How to stay sane spending the holidays with my bigoted parents
November 29, 2013 9:10 AM   Subscribe

How to stay sane spending the holidays with my bigoted parents

My wife, two toddlers, and myself will be spending Christmas with my parents, across the country. We will be staying at their house (hotel not an option for economic reasons). My parents have always been very right-wing, ultra-conservative fundamentalist Christians. But in recent years, especially with my father, their views have turned ugly, and have taken on a decidedly racist and homophobic bent. Fox News blares on the tv all day, and I get regular ranty emails about Obamacare and Islam, among other things. You get the picture.

My mother is pretty severely disabled and cannot travel via air except in extreme circumstances and with a lot of help, or make long car journeys -- so we must come to them if we want to see them. They are good with the grandchildren (the few times they have seen each other) and do not spew their nonsense to the toddlers, but instead reserve it for my wife and me. Our political viewpoints are pretty much at 180 degrees from each other on most things, and my strategy is to disengage when the conversation turns to politics. I've long accepted that you can't change a mind that isn't open to being changed. We no longer have arguments because I hold my tongue, but it doesn't stop the constant jabs that my father insists on shouting out against Obama, big government, Muslims, you name it. So my question isn't how to "engage" my parents on their political views -- I don't care to do that. I'm looking for advice on how to get into a special state where I can just let it bounce off me so the week at their house doesn't turn into an anxiety fest.

Anyone have any tricks for just turning off that part of your brain that wants to spar or correct misinformation, and instead just let it flow past like water? I'd love to enjoy my Christmas rather than just tolerate it. We will be moving abroad soon and this may be the last chance for my kids to see their grandparents for a long while, so I'm doing this for them (to forestall "cancel the trip" advice).
posted by GorgeousPorridge to Human Relations (35 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Pity? People who turn to that strike me as angry and afraid, and what a terrible way to go through life. Smile and nod and feel deeply sorry for them -- for-real sorry, because that is a for-real miserable way to live. "It must be very frustrating for you..."
posted by kmennie at 9:14 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Dad, I love you but I do not want to talk politics with you. Please. Stop."

"Dad, I love you but I do not want to talk politics with you. Please. Stop."

"Dad, I love you but I do not want to talk politics with you. Please. Stop."

The broken record thing can shut down almost anyone. The trick is to say it everytime, and in exactly the same way.
posted by LarryC at 9:18 AM on November 29, 2013 [26 favorites]

Visualization. Start now. Imagine you are a rock, a big, steady rock in the middle of a flowing stream. The water flows all around you, over you, under you...but you are peaceful and unaffected. The water just flows over you. When your dad starts with his stuff, just imagine you're that rock.

Maybe also think up some of your favourite memories involving your parents, things that you are truly grateful for. Replay those in your mind while you're being rock-like.
posted by yawper at 9:29 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Visualization. Start now. Imagine you.... have a Bingo card with all the squares containing bigoted rants. Every time you hear one, mark the square off your card. Soon, you will be hoping to hear how the poor brought this all on themselves and if they would just work harder they could be the 1%. BINGO!

I don't recommend making an actual physical card - imagine what would happen if they found it.
posted by CathyG at 9:41 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't want to listen to my in-laws go on about how swell everything would be if only the government ran everything, thus, I've developed amazing powers of distraction and misdirection. Find a way to head off the conversation before it starts going down that path. Get grandparents to read aloud to the kids, find some task you must do right that second, spontaneously burst in a sing-along with the kids, get them to tell you about something back in the day, and develop a slight hearing loss (pesky sinus infection.) Turn the TV off or put on cartoons for the kids, drag out family photos, take the kids for walks, and so on. It's much, much easier and more productive to act like the cruise director than to suffer. Keeping score in your head (ala the bingo card) will only make you feel worse.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:44 AM on November 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

You could ignore them. That would be good advice if you were going alone. But your kids should not be exposed to racist homophobes. Make it very clear that they are allowed to believe what they like, but if they start spewing their hateful crap you are out of there. It certainly will create a conflict, but one of your children could grow up to be queer and hearing someone they love say something so hateful would hurt then. Even if they are very young that shit sticks with you.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:47 AM on November 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

Don't engage. The script from LarryC is good. You can make a point of saying that you made a long trip to see them and celebrate Christmas, and you didn't do it to talk politics.

