QMy wife’s grandmother is the worst kind of bigot. She constantly uses racial and religious slurs and particularly hates African Americans and Jews. ¶ I’ve told my wife that Grandma shouldn’t use these slurs in front of the kids but she says this is just the way old people are. ¶ Is there a way to make this a teachable moment, or is Grandma too toxic to be near the grandchildren?
A Let’s hope that Grandma has a heart of gold to compensate for the trash that comes out of her mouth.
Even if her heart is made of lead, however, your children need to see her sometimes, no matter how misguided her opinions might be. Make sure they know what you think about her behavior, because parents have more influence over their children than anyone else.
But you have to use this influence in a measured and sensible way. It would be rude to challenge Grandma directly — and it would probably make her more defensive and meaner, too — but there are other ways to handle her prejudices that are much more effective.
When dealing with a bully — and Grandma is a bully — have a conversation with the children. You can keep it light, but it shows that you’re accepting their great-grandmother even though you are dismissing her intolerance, and you’re telling your children where you stand and what you stand for.
Grandma won’t have the time to make so many racist remarks if you engage her in good conversation. Ask her to tell the children what the stores were like when she was their age, or to teach you how to make that wonderful fudge she gave to you every Christmas because your family wants to do that, too.
Once you get home, however, you and your wife should talk with your children about their great-grandmother’s bigotry. Do it seriously and with sympathy. Even a 4-year-old can understand that she is more to be pitied than censored because she is an old lady; she wasn’t taught any better, and she is never going to change. Once you have had that conversation, you need to tell your children that they must never, ever denigrate a person because of his religion, his income, his social status, his gender, the color of his skin or anything that he can’t change, including the sound of his laugh, the way that he walks or the clothes that his mother makes him wear.
A stare and a glare from you or their mom should be enough correct your children if one of them decides to imitate Grandma in front of you. Don’t be surprised, however, if they make the same kind of remarks at school, particularly when they are between the second and the seventh grades. This is the age when some children will say or do almost anything to be accepted by one of the cliques at school, so you should also tell your children that their use of a cellphone, a computer or a tablet will be curtailed for at least a week if you find out that one of them has said or texted something mean or hurtful.
Your children may be too self-centered to understand such a stern reaction unless you ask them how they would feel if someone made fun of their appearance or their religion or their ethnicity. Only then will they understand that a few mean words or a bit of gossip — even if it’s true — can hurt more than a punch in the gut and can leave bruises that last for years.
You can’t make your children learn much faster or run much quicker than nature intended, but you can make their empathy grow lickety-split. And you certainly should.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns.