Dear Margo: A Judgment Call

Deciding family roles and responsibilities. Margo Howard’s advice

A Judgment Call

Dear Margo: I am a 74-year-old man; my wife is 71. Our children are married, and my wife and I thought our remaining years would be comfortable and quiet. About a year ago, my 57-year-old niece was left homeless when my sister, her mother, with whom she lived, passed away. My sister’s home was on a reverse mortgage, and the bank took it back. I fixed up our basement as a small living area for her, and she seems comfortable and happy and is no trouble at all.

I have another niece, her sister, who has three late-teenage children, a girl and two boys. The younger boy she threw out of the house more than a year ago. He now lives with her ex, his father. Her other son, 20, she has thrown out on several occasions. I don’t know the circumstances. She knows how to push his buttons, and when he responds negatively, she throws him out. He currently is out again.

With the recent eviction, he had no place to go. His father declined getting involved, which meant leaving him on the streets. My live-in niece asked whether it would be OK if the young man could sleep at my home for one night, rather than being on the streets. Needless to say, I agreed. Now it seems he has planted his roots for a long stay. To top it off, his mother has contacted him and told him she would still like to have a relationship with him, but she continues to push his buttons.

I don’t know what my responsibility is regarding the young man. Should I let him stay, get him back to his mother, try to get them some type of counseling? — Confused

Dear Con: You sound like a saint to me, and certainly you are more than gracious about having your quiet golden years made less quiet. The one thing I am sure of is that the mother is nitroglycerin for her sons, so forget about trying to fix that up or getting her into joint counseling. And I am wondering what the issues are with the kid you’ve got living there that made his father bow out.

If having this nephew in your house does not throw everything into a cocked hat, there must be rules. Counseling should be one of them, along with a job or school. For myself, I would be unhappy if a request for “just one night” turned into forever. Do what you feel you can for this young man, but do not sacrifice your life in the bargain. — Margo, ambivalently

When You’re Not Really a Grandfather

Dear Margo: Could you help my cousin out on a naming matter? He is married to an older woman whose daughter just had a child. He is close in age to the young mother, and we are trying to come up with a name for the baby to call him that isn’t of the “grandfather” sort, but also isn’t his given name or “Uncle Joe.” Any ideas? P.S.: You helped me out with the freeloader problem last year. — Stumped in Fiji

Dear Stump: I am happy to see that your problems are diminishing in severity. Regarding your name question, the field of possibilities is certainly narrowed when you eliminate any “grandfather” designation, his first name and “Uncle Joe.” I think I would go with some baby-talk version of what the child calls your cousin when s/he begins to talk. A friend’s grandkids started calling him Boppo, which is no one’s idea of “Grandpa.” I think the young stepgrandfather should wait for the baby to say something adorable in baby talk and then let that be the name. — Margo, nominally

* * *

Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


Every Thursday and Friday, you can find “Dear Margo” and her latest words of wisdom on wowOwow

Click here to follow Margo on Twitter

25 Responses so far.

  1. avatar carol grzonka says:

    ‘push his buttons’?  mom is ‘nitroglycerin’?  there isn’t much specific info about what the problems sre.  refusal to attend counselling?  job or school? aggression, drugs or drinking?  perhaps, it’s not so much about the buttons mom is pushing so much, as it could be about the boy’s refusal to abide by the rules that are in place for him.  this could possibly be the other side of the letter, which might explain why the father isn’t stepping up. how many problems of this sort did they have over the years? the blame game doesn’t address problems that may be stemming from this young man.  mom could be the problem, but so could the 20 yo. 

    • avatar LuckySeven says:

      Well, the LW knows the mother, so it’s entirely possible that he’s right and she is, in fact, a big part of the problem. Also, if the young man has problems and such a young age, there’s a good chance they started years ago with unstable parenting. Being a mother doesn’t automatically cure somebody of a toxic personality.

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      LW1: Whether you realize it or not—your letter has all the hallmarks of being written by someone who has hung a big sign outside his window that says: USE ME.

      The whole “pushing buttons” non-logic is going to be something you may regret highly if you allow it to continue more than—well… NOW. This person is not your problem and you are not his parent. I can only imagine what “responds negatively” entails—and I imagine you’re inviting some of the same behavior to be displayed towards you and your family if you don’t act soon, and decisively.

  2. avatar Lila says:

    On LW1, we don’t know enough about the boy to insist on counseling as a condition of staying in the house. Why did his father bow out? Might not have been the boy’s issue, might have been the father’s. We can’t tell. (I have known of fathers who were nothing more than one-night stands from a long time ago and ordered to pay child support, but wanted nothing to do with their former flings or their offspring).

    The homeowner should certainly lay down some rules, though, and those rules need to be designed to turn this boy-adultescent into an actual, self-sufficient adult. If he has some kind of income, make him contribute to rent or utilitites. Twenty is certainly old enough to support oneself with a job, so insist on a job. Another option might be college or vocational school, if there is a way to pay for it. And this older couple should not be catering to the every need of either the niece or the great-nephew: both of them should be pitching in on home maintenance by mowing, cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, etc.

