Growing up, my familia approached the holidays almost like a tournament. At stake was which Tia could make the best tamales, which Tio could be the most lax on the couch, and whose daughters were the most polite and well-mannered. Upon our arrival, I would sit in the car before entering our aunt’s home so my mom could go over the basics:
Make sure to saludar (say hello) to everyone there.
Eat all your food and say thank you when you’re done.
Don’t be too loud.
Act like you love your gift — and hug your Tio to show your appreciation.
Ask your Tia how you can help.
These directives were summarized by the phrases, “Se amable Y respetuosa, no seas malcriada:” Be pleasant and respectful, do not be impolite.
Eventually, none of this needed to be said and all of it was internalized and reinforced with pointed looks. Waving “hi” would never be enough. A kiss on every adult cheek was required. It didn’t matter whether or not I knew the person or felt comfortable around them, this was a proper greeting. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t hungry or Tia’s tamales had too much garlic; eating whatever was in front of me was the proper way. It didn’t matter if I disliked the gift; expressing gratitude with a hug was expected. It didn’t matter if my Tia commented on my weight or if my cousins were being jerks — this niña knew that speaking back to adults or complaining to them was not an option.
“I’ve often told my children that they have a right to say ‘No,’ even to me.”
It’s important for me to center the experience of myself as a child because I know that many who grew up in Latinx culture can relate to these experiences, which were exacerbated around the holidays. Although for a long time, I didn’t find any of this problematic.
That changed when I became a mom. I thought about the niña I was and learned there were words for my feelings about having to use my body or silencing myself to please adults: Discomfort, confusion, resentment, fear. And yet, I wanted to preserve the values of respeto and familismo without passing down the discomfort I felt when watching my daughter interact with the adults in her life.
Learning balance has been a process, as I observe what feelings come up for me during the holiday season. Although I want my children to be gracious, at times I find myself — an adult with supposed agency and autonomy — shrinking my own intentions, in order to be seen as a good mami, not a mami malcriada with disrespectful children. I have been able to identify these feelings, which likely stem from old guilt trips and shame-driven commentary of the past, and consider how they may have suppressed my desire to raise children whose voices are valued, whose bodies are theirs, and whose needs are as centered as my own.
And yet, little eyes are watching, and little ears are listening. I’ve often told my children that they have a right to say “No,” even to me. Granted, there are certain non-negotiable topics like hygiene and safety. Overall, however, they can express their preferences because my priority is helping them to understand themselves. During my middle child’s third birthday party, her Abuelito tried scooping her up for a squeeze and she told him, “I don’t like that. Please don’t touch me.” My Papi looked at me as if to say, “Did you hear what she just said to me?” I replied, “You heard her.” He wanted affection and respect but she needed space and freedom of choice. Is it a 3-year-old’s job to meet an adult’s needs? What would I have taught her if I had ordered her to hug him? I was proud of her — and me — knowing this wouldn’t have been easy when I first started my parenting journey.
“Getting criticized for your parenting style could stir up feelings of resentment.”
Setting family boundaries can be scary, especially around the holidays, but it’s healthy. Here is some advice on how to do that.
Prioritize the children in your family
Children are very good at picking up cues and are naturally attuned to their inner voices. As children raised in Latinx culture, we were convinced that our inner voice was either untrue or unimportant because adults were the priority. However, kids should advocate for themselves, a skill they learn when we listen to them. Expressing gratitude is always a good habit, but only in ways that feel comfortable for them.
Prepare to be Judged for Your Parenting Choices
This one is hard because getting criticized for your parenting style could stir up feelings of resentment. However, knowing that’s a possibility makes it easier to be proactive about caring for our inner niñes. If backlash becomes too much to bear, remember that as adults we decide who spends time with our children and for what length of time.
Practice Being Assertive and Kind
Create a script for family members who might be offended by boundaries. And keep in mind that while most parents want kids to be amables and respetuosos, the manner in which this can be accomplished may differ. If a boundary is crossed, you can say, “Gracias for caring about how our little ones are growing up, even though we choose to do things differently.” Or take a deep breath, ignore the comment, and keep the focus on your child (If the issue is important enough to address, you can do so with them separately once you’ve had time to reflect).
Be a Safe Space for Your Children
Years ago, my daughter shared with me that an elder in the family had told her she would be in trouble if she wasn’t “good.” I wasn’t there for the incident, but the fact that my daughter let me know shortly afterward suggests she feels safe to confide in me. We can’t always advocate for our children, but if we center the parent-child relationship, they will trust us to help them navigate life.
Setting boundaries has not only been good for my children but it’s also benefitted my entire family (my own Mami is better at advocating for herself now too) and the holidays are a perfect time to begin. While Latinx culture will always be collectivist, with respeto and familismo at the center, safety, choice, and autonomy should exist in the relationships children choose to maintain.
To learn more about setting boundaries this holiday season in your Latinx family, join Latinx Parenting’s workshop A Mi Manera: Setting Respectful Boundaries in Parenting with Other Adults, facilitated by Leslie Priscilla, taking place on November 20th.