The holidays are just around the corner. While some families are jumping for joy at the opportunity to get together, there are quite a few families out there who dread get-togethers.
A family is made up of many wonderfully different individuals, which is great. When people whose opinions don’t match your own address your kids, however, it can make for some cringe-worthy moments at best and cause some real problems at worst.
I myself have been there, as both an adult and as a child. I remember being small and having my mother explain the complexities of the world to me as my older relatives said one thing after another that she wished they hadn’t.
I learned about racism at an incredibly young age in the context of a culture that determined superiority by colorism. It made me aware, as an adult and later as a parent, how much kids can pick up on, and how quickly they do so.
It isn’t easy to talk to your kids about race, sexuality, and a myriad of other sensitive subjects that can cause them to have questions. It also isn’t easy to talk to grown adults that you respect and explain why their language is problematic and not something you want your child emulating. In some situations, both difficult conversations have to happen. In fact, when you’re getting real about serious subject matters with people you care about, you learn that the conversations are rarely easy but always necessary.
As a little girl, I remember hearing a lot of culturally insensitive commentary. I was a child growing up in the world’s borough, learning that many of the world’s people had biases against one another.
As I got older, I figured this was due to generational differences. After all, what my grandparents experienced as teenagers during the ’40s seemed vastly different from my own teenage years just after the turn of the millennium. I remembered reasoning to myself that the future would be full of ideas of acceptance and tolerance and that the past was in the past.
Recently, I have found myself cringing at some of the things my stepson hears out of the mouths of the people he loves. I remembered my own confusion as a kid. I remember people I loved and respected saying things that I knew were inherently wrong, and I couldn’t believe that those people believed what they were saying.
My stepson is a smart kid. He asks questions when something makes him confused or uncomfortable. It’s easy to feel like you should be prepared for these conversations at the drop of a hat when you’re a parent. But it’s OK to put them off if you feel you need to gather advice, information, or your own thoughts before proceeding.
It’s essential to make sure you’re in the right mindset when you respond to these types of questions, rather than speak too quickly and possibly put your foot in your mouth.
When talking to your kids, it’s important to emphasize what principles your family believes in. Even the youngest children can understand why you’d want to promote tolerance and kindness, and why it isn’t good to make other people feel bad or to judge people for being different from you.
To that end, normalizing many different types of people in your children’s worldview through literature, play, and real-life interaction, where possible, will help them understand why such barriers and attitudes are senseless.
To many people, having frank conversations like this can be uncomfortable, especially the younger the child is. The reality is that children as young as your own are experiencing racism, sexism, and other biases at the hands of the world around them. The least you can do is open a dialogue with your child about it.
Equally important to having a conversation with your child about what they might hear or see is talking to the offending relative. This is also a complicated situation.
People aren’t looking to sever ties over differences of opinions, but it isn’t unheard of, either. In fact, a 2017 poll by Rasmussen Reports showed that 40% of Americans said the 2016 election had harmed a close relationship.
The first thing you need to understand when talking to a grown adult about their beliefs is that one conversation isn’t going to change anyone’s longstanding opinions or views. If you decide to venture into this subject, know it’s one you’ll likely revisit on multiple occasions.
You also shouldn’t feel the need to do this on your own. It isn’t any single person’s responsibility to educate another on any of these subjects when we live in an age where this information is readily available for those willing to find it. That said, employing the help of one or two other people who may share your feelings on the relative’s behavior can be a way of not taking it all on yourself.
Know the boundaries you can enforce without telling someone else how to think or feel. You have the right to set the rules in your own spaces, such as your home or any events held for your family. You can’t control how other people act in their own homes and lives, but changing their behavior where it affects your children is the larger goal.
As for addressing a disparaging remark when it occurs, you’re left with two options. You can keep the peace and handle it later, and that has its benefits. You can also push back in a way that isn’t offensive or confrontational, showing any children in the area that certain ideas, when expressed, will receive pushback from people who don’t agree. That can go a long way in deterring unfavorable behaviors from being adopted, but it comes with its own risks.
The sad truth is that there isn’t any one-off way of dealing with these kinds of issues. Everyone is different. Some people are comfortable cutting off family members. Some people are not. Some people will gamble with what their kids hear and what they will then make of it. Some are not willing to do that.
Children will learn about biases throughout their lives. You can’t shield them from every terrible comment a person makes or even from terrible people themselves. What you can do is keep the lines of communication open.
Talk to your kids and give them the benefit of the doubt. They understand and empathize more than you’d believe. As their experiences take them different places and they’re presented with different ideas, they can still find their true north in a frank conversation with mom or dad.