Dear Jenny: How Can I Keep The Peace With Relatives This Christmas?
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My wife and I live a half hour from my parents, in the same city where I grew up. We spend most holidays with them. I love my parents, and was taught to love and respect them, and my wife and I teach our kids, who are 3, 5, and 6, to be polite and respectful toward everyone.
However, holidays can be painful because of — you guessed it! — my parents. My dad calls our kids "babies" when they cry, or mocks them and pretends to cry too. My mom, who definitely has a passive-aggressive streak, sometimes pretends not to hear my wife when she's talking. It's incredibly rude, and I don't know what to do about it.
Not surprisingly, every time we see my parents, my wife and I get in a huge fight and she swears she's never going to visit again. My way of dealing with my parents has always been to wait until it passes, and secretly I wish my wife would deal with them the same way. Instead, she wants me to call them out every time they do something rude. But I don't want to create conflict, and my parents aren't like this all the time. Also — I'm embarrassed to admit it — once a year they give us money, and I'm worried that if I rock the boat they'll take the money away.
I know this is a problem, and the worst of it is, I feel like I send my kids mixed messages when I tell them to be respectful, but then don't react when my parents act disrespectfully toward them, or toward their mom. How can I deal with these visits? Is this something I can change?
Ho Ho Ho Not A Fan Of Confrontation
Parents — they're just like us! They can be jerks. They have their own way of doing things, which is sometimes not the way we — or any reasonable person — would do things. My friend's mother-in-law speaks to her through the baby, criticizing (IN BABY TALK) their decision to live in a different state (confirming they will NEVER EVER MOVE CLOSER). Another friend's mom calls her current husband by her ex-husband's name TWELVE YEARS AFTER THE DIVORCE COME ON MOM. My own grandmother sniped at me for crying, which is one of the few memories I have of her (besides her not even turning her head, wearing her massive sunglasses, and emitting only one word when I asked if I could please go through her purse to look at her lipsticks: "No." Ice. Cold).
When it's just you, you can deal with your parents however you want. But there's already a conflict here, which I think you recognize: the one between you and your wife. Your primary relationship is with her, not your parents, and your No. 1 concern is raising your kids to believe they're loved, respected, and seen — because if you don't, those precious little angels, who are so sweet and pliant now, are going to grow up either to accept poor behavior, or commit it themselves.
Your kids are learning by watching. If your father speaks to them disrespectfully, they're learning it's OK to act disrespectfully. If their parents don't defend them, they're learning that their instinct to defend themselves — because they do have that instinct — is wrong.
You asked if this is something you can change. Of course it is.
It may be a tradition in your family to respect elders, no matter what those elders do. F*ck that. No one is allowed to hurt your family, physically, mentally, or emotionally.
(Caveat: Attachment parenting, and the idea that one must be nice to their children and keep them safe, is a relatively new concept in the annals of parenting. Those of us who were born before 1980 and had to get ourselves to and from school along the cold icy shoulders of highways and rewind our own VHS tapes THEY DON'T EVEN HAVE REWIND ANYMORE YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW WHAT REWIND MEANS might be more prepared for what life has thrown us lately, such as a resurgence of acid-wash jeans and President Baby.)
You asked if this is something you can change. Of course it is. You can change how you act in your relationship with your parents, which will in turn change the relationship.
It sounds like you have a complicated relationship with your parents — you defend them, saying they "aren't like this all the time." And you're afraid of them pulling away their financial support.
To move forward, you have to risk their money, and a conflict with them. And why would you do that? Because the potential damage to your marriage, and to your kids, is more important, especially if they're learning that people who give you money can talk to them however they want.
Try setting a time to talk with your parents, sans your kids and wife. Describe the behavior that bothers you. Give examples, and tell them how it makes you feel.
If they don't offer solutions, have an if/then statement ready: The next time the family is together, if they do X, you will do Y. For example, if your father calls your kids names, or your mother ignores your wife, then you will call out their behavior and ask them to replace it with something positive and respectful. And if they don't change course, then, for example, you will take a pumpkin pie and throw it out a window.
I don't know anyone who has had a single, magical conversation with difficult parents that came up roses, but I know plenty of people who have benefited from setting boundaries.
You don't have to fumble with what to say, either. Remember a simple trick: State the obvious. For example, say, "My wife is talking to you, Mom," or, "Name-calling makes people feel bad, Dad," or "Making fun of people makes them feel bad." (Avoid other, more accusatory facts, such as THIS RIGHT HERE IS AN EXAMPLE OF WHY I COUNTED CALORIES DOWN TO THE SALT AND PEPPER FOR TWENTY YEARS or MY CURRENT AGGREGATE THERAPY BILL IS IN THE TENS OF THOUSANDS I WILL TAKE THAT IN CASH NOW PLEASE.)
I don't know anyone who has had a single, magical conversation with difficult parents that came up roses, but I know plenty of people who have benefited from setting boundaries. And the bottom line is you need to start defending your family.
One more thing: If your parents continue to be rude to your wife, your wife doesn't need to spend time with them. Let me speak for all wives when I say f********ck that. And if your parents continue to be rude to your kids, it is absolutely necessary to intervene on their behalf. For example, when your kids cry, take them somewhere private to resolve the issue, and if your dad calls them babies, hug them and tell them, "You are my kids, you are not babies, and I love you."
One more idea: Make Grandma and Grandpa's House a family game. Before each visit, on the way over, come up with a word ("Tomatoes!" "Balloons!"). When one of your parents does something rude, the first person to call out the family word gets a point. The person with the most points at the end … wins?
MOST OF US HAVE COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIPS WITH OUR PARENTS. BUT OUR PERSONAL FAMILY UNITS — OUR PARTNERS, IF WE HAVE THEM, AND OUR CHILDREN — ARE OUR ONLY HOPE FOR HAPPINESS IN THIS GODFORSAKEN WORLD. COMMIT YOURSELF TO BEING THE KIND OF PERSON YOU HOPE YOUR KIDS WILL BECOME. YOU GOT THIS.
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