With coercive relatives stay calm and quietly uphold the child’s rights

“I have a 4 year old son. […]
           The extremely serious thing is happening when we are prepared to leave my inlaws’ house from visiting them. They have a very set schedule and we are required to leave their home at 5pm. Absolutely no deviations are accepted for any reason whatsoever (I have had to nurse my baby in the car, and use the toilet of a nearby gas station). They are not willing to do the drive to our home to visit us (this is a sore spot, but I have decided it is best left alone). When we go to visit them, my son is permitted to play with some lego toys that they have there; they are these rather elaborate sets of buildings, people, horses and so on, my son calls the collection “the castles” and he considers them to be highly valued play items. I have tried desperately to locate the same sets so that he may play with them at home, but my search has been unfruitful, thus far. I have attempted to purchase the sets from my inlaws, but they like my son having a special toy to play with at their house, and have refused. I was asked for a suggestion for a birthday gift, and this was my only suggestion, as well.
           I attempt to prepare my son in advance that time is almost up and give him as many warnings as I can to prepare for the inevitable. He is in the middle of having a great time playing with these wonderful toys when our time is up and we must leave. Of course he is not at all pleased, and he becomes angry (who wouldn’t?) But, he does put the toys away and gets ready to go. Before we are allowed to leave, he is further required (literally forced, physically!!!) to give both grandparents a hug and kiss (as if what has happened was not enough already!). My husband stands like the specter of death at the doorway and my in-laws stand nearby, instructing him to come and give a kiss and hug goodbye. He refuses, and refuses and refuses, until finally he gives in, spirit broken and does as ordered. By this time I am furious and upset and my son is upset and crying. I feel as if I have just watched, and even taken part in him being molested (I feel that it is molestation, even if the law does not define it that way).
           I have discussed, argued and screamed about this being done to my child, and my husband feels that I am nuts and have no sense whatsoever. I have even talked to 2 mainstream psychologists that I usually spend a great many enjoyable hours debating with over various points, and they are in total agreement that this is extremely damaging to my son, I have gotten the opinions of many mainstream friends of mine, thinking that perhaps they could provide some reference point that I might be able to understand where my husband is coming from, what the thinking could possibly be on this, attempting to get at least a general understanding if what the hell is going on in his mind about this, and all of them, every single one of them feels that this is wrong, and highly damaging. I have begged and pleaded to not go to their house anymore if this is he kind of torture that my son is to be put through, but we go anyway, I go along to a least provide some assistance to my son so he has some warning that time is going to be up soon (otherwise he would have no idea that time is almost up and would be even more angry when he is ordered to drop everything, put it away immediately, and prepare to leave.) I also go so that my baby will be fed, my husband is willing to take the children to visit without me, but my baby needs to be fed in that time.
           I have tried to teach my son to shake hands, but they do not find this to be sufficient, a hug and kiss is required. I am very distressed over this, and am seeking suggestions of ways to solve this problem. I feel that my child is being abused, and am very seriously considering leaving my husband to prevent this kind of thing continuing. I do feel, however that this solution would open many other problems and issues, and want to avoid it. I am working on my husband to get him to pry open his mind a tiny bit and consider other ideas of parenting, but it is taking a lot of time, and when it comes from his family, he is refusing to see any wrongdoing. I am to the point of telling him that it is only a gnat’s breath difference from some perverted uncle pulling down a niece’s panties and molesting her, still a family member, an adult (which seems to make a difference for some reason).
           We have had several arguments over this issue, and he is totally refusing to listen to any voices of reason, I have told him about my friends opinions, and read excerpts from books on the subject (books on how to help your child learn to protect himself in this world, it was an excerpt on helping a child learn that their body is theirs, and that they have the right to determine who touches it and how it is touched). He dismisses these sources out of hand and says that since he is the father, he knows our child the best, and that makes these sources invalid. I am begging you for help, I don’t need to know about how serious this situation is, I am well aware of it, I need help in brainstorming how to find a solution that will be acceptable. I want leaving my husband to be a last resort, but I will do what I must to protect my child!”

I think there are two very different things going wrong here. One is the syndrome of the child being distressed at having to leave at a particular time. The other is the child being forced to participate in the goodbye ritual. I believe that the former is caused mainly by you, and the latter mainly by your in-laws.

In regard to the latter, my opinion is that if your child is being battered, you must physically defend him. (Alternatively, you could keep him out of such situations, unless he prefers to risk it, in which case you need to agree with him in advance about what your role will be.) Do not alarm him or increase his suffering by exaggerating or becoming emotional about what is happening, but on the other hand, explain to him in a calm, matter-of-fact way that he has a right not to be battered, and in a calm, matter-of-fact way, without recrimination or hostility of any kind but also without compromise, enforce that right.

As for explaining your reasons to your in-laws—I’d say, forget it. It’s only making matters worse.

You say

“I have begged and pleaded to not go to their house anymore if this is he kind of torture that my son is to be put through, but we go anyway”

I am a little alarmed that in all this explanation you haven’t mentioned whether your son actually wants to participate in these visits or not. You haven’t said that he begs not to go. If he does not want to go, and is being forced to, then this, and not the enforced goodbye ritual, is the key issue. But if he does want to go, then it is possible that he experiences the ritual as less hideous than you do. This does not excuse you from enforcing his rights, but it should very much inform your attitude and moral take on what is happening. It’s his experience of it, not what it looks or feels like to you, that matters.

The former issue—having to leave on time—is more complicated. The only thing I can assert confidently is that there’s no inherent need for children to become upset when leaving somewhere. This:

“I attempt to prepare my son in advance that time is almost up and give him as many warnings as I can to prepare for the inevitable.”

is the right thing to do and I can only recommend more of it. Also, talk to him in advance about the problem, explaining the conditions of the visit, saying which of them are under your control and which are not. Make sure there is something very nice to go back to, and that the journeys back are fun. Creativity is needed here—his as well as yours.

As for the Lego—for various reasons I’m not sure that it’s a great idea to try to buy a second instance of the Lego set that’s at the in-laws’ house. Of course, if that’s the way your son wants it, then fine, but why not suggest to him that he might choose a Lego set (or other toy) which, on such occasions (or perhaps permanently), will be waiting in the car, ready for him to play with?

See also:

David Deutsch, 1999, ‘With coercive relatives stay calm and quietly uphold the child’s rights’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/with-coercive-relatives-stay-calm-and-quietly-uphold-the-childs-rights

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