Setting Family Rules in Time for a Newborn

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Taken from Growing Concerns -- A childrearing question-and-answer column with Dr. Martha Erickson.

We're expecting a baby in two months and I'm worried about how to protect him from the influence of my younger brother, who has lived with me and my husband since my mother died last year. He smokes incessantly and his language is filthy. But he's had a rough life and I'm his only real source of support. How should I handle this?

You are wise to think about this before your baby is born. It's not a minute too soon to begin preparing your brother for the new house rules you will need to implement in order to support your baby's health and development. First of all, secondhand smoke poses a serious threat to a baby's health, increasing the risk of asthma and respiratory infections in the short-run and cancer and heart disease in the long-run. As concerned parents, you and your husband probably will want to maintain a smoke-free home, so this is the time to tell your brother clearly and firmly that he will need to restrict his smoking to outside. (Keep in mind that secondhand smoke is unhealthy for adults too, so you might want to implement this house rule now.)

As for your brother's foul language, again you will need to set and enforce clear rules--for example, no swearing or dirty talk within the baby's earshot. Long before they can speak, babies are learning words and the meaning of language from the adults around them; what they hear is what they will say. The tone and style of language affect a baby's emotions; babies are soothed by gentle speech and agitated by loud, forceful voices. So you and your husband need to decide now the kinds of messages you want your baby to receive, and you need to ensure that all adults in your household work with you to raise your child in the way you want.

Although you don't mention your brother's positive qualities in your letter, I'm sure he has them. So while you're laying down the rules about the things your brother cannot do in front of your baby, let him know the things you're glad he will bring to your son's life. For example, maybe he has a great sense of humor or a special talent as a story teller or a baseball player. Or maybe he will develop a special touch for soothing a fussy baby. Engage your brother as part of the family team that will help your little boy grow up to be a strong, caring person.

I appreciate your commitment to your brother and the compassion you have for him, especially considering the hard life he has had. But keep in mind that support doesn't mean tolerating bad behavior. The birth of your son may afford an opportunity for your brother to develop more
mature, healthy behavior. But if he's not up to the task of complying with the new house rules, and if he doesn't respond to your encouragement to let his positive qualities shine through, he may need to live someplace else. And he may need professional help to work through the emotional issues that hold him down.

Editor's Note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. E-mail to or write to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.
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