Q: I have a 12-year-old daughter, and we are progressive and accepting of others who are different from us. My mother sometimes makes inappropriate comments about people in the presence of my daughter. For example, she made a negative comment about lesbians. How should I handle such comments? I told my daughter in private that her grandmother’s comments are inappropriate. But should I say something directly to my mother?
A: If I had a nickel for every time a parent complained about an inappropriate family member, I would be a millionaire. Seriously. And I would also bet you that all of the people who are reading this could name at least one family member who makes them cringe. It isn’t that we don’t love them, but their head-shaking statements come out of their mouths and can leave us frustrated, dismayed and disappointed.
Developmentally, by the time children are 12, they certainly know which way the wind blows, and the average 12-year-old can easily spot hypocrisy and unseemly behavior in anyone. Although tweens are going through an intense time, their brains are well formed, and the people to whom they are most connected have had the greatest influence over them (for better or for worse).
This should put your mind at rest regarding how your daughter is taking in these statements from her grandmother. If you have been raising her in a progressive home, my guess is that you have surrounded her with a lifestyle that reflects your values. Whether it be supporting causes that are important to you or bringing attention to injustices in the world, you have almost certainly given your daughter an appreciation of how many different people populate the world and that every single one deserves dignity and respect.
Is your mother going to change how your daughter feels about lesbians? In a word, no. Is your mother going to appear backward and behind the times to her? Probably.
Your question “Should I say something directly to my mother?” is the one that has my wheels turning. On one hand, I know that the chances of you changing your mother at this point are slim. It can be a fruitless pastime to try to change others, so I would not make attempts in that direction.
But I am of the mind that silence can imply acceptance of unkind and unjust comments, and it is good and right to speak up. And I have to give an aside here that my temperament is rather confrontational at times. A mother who was unafraid to stop others mid-speech and let them know that what they were saying was hurtful, racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., raised me. As a child, I witnessed her interrupt and stop family members and strangers alike, and it left a profound impression on me. She has raised me, solely by example, to speak up when someone is out of line.
Although this may sound honorable, there is a cost to speaking up. You need to decide what you want and need to do. Publicly shaming people (even if they are in the wrong) is a quick path to resentment and anger, and even the kindest message can get lost in translation. So, can you speak to your mother privately? What would be gained? What would be lost? Are you nonconfrontational with everyone, or just her? I would sort out how you really feel about confronting your mother and decide how you would handle the potential fallout.
And don’t forget: Your daughter will emulate how you live. Keep giving her the message that “We love Grandma, and she has some outdated and unkind notions.”
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