    • avatar Briana Baran says:

      My older son’s bio dad was my husband, and we were together for seven years when I kicked him out and divorced him. Bio-dad was little more than a very small child-support check for 14 years…even though he lived in the same city (sometimes as close as walking distance), and was seriously, cordially invited to every function, doctor/dentist/psychiatric (my son is autistic) appointment, school meeting and conference that occurred, with the real hope that he’d attend. Doesn’t have to be a one-night-stand for the sperm-donor to bow out.

      The nephew’s mother may be toxic, or there may be a very good reason that she and her son don’t get along. “Confused” first says that he “…doesn’t know the circumstances…” under which the young man has been thrown out of his mother’s house several times, but then claims that SHE pushes HIS buttons. So yes, he does sound confused. A 20 year old man should have some kind of a job, even if it’s flipping burgers (and most places DO have those sorts of jobs available; not enough to support a family, but good enough for a small, steady income for someone living with a relative).

      It does seem that LW1 may be the only stable person in his family. His 57 year old niece was living with her mother, who died and seems to have left her destitute and unable to fend for herself. His other niece, the child of another sister, has thrown both of her sons out of her house. The younger son IS living with his father, her estranged husband, and the older was left homeless, apparently jobless, and is living with his cousin, in his uncle’s basement.

      Both the niece and nephew need to be contributing, 57 or 20, female or male. It sounds as if LW1 and his wife successfully raised their children to adulthood, and are conscientious, decent people. They’re being taken advantage of due to their good hearts and intentions. He really needs to get the full and actual story on the nephew’s situation before considering “helping” the young man. The best thing for him might be a serious reality check, or counseling, or TLC. We just don’t know enough.

      • avatar Lila says:

        Briana, it makes one kind of dread what may happen to this niece and great-nephew when, one day, the good older couple passes away. Especially the niece – at an age where SHE should be helping out the younger generation, but instead is moving from one older relative to another for shelter… the great-nephew is young enough, and the situation muddled enough, that I have some hope he might yet turn out reasonably self-sufficient, with the proper guidance.

      • avatar Lym BO says:

        The niece who lives with him I assumed is mentally or physically disabled enough that she cannot work, but is no problem to Uncle. Perhaps not, but I would think so.
        The young, great nephews are a whole other story. Great Uncle needs to find out exactly why this boy is being thrown out. He said late teens so I am not sure why every keeps saying 20. BUt regardless, if it were me, I would have a police report ran, I would talk to the boy’s past employers & school counselor. I ‘m not sure what kind of info he can legally get from them. I would speak with his mother when she is not revved up & I would attempt to speak to his father. The other option is parents of his friends or old neighbors. Taking a gander at his Facebook page might also lead to some insight. And most certainly, I would set some really firm rules down, which would include bettering themselves thru voc/tech school or college, maintaining a decent GPA & getting a job.
        LW 1: AS for your presented question. You have no responsibility at all to these young men. It will not make you a bad person for not helping them out. They are your great nephews. No one would expect you to do so and the great majority of people would not help. I’m curious what your sister would’ve done if she was still living.

        • avatar Briana Baran says:

          We are referring to the nephew currently living with LW1 as 20 because that’s the age the LW gives for him in the body of the letter.

          I have know at least four people in my life who were completely physically and mentally functional (in a legal and diagnosed sense), who lived with/off of older relatives well into their 60’s. I would take that to indicate there would be many of these throughout society.

  3. avatar Lila says:

    I love the suggestion for LW2.

    • avatar Deeliteful says:

      My sister and her husband wanted to be called Grammy and Gramps. 1st granddaughter couldn’t say either when she started talking, but managed “Ammy” and “Pez”. Because the little girl came up with their names makes them more endearing. Hallmark may not make “Ammy” and “Pez” cards, but my niece has come up with ingenious ways of using her parents special names on those special occasions. 🙂

      • avatar phrugall says:

        My grandfather was Poppy, and now my brother is Poppy to his grandchildren.  His m-i-l is GG, for great grandmother.  And my mom, the other great grandmother, is Florida, because that’s where she lives.

  4. avatar wendykh says:

    I had the same problem when I remarried, wondering what my older two kids would call their stepdad as a term of endearment. They had a dad, so that was out, and first names used by small children are something I grew up with as a “you just don’t do that.” And one day my daughter called him a nickname, mixed from his first name and the nickname for her name, and my eyes welled up and it stuck 🙂

    My kids, thanks to remarriage and stepparents and stepgrandparents have lots of grandparents. Some form of “Papi” has come into play for some of then “Papi Joe” or “Popov” for the Russian one.

