Dear Margo: Fair Is Fair

Margo Howard’s advice

Fair Is Fair

Dear Margo: My husband and I have two grown sons, 22 and 28. Both live on their own. One is a student; the other has a full-time job. The boys are both single, and we would like to take them on a vacation. The problem is that the older son has a drinking problem, meaning when he drinks he becomes a problem. He’s a fun, good-natured guy when sober, but when he drinks, he becomes mean and picks fights with his Dad and me, embarrasses all of us, and has gotten into some serious trouble in the past over this. His younger brother is able to steer him back on course when he gets out of control, but I don’t think it’s fair to expect that of him. I don’t see how we can take one son on a trip and not the other. Should I just forget the whole idea of a vacation with my sons? — Texas Mom

Dear Tex: I have never believed that all children must be treated equally, if only because there are so many variables. I think you are correct that your younger son should not have to be hall monitor for his brother, and neither should you be on a vacation where you’re wondering what Jim Beam’s next move will be. It would be perfectly correct — and maybe even a step in the right direction — if you were to tell your son with the drinking problem that you’d love to have him come if he could abstain from spirits, because you don’t wish to deal with his evil, 80-proof twin. If he decides that is not an acceptable condition, so be it. At least you will have laid down your marker. — Margo, definitively

A Monster-In-Training

Dear Margo: A good friend has one child, a 6-year-old daughter, who is running the show. It is almost painful to be around her because there is no discipline. No one ever says “no” to her, and adult conversation is almost impossible. Even when there are dinner parties, no one tells the kid to go to bed, so she is crawling around under the table and occasionally popping up to demand attention. Neither parent ever says “no” or “enough” or, God forbid, “go to your room.”

My children are older, so I have left this stage far behind me, but I’m wondering whether I should say something. I know it’s touchy to criticize anyone’s children, but this laissez-faire approach is not doing the kid any good, and her mother, especially, will pay for allowing this kind of behavior down the line. I consider this woman a good friend, and part of me feels that friends have an obligation to level with each other. But since this is such a delicate subject, I would like your opinion. — Ambivalent

Dear Am: Yes, indeedy, this kid sounds like a witch in training. And you are right about it being a touchy subject. To criticize a child is really to criticize the parents — or perhaps more correctly, the parenting. People do not respond well to what they emotionally feel is an attack. Your only way into such a discussion would be as this woman’s “older friend” who has been through the childhood wars.

If there is an opening, such as maybe a small confession about being at her wits’ end, you might broach the subject by saying something like, “It is really tough, and I well remember when my Janie was young.” If she is at all receptive, you could then talk about the value of discipline and boundaries and throw in that child experts believe this is what kids actually want — and need. So if you get an opening, take it. From my own days with little kids (when McKinley was in the White House), I cannot think of one young mother who, at one time or another, was not kvetching about her kids. Good luck. — Margo, Helpfully

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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.


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40 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Jennifer juniper says:

    Just drop the trip. The last thing I wanted to do in my 20s was go on a trip with my parents. OK – maybe not THE last thing but it wouldn’t have been the most welcome of suggestions.

    Child running the show? Again- just drop it. DO NOT bring it up. I have a family member that has this same approach to child-rearing. And while it drives my husband and I nuts after a few hours, she and her husband are quite obviously fine with it. Unless she’s in distress over the situation – leave it alone.

    • avatar NYCGirl says:

      Even if she drops the idea of the trip (and I don’t see why she has to), the main issue will likely crop up again in the future.

    • avatar Ashley6151 says:

      Last summer (2011) at the age of 27 almost 28, I went on a 6 day vacation with my parents to Washington DC.  They had planned on going and I asked if I could go with them.  None of us had ever been and I can’t afford to take a single girl vacation by myself and my best friend doesn’t make enough to go on a vacation period.  We drove, I paid for the hotel on the way to DC and a couple of breakfasts, my own lunches and one dinner.  I had a great time.  They couldn’t walk around as much as me, so when they got tired and went back to the hotel I spent time going to art museums and walking around China Town.  I have some great memories from that trip and am grateful my parents let me go on it with them because there’s no telling when I’ll be able to go on vacation again.

      So, to the mom, invite the younger boy, the older one will get over it and let the younger son enjoy a little get away.

      • avatar Aviva says:

        “the older one will get over it ”

        Ashley6151, we don’t know this. There’s the possibility that the oldest will see this as favoritism.