If they are conservative, fundamentalist Christians as you say there must be something you can point to about celebrating Christmas and what that means to them, that is inconsistent with arguing politics. Flip the whole Fox News ginned-up "War on Christmas" on its head by using Christmas as a shield against talking politics.
posted by ambrosia at 9:50 AM on November 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Understand where they're coming from.

American-style, populist conservatism is an intoxicating ideology for members of powerful demographic groups that may feel angry or not so powerful as individuals. It tells them that their problems - and your question hints that your parents may have significant problems indeed - are not their fault. Instead, they're the fault of some "other" - blacks, muslims, gays, whatever. They are good, the "other" is bad. The once-complicated, scary world all of a sudden looks a whole lot simpler.

There are reasons that societies go through periods of populist conservatism, and it's because the ideas are seemingly irresistible to human beings in certain kinds of circumstances. Viewed this way, your parents' virulence isn't a product of them being bad people - rather, it's a quirk of humanity, kind of like how we can't resist spreading memes and urban legends.

Do what you can to protect your kids from the bullshit, as a few people have mentioned. But let go of the anger at them - they're human beings and susceptible to being wrong.
posted by downing street memo at 9:51 AM on November 29, 2013 [31 favorites]

Racism, islamaphobia, homophobia, etc aren't political views- I've never understood people who classify those things as such.

Listen: You're an adult. Tell him that kind of stuff is offensive to you, isn't acceptable when you're around and you're neither going to engage nor be forced to listen.

This has always worked for me when friends/family/acquaintances say things I find offensive, but, of course, your mileage may vary.
posted by eunoia at 9:52 AM on November 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

Always keep in mind that your silence isn't an endorsement of your father's bigoted statements; that the purpose of the trip is to provide both your children and your aging parents with happy memories of one another.

Whatever the cause, he hasn't always been this way. That you are willing to endure his unpleasant behavior so that he, your mother and your children can have this precious time together demonstrates
you are a compassionate man and a good father. You no doubt have the patience required to let his remarks flow in one ear and then out the other without comment.
posted by Pudhoho at 9:55 AM on November 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

If you do give your opinion then tack on "take it or leave it"....for example: hey pops, xyz believe that abc is whatever, but take it or leave it. I just read about how effective that is for vegetarians at thanksgiving :-)
posted by misspony at 10:56 AM on November 29, 2013

Have a conversation with them BEFORE you get there. Let it be known that if they say anything racist or homophobic/transphobic to you or your children, you will pick up and leave. Then, follow through.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:59 AM on November 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

I honestly can't really think of a way to not be bothered by stuff my dad says. He's my dad, you know? The only thing I can think of is pretty much what room 317 said.
posted by kavasa at 11:01 AM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

The easiest thing to do is to say exactly what you think:

"Dad, I want to spend quality time with you. Can we talk about something else? I don't enjoy these conversations."
posted by KokuRyu at 11:07 AM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm a subject changer on actual political issues. Gun control, climate change, the Affordable Care Act.

When it comes to racism, I do one of two things depending on the dynamic:

- Just totally shut down and stop participating in the conversation or paying attention at all


- Some variation on "that's racist and I don't condone that sort of talk".

I tend to do the former when I'm in a large group conversation where talk has turned to something with a sort of political talking point bent, like birtherism. There's just too much to unpack, and dominating the conversation to try to steer it into a teachable moment makes me way too anxious.