  5. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    LW#1:  I’m going to take a different approach and that is that this kid, his mother, his father and their dramas ARE NOT YOUR PROBLEM and you don’t need to do anything except make it clear to the niece who is living with you that her *houseguest* is no longer welcome (you don’t mention if the niece is paying you rent or not).  I don’t know what your financial situation is but if you have the money, give the kid enough to pay a security deposit and the first months rent on a cheap studio apartment and consider you have done more than your duty. (Do NOT co-sign a lease or any other thing with this young man or anyone else in that clan group)  I suggest this more to ease your conscience than because it is somehow owed to him or his parents. With a place to live he can find a job and swim or sink.  Your niece has overstepped her bounds by expecting you to carry this burden and she needs to be kindly told that you just don’t have the emotional resources to handle this drama (not to mention financial resources).  I don’t care what his home situation is, if his mother pushes his buttons, if his father is a bum or if he is a rebelllious and difficult youth.  You shouldn’t have to deal with it.  If your niece values the nest you have provided for her, she will support you on this.  If she does not, then I suggest giving her 30 days notice to quit your premises and you and your wife can enjoy your happy golden years.   Of course if you like the drama, like being all up in their business, like being the family problem solver, then by all means carry on.  I’m thinking you don’t and just let one good deed (toward your niece) ballon into unforeseen punishment for you and your wife and you need to stop it…now.

    LW#2:  As others have pointed out, these things have a way of working themselves out…although I don’t see anything wrong with calling the guy Grandpa X…even if he is young.      


    • avatar toni says:

      Great answer! Subtext from LW1 is he doesn’t want the nephew there! The basement is taken. Is the new squatter on the couch? You’ve outlined some positive but firm ways for LW1 to set appropriate boundaries that do not include him being guilted into setting up a youth hostel.

  6. avatar Noonatic says:

    RE: LW2—- I am “Mawzey” and my husband is “Pawzey” The grandson made them up for us when he was about 2. It doesn’t matter what you tell your grands to call you (grammy and papa did no good) They will come up with it on their own.

  7. avatar JCF4612 says:

    1) I admire your generosity with your niece. She and her mom clearly didn’t do much estate planning. But the deal with the nephew is over the top — just one night, as in ha-ha-ha. Don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of in this mess. If all else fails and if he qualifies, the 20-year-old should consider enlisting in the military. That would get him away from his button-pushing mom, give him some training, some income, and a chance to mature. 

    2) The baby will eventually come up with something. Don’t sweat it. 

    • avatar Lila says:

      JCF, the military is a good thing for a lot of young people – stability, training, a salary and great benefits, GI Bill for education, and experience for your resume… BUT the military is currently in the midst of a drawdown so it is harder to get in these days.

      Add to that, a full 75% of our nation’s youth DO NOT QUALIFY to get in at all, due to obesity, lack of a high school diploma / GED, criminal history, or any number of the medical conditions that seem to plague our youth these days.

      When we had two wars raging, waivers were possible for some of this. Now, forget it. Most recruiting stations will only be taking on the best of the fully-qualified.

      • avatar JCF4612 says:

        Good specific points, Lila. That’s one reason I said “if he qualifies.” Hopefully he will. I don’t see living in his uncle’s basement with the aunt (it is the aunt, isn’t it?) as a solution, even for the short-term. At 20, he needs to get out on his own, and away from mom.  

        On a side note, the reference to losing a house via a reverse mortgage should serve as a warning to all those being barbarded daily with TV commercials from every one from Robert Wagner to that former congressman and actor. Reverse mortgages can be a good choice for some. But not for everyone. Now that many properties are underwater, folks who took out reverses years ago are now facing the fact that no funds will be available for heirs at the end, and banks will be swooping to take over at the moment of death. 

  8. avatar lebucher says:

    Well that is just lousy to ask for a one night stay and make it a semi permanent arrangement.  Well, no one can take advantage of you without your permission!  Time to have a powwow with the new arrival and come to some agreement that homeowner wishes to live with.  I think JDF 4612 came up with a wonderful suggestion – he can enlist in the military, which will fix more than one of his problems.

  9. avatar Lilibet says:

    Kids really do come up with their own names for grandparents. My husband called his beloved grandma “Gumga”, so when our daughter was born, we taught her that name. But “Gumga” became “Dum Dum”! 🙂 Great grandma loved it. She signed her letters with all the different “grandma” names her many grandkids had given her.

    Another grandma in the family always greeted her grandkids “Hi Sweetie”, so they called her “Hi Cheetie”, which later was shortened to “Cheetie”. Even adults in the family called her that.

    • avatar Lym BO says:

      My great grandma wished to be called “Big Momma” She was tall , but not obese.

      The new grandpa could be called G-Man or G- Dad or what ever his first initial is.

  10. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: I’d have a talk with the young man’s mother. Tell HER to shut up, quit pushing buttons, he is her responsibility — not yours. Tell her you were willing to take him in temporarily but not indefinitely (true), and that she needs to wise up and help HER SON. Also have a talk with the father. Yes, this is all much easier said than done, but you don’t owe extended family to this extent. Don’t be held emotional hostage by the niece already living with you either. She should be grateful to you regardless and it is YOUR home, not hers. Even if all else fails and you allow him to stay; yes, definitely make rules. It is YOUR home.

    L #2: I don’t know, aside from an affectionate nickname — or simply his first name. The way most relationships go these days, particularly with big age disparities, it might not be an issue in the long-term.

  11. avatar Lym BO says:

    I think the child should call him Cougar Prey. Maybe CP for short. LOL

    Fire away!

  12. avatar Mommyof3 says:

    LW#2: My kids call my dad G-pa, which has always been cute, I’ve never heard it before. =)