The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: ‘Eco-Grandma’ cringes at wastefulness of son’s family

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
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Dear Carolyn: I was raised by extremely frugal, environmental parents. I raised my two sons without overindulging them, and I try to minimize my impact on the Earth as much as possible, such as by eliminating plastic waste wherever I can.

My older son is on his second marriage and is with a loving woman, and, together, they have four daughters. I’m happy for him, but my daughter-in-law is constantly buying things — and never lets go of anything. Her mother also arrives with bags full of “bargain” clothes and toys. Their house is full to bursting, and the stuff just keeps coming. Obviously, I have to keep quiet about it, though I feel sick every time a new piece of plastic gets added to the pile, which is pretty much daily.

My problem is that my daughter-in-law also feels the need to tell me everything she buys. If they go to a fair, her first comments will be what item each girl got to bring home. I don’t want to hear about it! Is there any kind way I could gently let her know this? She’s rather sensitive to criticism, and I do love her and want to continue a good relationship. It’s just all so disheartening to me.

— Eco-Grandma

Eco-Grandma: To me as well. We are choking our kids’ future with stuff.

But you’re making the right calculation here: You won’t save the environment by remarking on her reckless consumption. You will save your relationship by not remarking on it.

I don’t like that answer, either. It feels like pro-evil permission for good men to do nothing. But what good people “do” is as much a practical issue as a moral one, because whatever you do has to work.

By all means, teach with the mute button on through your own conscientious choices. And when she shows you what “each girl got to bring home,” say, “Oh, now tell me about what you did,” asking each child to describe her favorite part of the day. Emphasis, repetition and kindness have power.

Beyond that, though, it is reasonable to expect that one thin-skinned, autonomous adult far gone on the idea that stuff equals love will neither respond even to gentle reason nor, fortunately, destroy the Earth on her own. So you can keep backing off without guilt.

Something else to keep in mind about the complexity of human comfort: Your “extremely frugal, environmental parents” raised a like-minded child, wonderful — but you could easily have responded to their earthy evangelism with a multi-decade spree of buying and discarding single-use plastic.

Worst case, what parents care about most gives kids the coordinates for Square 1 of their rebellions. Even in less extreme cases, the correlation between what parents preach and what children embrace is hardly one to one.

Your son’s decision to marry a one-woman environmental disaster may not be a reaction to your values, per se, and it’s certainly not your fault regardless. He could have a thousand good reasons to love her. But it’s suspicious enough to warrant humility, and maybe even a sense of humor, come battle-choosing time.

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