        • avatar julpfeif says:

          He may see it as favoritism, but so what? His actions are causing the different treatment. (Of course, he won’t see that.)

          • avatar Aviva says:

            I just think it’s mean to just invite the younger boy without any explanation, especially if LW has not previously addressed the drinking problem.

          • avatar Eve Dallas says:

            If the older brother has a drinking problem, he may see it as favoritism even if he’s invited to go along ONLY if he doesn’t drink. He might promise not to drink, but that doesn’t mean he will refrain. LW: If a flight is involved, pay for a round trip but tell him it’s a one-way, and you reserve the right to give him his walking papers if his 80-proof evil twin shows up. Be sure he knows you love him, no matter what, but this should be an enjoyable time for all.

  2. avatar toni says:

    The trip sounds like a lovely idea. I went on trips w m mom that my older siblings did not (and did not want to). My mom is gone almost thirty years now. I treasure those memories.
    Lw2: don’t ignore the elephant in the room. No kids here but when around a friend w kids I deal quietly respectfully and firmly when interrupted, along the lines of, “Dennis what you say is important to me, I really want to hear you. Please let us finish, so I can pay full attention to you.” then when there is a pause I immediately turn to the menace and ask him what he wanted to say. I’ve used this a lot and it’s very successful. You don’t have to be held hostage to bad behavior. It’s not the kid’s fault they’re being raised that way…

  3. avatar Lila says:

    I do not enjoy children, but a big part of the problem with this 6-yr-old seems to be that she’s the ONLY kid around.

    I grew up in a family where children were NOT allowed to socialize at adult dinner parties; the kids were banished to the bedrooms and expected to play QUIETLY, so it was understood that kids have their world and adults have theirs, and the two did not mix. But this kid, being alone, would not be banished to a “children’s area”; she would be banished to her room by herself, kind of like a punishment brought on by the mere fact that there are adults having a party. Even if she is set up with videos, she’s still quite pointedly cast out by herself for several hours, a hard thing to explain to an only child.

    I wonder if the other guests have kids that they could bring along, or if the mom could make arrangements to have her daughter sleep over with a school friend on nights when the adults have a party, or something similar.

    The other option is much more difficult: make the kid dress for the party and sit at the table like an adult, listen to the conversation and be quiet unless she has something to add. This is what our parents required of us at restaurants. I was miserable, but we could actually sit still and be (mostly) quiet for an hour or so, even at age 4 or so. Aside from misery, the other drawback of having even a well-behaved 6-yr-old at the table is that it will put a damper on adult conversation.

    • avatar jadez says:

      being the only kid around is NOT the problem.

      first of all there are times when she shouldn’t be around at all.
      and THAT’S the problem.

      if these parents want to let this child run crazy while no one is around, its their choice.
      be assured this kid will meet with reality when she starts interacting with other kids as she grows up.

      the real issue is being an enabler to this child and her parents.

      there is absolutely nothing wrong with pointing out the disruptive behavior to the parents.
      children are not part of adult activities.
      dressing them up to sit at the table is silly unless they know how to behave.

      having them attend the diner party and told to be quiet under penalty of??…will not magically alter their disruptive behavior especially since there is no evidence these parents authority has ever been respected or even lovingly administered.

      • avatar Lila says:

        “Shouldn’t be around at all…” You are right that it’s on the parents to explain to the kid that this is an adult party and she’s not an adult, but remember, she is SIX, and ALONE. I do not enjoy kids and never wanted any, but I do recall BEING one. Banishment from adult parties was normal for us, but we had each other’s childish company. Banishment to a few hours of solitary confinement is not easy for a child that young.

        IF the child were to attend dinner, I can tell you what my rather strict mother did with us at holiday dinners: we sat next to Mom and ate (with utensils) and behaved like civilized people, and we were expected to be quiet except for asking Mom for necessary things like pouring liquids or cutting meat. We were not allowed to leave our chairs without first asking to be excused. This is quite the recipe for boredom as soon as a child is done eating, so the escape to the back rooms and our books and toys was a relief. And we never would have dared a tantrum or anything like that, because punishment was swift and certain, and we dreaded embarrassment and disapproving looks as much as the punishment itself (yes, we did get the occasional swat).

        Sadly, too few parents teach their kids this sort of thing these days.

        • avatar toni says:

          You are right. And once again it goes back to the parents. I’ve had friends w kids I had to part ways with. They would never get together alone – and completely ignore me when their kids were around – usually because the kids were acting out like the writer in tomorrow’s letter.
          I’d rather be alone when I’m alone than alone w someone else.

