It may be odd, but I am a Godfather of one of my nephews, the one who visited last week. Let's call him Animal, a reference to Animal in the Muppets and apropos to his nature.
About seven years ago, when my younger sister asked me if I would be Animal's Godfather, I said "you do realize that I do not believe in God, right?" Ultimately, through a little more dialog, she answered something to the effect of "you are the most moral and right-minded person I know." I thought, hmm, she doesn't know me very well! ;-) No, actually I was flattered. I knew that I had faults she was not aware of, but I took the mantle of responsibility with the mind to do what I could.
But how do you be a Godfather without believing in God? For me, the focus was clear; not necessarily to help Animal become a worshiper of God, but rather to foster a spirit of morality from within.
So the focus is clear, but the execution... not so much. Animal lived about an hour away at the time of his baptism, and now is several states away. My job schedule is often crazy and unpredictable, such that I missed his baptism, and typically only saw him on random, one-day visits. I had trusted that his parents would provide the basic structure of ethics and morality, up to a certain age, and my role would gradually become larger as his maturity waxed. Now, I'm not so sure.
The problem is that Animal has always been, well, an animal. Not that he is vicious or mean, but certainly a bit on the wild side, stubborn, and careless in physical play. Don't get me wrong here. Animal is a seven-year-old boy. I expect a healthy amount of rambunctiousness and immaturity. So it's been tough for me to judge where he is at in development with my historically brief and random visits, but having him stay for a week at my house was revealing.
Animal's parents came with him, but my sister had to leave early due to a previous commitment.
Naturally, I am an expert parent, because I have no children. ;-) So it became clear that Animal had some real problems, and those problems centered around a lack of effective discipline. Animal's problems were symptoms of his parents problems in how they were handling him.
To overly simplify it:
My sister, who is close to being a stay-at-home mom and thus provides most of the discipline, almost exclusively goes the route of redirection, meaning that if Animal is doing something she doesn't want him to do, she'll offer something else for him to choose to do. So usually he still ends up getting his way, even if it is a different way than he was going originally.
My brother-in-law, let's call him Bill, does not seem to play the redirection game with him. Instead, he expects Animal to respect his requests to stop doing this or to go do that. Animal does not seem to yield that respect, at least in most significant cases. Instead, he often throws a tantrum.
When Animal throws a tantrum, almost without fail, one of the two parents will give in to his demands or offer some kind of compensation to calm him down or cheer him up. I am not sure which parent is most likely to do this, because I didn't see my sister actually do much of this, but Bill tells me that she does.
Also, my sister will argue with Bill in front of Animal about how to handle him, which I had always thought was taboo in parenting.
Just to complicate matters, my sister tends to be volatile at times. While she has managed to express her anger more wisely as she's matured, her passionate feelings and their instantaneous outbreaks have not diminished in the least.
Oh, and she does not think she wants to stay married to Bill. Bill does have a lot of problems himself, but is in no way looking to divorce. While I can definitely see that living with Bill would be difficult, I haven't seen him exhibit any behavior which would unquestionably justify a divorce.
There are a lot of other dynamics at play here too; far too numerous, and some far too personal to even blog anonymously about.
All of that just to say I am feeling a little powerless. By the second day, while my sister was still there, I did gently express my concerns regarding their discipline of Animal. My sister reacted unpleasantly, and said some really hurtful things about Bill and his family.
Drawing from my vast repertoire of parental experience, and taking advantage of cooler tempers the following day, I made some recommendations about increasing discipline, and they were actually received better than I had expected. Some ideas were even implemented later that day.
Then we had a massive storm role through on Friday, which knocked out power for the remainder of the time while Bill and Animal were in town. Animal has become addicted to digital entertainment, but he was able to handle the power outage just fine; partly due to other activities, partly due to the new discipline plan, and partly due to the storm and the power outage making him a little scared. Yet by the end of the week, despite the positive changes already seen in Animal, I could see Bill slipping back into his old discipline habits a bit, and see Animal slip into his regular tantrums.
I think I can help with Animal, but I think that there is much in his parent's relationship which needs to be healed before most of the constructive changes for Animal can be made manifest. So I am attempting to help on multiple fronts. Yet ultimately it is my sister and Bill who need to lead the charge and the change. I certainly can't do it alone, or by ordering them around.
It's times like these when I wish that there was some benevolent puppet master in the sky, one you could get to change the dangle of the strings by a mere friendly request. Because, right now, I have to tread firmly on eggshells. That is so much more difficult to do than to talk to an imaginary friend.
By the way, if you have any advice, I'm all ears. :-)