The latter tends to be more workable in small moments where someone has expressed something bigoted without it being part of a political conversation. For example people in my family will often comment about the cars black people drive while we're out and about. (Charming, right?) I usually say, "That's so racist." And then change the subject to give them an out from having to sit through a harangue about it.

With my younger brother, who is a little more impressionable and looks up to me as a big sister, I will go into harangue mode. Because I can. And we've actually had some pretty fruitful talks about social justice type issues. And my mom and I pretty frequently have good talks about political stuff. But you're not really talking about situations that lend themselves to "good talks", so I think it's probably best to just disengage and call out the worst of it when you can.
posted by Sara C. at 11:31 AM on November 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

"Anyone have any tricks for just turning off that part of your brain that wants to spar or correct misinformation, and instead just let it flow past like water?"

When you catch yourself wanting to spar, remind yourself that your parents are older, and that you and your children will not have them around forever. Based on his age and health, you can calculate how long your dad probably has left on the planet. Spending this Christmas with them, and letting them be doting grandparents to your kids, is such a loving choice.

Most importantly, you know they are not going to change their views based on anything you say. So why bother wasting your breath and possibly ruining everyone's Christmas?

Remind yourself you and your family are guests in their home, and they are entitled to share their incorrect opinions under their own roof. And again, it's Christmas, so put on a jolly face and pour yourself some eggnog. Maybe bring a favorite movie to pop in when you'd rather not continue to talk.

Remind yourself you made the active choice to spend this precious Christmas season with them - so when you feel like you want to spar, go back to your mental list of the reasons why you chose the hard path of schlepping two toddlers on a cross-country trip when it would be oh so much easier and cheaper to stay home: because you love your parents are they are important to you. So you'll put up with their wing-nuttiness. You'll take the high road.
posted by hush at 11:45 AM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Noncommittal grunt.

I've had training on resisting interrogation by hostile forces. The number one thing is not to engage, not just verbally, but even mentally. Even if you're just thinking up responses or arguments in your head, you are still engaging with the material. Once you start to do that, they've got you, and it's just a matter of their skill in exploiting your emotional response.

You pretty much have to treat this as a hostage situation and just let them talk all they want without even critically thinking about what they're saying. It's hard to do, but that's the way to stay sane.
posted by ctmf at 11:51 AM on November 29, 2013 [13 favorites]

You are the parents of toddlers, you say? Excellent, you are well practised in skills ideally adaptable to this situation, namely ignoring and redirecting. Try treating them as political tantrums.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:02 PM on November 29, 2013 [15 favorites]

Meditation (which is really the same thing as the visualization technique CathyG recommends). Start practicing now, 5-10 minutes at a time. The more you do it the faster you'll be able to automatically get into that state where you can RESPOND instead of REACT to your parents' insanity. And responding might actually mean refusing to respond, if that's what works best for you. Basically, meditation will allow you to keep a distance from these comments and the provocation they might cause.

I started doing this when it became obvious to me that simply not hanging out with certain annoying family members was not an option. Good luck.
posted by Brittanie at 12:25 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can only manage to stay serene in these situations if I have a lot of time away. Can you get a hotel for a night? Go for walks? Go visit Historic Place with the kids?
posted by small_ruminant at 12:29 PM on November 29, 2013

My in-laws aren't as bad as your parents, but we have a game where we silently keep score as to how many remarks they make and how long it takes, and compare it to last year's score when we get a few moments alone.

We don't have kids. If we did, when it came to racial epithets I'd probably adopt my mom's practice, which was to never say anything to her father about his language, but to immediately and strictly correct me with "I don't ever want to hear you say anything like that again!" in front of him if I repeated his remark or said anything that sounded like him. I think we both got the message.
posted by telophase at 12:39 PM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh man. Don't expose your toddlers to that. Lie to your parents and say you're sick.