          • avatar Lila says:

            toni, re: your erstwhile friends who would never get together alone and then ignore you in favor of the kids… hmmm… I think I have just realized why all my friends are either childless, or have adult children.

    • avatar Aviva says:

      “I do not enjoy children”

      Have you tried them with a side of homemade risotto?

      You made some great suggestions, Lila. The only thing I can add is the possibility of a sitter to entertain the child. This is what a friend does when she hosts get-togethers every couple of months.

      • avatar bobkat says:

        If they can find a sitter. A brat like that will have every sitter running for the hills after one time watching them.

        • avatar wendykh says:

          She doesn’t sound bratty at all. She sounds like a perfectly normal 6 yr old. What is with the stick in butt adults in this thread and Margo too?! Sheesh.

          • avatar Lym BO says:

            I have children 9,9,8 & 4. This is not a normal 6 year old that has been brought up with discipline. I can take my children, including the 4 year old, to lunch for two hours with a friend and she will sit quietly & color and only peep up if she truly needs something like cutting her meat or using the restroom. Same goes for the the others when they were little.
            I am so tired of dealing with undisciplined kids who come over. I may sound mean, but I could tell countless stories of bratty kids. And here’s the kicker: I was a kid once, I had lots of friends & NONE of them ever behaved like the majority of kids do today. It’s a rare find to find parents who set decent limits, which they enforce, for their kids. My favorite is the naughty parents who say “Why do your kids behave so well? They don’t beat each other up?” . Yeah, um, started at age 6 months, didn’t wait until that were disrespectful, little 7 year old heathens.

  4. avatar wlaccma says:

    I had a friend who had her first child at 40. Hard to believe but her husband moved to another bedroom and this child slept with the mother (now 5). Mom had to go to bed and stay in bed until daughter fell asleep. She had no regular bed time and ruled the house. After visiting the family several times and finding this child rude and undisciplined I invited them to my house. She was so terrible, she would not let me talk to her mother at all, had meltdowns when we tried to talk, marked herself with red markers and said she cut herself to get attention, refused to go to bed, told her mother not to talk to me because I was rude. She was five years old and told me “I always get what I want or I will have a screaming tantrum.” She was correct. The next morning before they left, I took the mother aside and told her that she had to get control of this child before she was a teenager. I told her what she was doing was not doing the child any good at all. After she left, I discussed it with my husband and we both agreed we no longer wanted a relationship with this mother and the brat so we stopped communicating and only send holiday cards. I will not tolerate that kind of behavior in my home and I wanted no future contact with this “monster” they had created. The mom told me her husband does not get along with “brat” child at all. Surprise? He must not allow himself to be a doormat like the mother. UGH.

    • avatar Pinky35 says:

      You did absolutely the right thing. There is no reason for you to suffer abuse from someone else’s child. I feel sorry for the parents who brought this on themselves. It really is the parents who dictate how kids should act. When the kid is being an absolute misery to everyone, then someone should step up and alert the parents. Most parents that I have met keep their kids in check when they misbehave. I have never had a parent not politely apologize for their kids behavior and take their kids home when they misbehave.

    • avatar bobkat says:

      If the father of that brat has any sense at all, he’ll divorce his wife, let her have full custody, pay child-support until princess turns 18 and be done with it.

    • avatar wendykh says:

      I feel sory for this poor kid. This child is a brat but it’s not her fault, it’s her parents’!

    • avatar Lila says:

      “She was five years old and told me ‘I always get what I want or I will have a screaming tantrum.'”

      Hmm, interesting. Reminds me of the five-year-old who was pestering his mom during a group dinner out at a restaurant at one of my overseas assignments. Suddenly he raised his voice and said in perfect, clear English, “I want the breast. Give me the breast. You know I’m gonna get it later anyway, so you might as well just give it to me now.” The adults at the table sat momentarily frozen in shock with our forks halfway to our mouths, trying to pretend no one had heard what the entire restaurant had obviously heard, and then we went on awkwardly as if nothing had happened. How mortifying. And wrong on several levels, the discipline and manipulation issue being a big one. Yes, parents, five-year-olds know exactly what they are doing. Discipline – and not letting your kid manipulate you – starts in infancy.

    • avatar Lym BO says:

      This sleeping arrangement is much more common than you might think. I’ve heard it from numerous parents. And we wonder why the divorce rate is 50%.
      Not sure about all of you, but I was barely allowed in my parent’s room, not were most of my friends. And NONE of them were sleeping with their parents that UI ever knew about.

