Carolyn Hax: Grandma doesn’t want to play favorites

Carolyn Hax
Columnist September 4, 2013

Hi, Carolyn!

Over the years, I’ve read numerous complaints about grandparents who showed favoritism to some grandkids based on gender, adoption or step situations. Each time, I’ve been outraged that adults could be so unfair to innocent children.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

But I’m finding the situation isn’t so easily resolved when you’re in the middle of it. My husband and I became grandparents a year ago. We were beyond thrilled! We don’t have a lot of money, but we cut some corners to buy cute gifts on the appropriate occasions.

Now . . . my stepson has started dating a woman with two young children. The 26-year-old, college-dropout stepson has made having a family his No. 1 goal in life (maybe to make up for his parents’ divorce?). He actually searched dating sites for women with children.

He’s now moving in with this woman, who only a month ago agreed to be publicly identified as his girlfriend. (This is only his second relationship. The first one lasted just months.)


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Anyway . . . with the holidays coming up, I don’t know what to do. Do we spend an equal amount on these other two kids? I don’t want to be a jerk to these two little girls, but I also don’t want to keep diverting money from our granddaughter to a string of kids we might not see again. Am I being a total jerk? I just want to be a . . .

Good Grandma

Being a good grandma is about the kids, not you. Your first paragraph says you already know this.

That means any gifts and time you give to family members are investments in them as people, vs. investments in your relationship with them. It’s “I want the best for you” vs. “I want the best out of you” — a fine distinction, but an important one.

When you look at these two little girls that way, then you’ll see that their tenuous status in your family has no bearing on the way you treat them. These are children innocent of their parents’ . . . whatevers, which I’ll get to in a second. What they need — arguably more than your granddaughter does — is an environment where they’re valued just for being, without contingencies such as “gender, adoption or step situations.” So each gets a third of your gift allotment, a third of your hugs, a third of your attention and all of your heart.

To that end: Targeting women with children could be the work of a family-builder, yes — but also, I take no pleasure in pointing out, the work of a child abuser. At best, this couple’s choices are messy and invite failure. So please think big picture, prioritize well-being over wallet, and bring open eyes and all the compassion you’ve got.

Should the parents’ relationship crash and the girls abruptly exit your lives, then you will remain the nice lady who gave them the gift of acceptance without regard for their relative value to her. Too young to grasp that is not too young to feel its light.

I could even argue that my “fine distinction” is a trick one, too; in embracing these girls as family for as long (or as briefly) as they are, it’s hard to see how you wouldn’t also be getting the best out of them. And out of yourself.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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