Dear Carolyn: My mother-in-law treats my son like a toy that (not who) is there to amuse her on her terms and show off to her friends. My husband and I are trying to raise our child to respect others and be attuned to others’ feelings, but how do we do this when Grandma defies all of that, especially with him?
Plus, what are the chances he’ll grow up to resent her, as she clearly disregards what he wants/needs for her own amusement? I had a relative treat me that way when I was a child, and I still resent her even though she’s dead.
Any education includes examples of what to do, and what not to. Just because Grandma is a persistent what-not-to doesn’t mean she will undermine the lessons you teach your son.
In fact, the very thing you’re concerned about – that your son will resent being treated as a toy – might prove more enlightening to him than anything you and your husband do. Knowing how disrespect feels can give him the insight and motivation he needs to be respectful of others.
An important piece of that will be the way you and your husband handle Grandma’s behavior. To start, you need to be respectful both of your son and of her. Let’s say you witness an instance of his looking uncomfortable as she’s showing him off to her friends. In that case, you need to stand up for your son as you also acknowledge her needs: “I know how proud you are of your grandson, but that’s enough for now – he’s uncomfortable.”
It’s a formula you can apply widely here, to enforce limits firmly while showing kindness toward your mother-in-law. The primary goal after all is not to vilify Grandma. Instead it’s to teach your son to find his limits and articulate them for himself. Think of these as the inner workings of respect.
As your son matures, teach him ways to apply this formula himself. Do this both in the moment – “I know Grandma loves your voice, Sonny, but you don’t have to sing ‘Heart and Soul’ for us if you don’t want to” – and in conversations with your son after any awkward encounters with your mother-in-law. “You looked uncomfortable when Grandma asked you to sing for everyone. Did I read that correctly?” And if yes: “I don’t think she understands how that puts you on the spot. You can always say no to such a request, from her or anyone else. We will back you up.” Then do.
Another crucial example of respect is to recognize your son isn’t you. He might not react to his grandmother the way you did to your boundary-challenged relative. At all. He might bask in the attention, and/or see it as her way of showing love. Thanks in part to your careful teaching, he might have the emotional intelligence to distinguish her expressions of pride from the boundary issues they’re wrapped in.
Accordingly, the most respectful example you can set for your boy is to act on his feelings on this issue, not yours. Summon the poise to let these two develop a relationship of their own. Coach and protect as needed, yes, but with the lightest touch your duty as a parent permits.
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