  5. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Letter #2 – I don’t like kids and I really don’t like kids at adult parties.

    These parents are the nightmare, not the child. They are proof that some people should not be allowed to have children. What is that old saying……It’s easy to give birth to a baby, but it is twice as hard to raise one” So true.  Children thrive on boundaries. It’s been proven over and over again that children raised in household where they had boundaries, rules and a sense of “family values” they grow to be better people vs. children raised in an anything goes  mentality.  Three guesses as to which type of child will grow to engage in sex early on, do drugs and break the law. Did someone say Lindsey Lohan? 🙂

    The letter writer says she is a friend, so with that said she does have a right and I would argue, responsibility to say something. Sit her down and explain all the harm emotionally she is doing to this child in her formative years.     

    Letter #1 –  I agree with Margo 100%!

    Children do not have to be treated equally. They should be shown love and respect by their parents, but treat them the same? Nope.   And especially if one kid is a lush after a few drinks, I would call him out on it. Tell him pointedly that it would be nice if he could come on vacation, but not if he is going to drink. And I would add, the fact that the parents are dishing out good money to take the family on vacation, they should be affored the opportunity to relax on vacation. Tell the drinker kid they will not tolerate him ruining their good time. If he can’t promise up front he won’t drink to excess, then he stays home. Period!

  6. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: I completely agree with Margo. Lay the cards on the table. Tell him in exact terms. If he agrees and then goes off on a bender, ship him home via the first flight out and enjoy the rest of your vacation. Three people shouldn’t be “held hostage” by one. If he can’t simply kick back and enjoy a trip with the family without booze, he should stay home.

    L #2: I have no children so next to never “give advice” (for every reason). If in the company of such a child, I try to politely ignore (so as not to encourage). Sometimes a frosty frown at the parent or other *indirect* gestures of disapproval might be enough? It’s sad that girl’s parents are letting her run amok; they are loving and indulgent, but she’s going to get some ugly reality checks down the road from lots of people who don’t love her.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Cindy, “ugly reality checks down the road from lots of people who don’t love her.” EXACTLY! Too many parents forget this little detail…

    • avatar Aviva says:

      “but she’s going to get some ugly reality checks down the road from lots of people who don’t love her.”

      Cindy: Maybe. She might also avoid those reality checks because Mommy and Daddy come running with fangs bared if anybody dares to upset their little precious darling.

  7. avatar martina says:

    LW1 – My sister used to get really nasty when she drank too much hard alcohol. We have found that she’s fine when she’s drinking wine or beer. There were some pretty nasty episodes and there is no reason that you have to deal with it. Don’t take him and when he asks why, tell him. It’s a great opportunity to bring the subject up. I was invited to go on a cruise with friends and it was miserable because almost every night my good friend would get so drunk at dinner that she would literally fall asleep at the table.

    LW2 – I agree with Lila and having the child sit at the table with the adults. First it teaches her good manners and how to interact with adults and secondly, she’ll get bored and will want to be excused from the table as quickly as possible.

    I have a friend who had her daughter late and I have known her for the past 7 years now and we are very close. She tends to be controlling and overly cautious with her and I have, on occasion told her to loosen up or she’s going to have a rebelling teenager on her hands. Her daughter has admitted to me that she has gotten in trouble because she got caught lying about not being able to find a piece of clothing her mother wants her to wear but she doesn’t want to. My daughter doesn’t lie to me because she has never had a reason to. It’s a difficult subject to broach and you have to be careful about how you word it. I’ve really only spoken to her about it when she kvetches about the kid and then go into a “maybe you want to…” Needless to say, she doesn’t complain about the kid to me too often as our parenting styles are so very different. I have also kept quiet quite a few times and only speak up when I feel it is absolutely necessary.

  8. avatar Davina Wolf says:

    When friends have bratty kids it eventually changes my feelings for the friend.  People with spoiled kids don’t react well to the most tactful suggestions or criticisms–nothing changes and I end up distancing myself from the friendship because the parent doesn’t care that they’re letting their kid be obnoxious.    

  9. avatar JCF4612 says:

    LW1: Invite younger son, and if older inquires why he was left out, tell him why.

    LW2: I like kids; I don’t like kids at adult parties, especiially evening wedding receptions. When a kid is present and starts acting up, I stare at the child as if he/she were a roach. It can be effective with both offending kids and idiot parents failing to rein them in.      

