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Carolyn Hax: How to stop ‘loving’ grandson from belittling his sister?

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
3 min

Dear Carolyn: My grandson, 14, is responsible, kind, loving and sensitive … mostly. I have a 12-year-old granddaughter, his sister, who also is a darling: creative, empathic, sensitive. I know he loves her and it’s mutual, but he constantly belittles her, since they were small. It turns into her defending herself, and he doubles down. If she hands it back, she invariably is either in trouble — or leaves the scene.

I have not been able to deal with this with any satisfaction. Explaining, scolding, ignoring — nothing. I think I lean on guilt. (Not a good railing!) And I don’t have the language to address it in a kinder, more effective way.

I don’t feel as if I was effective in this realm with my children. I reacted like my parents, and it was not good parenting. I want to do better. Any advice?

— Grandparent

Grandparent: I appreciate your honesty and lucid self-appraisal.

Both of these can help you with your grandson.

The approaches you say you’ve tried “explaining, scolding … guilt” are top-down corrections, authority to subject, “Do this.” Some of that is unavoidable, especially with small children, but, “Be nice!” isn’t one of the lessons best taught that way. You’re encouraging thoughtfulness and respect, not obedience, so model the respect for their (age-appropriate) autonomy that you want them to show for others’. Plus, you’re dealing with a mindful 14-year-old. You can have a conversation with him.

So get his attention in the moment, as you witness him belittling his sister — a gentle but firm, “Hey. C’mere.” Then: “I wonder how you’d feel if I talked to you the way you just talked to your sister?” If he brushes you off, then: “I’m serious. I’d like to hear what you think.” Engage him. Insist gently that he form his own response.

The more of his attention you have, and the more willing he is to participate, the more you can pack into this lesson.

Role-playing, for example. Can you demonstrate by saying to him what he just said to his sister? Will he balk at saying the same thing to you? If so, then what can he learn from that?

You can also acknowledge where you’ve fallen short yourself; it’s disarming and often effective. “We’ve been over this, you and I, but it’s still happening. I admit I haven’t always handled it well.” Admit it! Be flawed. Then: “But you’re a good person” building him up “and you’re old enough now to catch and correct yourself when you do this.” Using cooperation vs. scolding improves your chances for a better outcome by involving and investing him in the better outcome.

These words are all kind. As with any lessons, there’s no guarantee they’ll be effective, but they at least teach the right thing: empathy.

Instruction in the moment is best, but you won’t engage him effectively if he’s dismissive, enraged, preoccupied or heading out the door for something else. Chasing can undermine your authority, so read the room, and choose your moment wisely.

But don’t let his belittling go by unchecked, even if you choose to wait. Again, be loving and firm: “Hey, not okay.” Plant the flag, don’t budge and bring him back to it as soon as the time is right.