busy with his imaginative play. He loves cars. And his daycare lady tells me he is very attentive and a good kid. He is not a genius and I am fine with that too. He is what he is. I do creative stuff with him. He has a voracious appetite for books, so I read to him a lot. Of course he does not read yet but certainly asks me to read stuff for him. He is a very talkative kid always asking questions, being silly and of course a bit stubborn. I wouldn't say he is totally academic but more of play-oriented kid. He has a very big verbal vocabulary.

Lately, there has been many comparisons going on between my son and my nephew. They are as different as chalk and cheese. My mother-in-law's attitude towards him has been upsetting me. Whenever he comes near she puts him down saying "Do you know this rhyme", You never sing. One day my nephew was on a spelling spree and all were applauding him and even my son did so. My MILs reaction is "what about you, you never learn anything". I can clearly feel my son getting hurt and he has stopped going to her or my FIL because they rarely take him close as they are busy with my nephew. I can understand that but why this constant comparison between my nephew and my son? Why can't they let him be who he is.

I would highly appreciate if you can give me some advice. How do I tackle this problem? I don't want my son to get hurt unnecessarily. He is still 3 for gods sake. I don't want him to have future insecurity problems.

Thank you!


What a sad situation. It sounds like your in-laws don't understand how much children need to be accepted and loved just for being who they are. I'm sure your MIL loves your son and has no idea that she is being hurtful. Good for you for giving some thought to how you can heal this situation.

Your goal is to help your son feel happy and confident in himself. Luckily, that depends more on your attitude than on your in-laws' attitudes, since they only come every six months. And your attitude toward your son's learning sounds very healthy. But it is true that your inl-aws' criticism could still be hurtful to your son, and it could also hurt his relationship with them.

Our job as parents is to protect our children and to be their advocate, which means talking with your in-laws and advocating for your son, as well as protecting him in the moment when someone is hurtful to him. You might want to begin by speaking with your husband. Does he see the same thing you see in the way your MIL relates to your son? When he was young, did his mother compare him to his brother? How did that feel to him? Does he see that this could be hurtful to his son?

Then, ask your husband how he thinks it would be best to discuss this with his mother. I would suggest beginning a discussion with your MIL (and you and your husband, and probably also your FIL) by affirming how glad you all are to see the grandparents every six months. Then, describe what you see happening -- that comments like "What about you, you never learn anything" hurt a three year old and make him feel bad about himself -- and bad about her. Does she actually think your son is "delayed" or "lazy"? (Of course, reassure her that the pediatrician says he is fine.)

If she insists on comparing the two boys during your discussion, point out that your nephew is a wonderful boy with unique skills but also unique challenges. Your son is working on many skills -- social, physical, emotional -- not just intellectual. Research shows that his emotional adjustment will be much more important to his success than early memorization or cognitive skills are. Explain that both boys need to be valued as who they are, and that comparisons are terrible for them. Ask what she is trying to accomplish with her comments. Is she trying to spur him to work harder? Research shows kids learn best by playing, that play is their "work." Explain to her that he doesn't feel comfortable when she puts him on the spot and "tests" him -- that she is essentially saying that she doesn't love him or find him acceptable unless he proves that he has learned things that will impress her. Point out that making those comments will ruin her relationship with her grandson.

I would buy her a copy of Siblings without Rivalry by Faber and Mazlish, and give it to her at the end of your discussion. Tell her that it opened your eyes (be sure you read it first if you haven't) and that you hope she will give it a chance.

You might also give her this little anecdote to read. It's an excerpt from my book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.

"David is two years old and loves his toy cars. He also loves to learn, and to please his “special” people. Today, his grandmother is sitting with him while he plays with his toy cars.

“What color is that one?” she asks.

“Boo!” says David, happily. “And that fire truck?”

“Wed!” David even shows her the “Geen” and “Yewwow” cars. Then Grandma holds up the aqua-colored car. David looks blank. “Boo? Geen?”

“That's Turquoise,” corrects Grandma. “Can you say Turquoise?” David looks down. His silence and expression communicate that he's concluding that he isn't good enough, somehow. If he knew the word, he might say he feels dumb. But he's so smart, we could protest. He's only two, and he knows all these colors. Why would he feel bad because he doesn't know Turquoise? Here's the problem. It wouldn't matter if the two year old knew what chartreuse was but then stumbled when it came to mauve; he simply doesn't have the perspective to know that he's done better than most kids his age. For the grownup, this is a fun teaching game. But the child's take-away is that he failed the test. It doesn't matter if you're quizzing a toddler about what color the cars are, or a preschooler on what the street sign says; or a ten year old genius on trigonometry. The game is designed to continue until the child fails, so sooner or later he won't know the answer, and he'll feel like he should, no matter how unreasonable it is. That self-doubt can last for the rest of his life, even if he's objectively brilliant. Don't quiz your child, and don't let Grandma do it."

Finally, you might give her a few links to help her understand that learning is multi-dimensional and is more about play and exploration than about memorization. Here's a good beginning one:

I don't know how your MIL will respond to such a discussion, but I think she will start to be more careful with your son. In the moment, if they make an unkind remark, you can step in and say lightly something like this: "Oh, he learns all the time....He doesn't always want to perform what he's learning; that's uncomfortable for some people.....But I know you love him no matter what, just for himself! And if you spend some time with him, I think you will appreciate what a wonderful boy he is....Maybe you'd like to come outside with us while he climbs on the monkey bars?" If this continues to be a problem, and repeated discussions don't help, I would advise you to see the grandparents separately from your nephew, so your son gets a chance to connect with them without having to be compared to his cousin. And, of course, if they continue to be hurtful, you may need to consider restricting access. But I think if you keep talking about this, you will open your MIL's eyes and she will change her ways.

Let's hope so!
Dr. Laura

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