  10. avatar Michelles11 says:

    #2…No matter what you say, it will create hard feelings.  We had friends with a monster child.  We could not enjoy parties, dinners, or conversation with him around.  I love kids, they don’t bother me, but this one was not just uncontrollable, he was nasty and mean.  The parents, though they “TRIED” could not control him.  Rather than say anything we just quit hanging around them because we had found that people who did say anything, even in the kindest terms, were treated with dirty looks and the quiet treatment. The parents were VERY defensive and I think they just didn’t want to admit how hard of a child he was.  At any rate, this monster child grew up to be a smart kid and on his way to good things, so something they did worked.  Hopefully these parents will eventually get a grip and steer this poor girl in the right direction.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Michelles11, the monster child might have been converted by teachers, peers, or parents of peers who were unwilling to put up with his crap, called him on it, and got him to see that wasn’t the way to be. Just as good parents can see those pressures lead their kids astray, clueless parents sometimes benefit from them… once they’re school age, they are exposed to many more waking hours with people outside their own families.

  11. avatar Jean B says:

    When I was in high school, my mom was friends with a woman whose daughter was one year younger than I was. As the stories go, this girl was just like the 6 year old in letter #2 when she was that age, though we didn’t know the family then. I do know that in high school this girl was very promiscuous. One day in particular, when I was fed up with her behavior, I told my mom what she had been doing at school, and after school. My mom didn’t believe me because Sally “is a good girl, she would never act that way.” The same mantra always came from the mother’s mouth. Well, mom came home from girls night out, which included Sally’s mom, to tell me that Sally was pregnant…….at the age of 16. I said to my mother “and this surprises you given what I told you a couple of months ago?” Then I went to my room before what I (very smartly) said to her sunk in and I got my mouth smacked.

    *Girl’s name is made up and not even close to her real name.  

  12. avatar sdpooh says:

    For the LW with the bratty kid problem…How important is this friendship?  I have always felt that if it is a chore to be with the other people, I dropped them.  If they asked why, I explained.  We are not required to spend our lives with annoying people, unless it is required by your job.  Next time you are invited over, if the friendship is not critical to your life, decline and let them know why.  If they want to keep your friendship, explain that they are welcome at your home, adults only.  Then the ball is in their court and they will know why.      

  13. avatar voiceofreason says:

    The best family vacation I ever had was going to Vegas with my elderly grandparents. I went with $40 bucks and gambled my way to paying for everything for myself. I even brought money home. This trip happened in July of 93, I was 29. This was the last time I saw my grandfather alive. He passed on in Sept. of 93.

  14. avatar bobkat says:

    LW2: Just don’t spend time with your friend anymore if she’s with the child, only if she’s by herself. If she asks why, then tell her, honestly. I don’t see how this girl is going to fare well at school, having had no discipline.

  15. avatar bamabob says:

    LW1, i see a lot of “don’t invite older son and if he asks why, tell him.” I say, tell him up front. This is a rare time I disagree with Margo. If you say to him, “you can come if you don’t drink.” He is apt to say, “Sure, I won’t drink” and guess what? Once the vacation is well under way he’s gonna get shnockered. It’s easy to say ship him home but not always easy to do. What if the nearest airport is 4 hours away? What if they’re in the middle of the ocean? I would say, “History has shown us that when you drink you’re demeaning, mean and cruel. History has shown us that you will drink. We want to enjoy ourselves so this time we’re going without you. When you’ve been sober for a year, and we feel secure that you won’t go on a bender, you can join us on our next trip (assuming there is one)”. If you give him the chance to ruin your trip by breaking his promise not to drink, he will. That’s what non-recovering alcoholics do.

  16. avatar Carib Island Girl says:

    I’d just drop out….I can’t deal with stuff like this. Maybe she will get a clue if friends start disappearing or better yet, ask. Don’t pull punches if asked.

  17. avatar animelily says:

    I find it funny that my child’s behavior sounds a lot like the child in letter two. I started to wonder if maybe people are being a little harsh about kids being kids. Then I remembered that my daughter isn’t 6 years old, she’s a year and a half. Plus she responds well to a firm “no,” which means she’s actually one up on this other child.

    So nevermind. That child is a nightmare. Hahaha

    • avatar wendykh says:

      eh, I’m thinking she’s a bored out of her mind 6 yr old. She doesnt sound bratty to me, and parents of older kids (like LW) forget what it’s like. The adults here all sound like they have a serious case of major stick-up-the-butt-itis