I know the money has been spent but unless you want your kids to think it's okay to let people say stuff like that, it's cheaper in the long term to not go.
posted by discopolo at 1:11 PM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I second all the suggestions for compassion and nonengagement. As others have said, these politics are driven by deep-seated fears, resentments, and discomfort with the world at large -- in short, a fundamental unhappiness. Maybe your parents are lonely, or are afraid of death, or feel cheated, or have regrets that they can't do anything about -- whatever the reasons, this is the maddening, tragic way that their pain is manifesting itself (and has been cynically exploited by Fox News and the GOP for the sake of profit and power).

I try to keep this in mind in dealing with my own parents over similar issues, and I find that if I can hold on to this awareness of their suffering, it sometimes helps keep the spark of anger or frustration that I feel from flaring up too far. It's hard, and it makes me sad (and even afraid) that this is how things are. But I know that my being present in their lives gives them pleasure, and that after they are gone, I will (I hope) have fewer regrets about how I dealt with them in their final years than I would if I actually let them provoke me into a fight.

As to the practicalities of nonengagement: not only do I try very hard not to engage with their provocations verbally, but I try not to even engage it mentally. If you can observe their Fox-fueled chatter just as random word salad (Obama Nazi death panels Sharia law war on Christmas illegal immigrants government-issued free Cadillacs!), then it is easier just to let it slide right off you, rather than hooking you. I call it acting like cheerful teflon. No matter what is said, the response is basically "uh-huh. So, [Pointed Change of Subject to Something Mutually Pleasant]!"

It doesn't even matter if it's a total non sequitur. The real agenda of Obamacare is to euthanize white conservatives and everyone over the age of 65? Say, "uh-huh" in a completely neutral tone and then -- cheerful teflon! -- immediately mention something charming that the cat just did, or note that there's an "I Love Lucy" marathon on TV and don't you just love the chocolate factory episode, or comment that dinner sure was delicious and you really need that recipe for pot roast. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It's also useful to be able to have some private time/space with your partner to let off steam, but I think it can also be useful to decide ahead of time that you're going to limit how much time you're going to spend doing this. Otherwise, it's very easy to fall into the trap of just replaying the conversations over and over for hours or days, which means that instead of genuinely declining to engage with your parents' provocations, you've merely delayed your engagement with their provocations till later.
posted by scody at 1:52 PM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Credentials: my dad has turned from a fairly free-wheeling live-and-let-live farmer cowboy Democrat into a born-again Tea Partier.

My strategy for dealing with him (not just at holidays but in life in general) is rooted in judo/aikido/jiu-jitsu:

Aikido is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on.(Wikipedia)

Basically, whenever my dad brings up a topic, the discussion of which will lead nowhere good, I redirect.

Dad: "This Obamacare nonsense is going to bankrupt our country!"
Me: "Speaking of health insurance and medically related matters, have you heard about that new migraine treatment that is helping more than 50% of those treated lessen the frequency of their migraines. It's amazing!" (I go off on a migraine-treatment tangent.)

Dad: "I've been making white crosses for all of the neighbors that go to our church to put in their yards." (Note: this is, horrifyingly, not a joke.)
Me: "It must be nice to have the space for a hobby like wood working. I've really been getting into cooking lately as my hobby activity. Did I tell you about the short ribs I made recently? They were amazing!" (I go off on a cooking-related tangent.)

Rinse and repeat.

(I also sometimes visualize the door in the back of my head and internally recite the lyrics "...blah de blah blah blah to your trip." It helps!)
posted by hapax_legomenon at 2:48 PM on November 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

I also feel the need to add that while you are totally allowed to use every tool at your disposal to make a relationship with your parents tolerable, you are also allowed to make concrete decisions about what is intolerable. And you can leave the room, or the house, or end the visit. You are not a hostage to your family.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:21 PM on November 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

This summer I spent some time with a relative who recently became an Evangelical Christian. I am an atheist. I decided to wear a simple beaded bracelet, and when he started talking religion I started fidgeting with the beads and quietly humming to myself. It was an effective distraction. Try finding your own fidgety toy.
posted by obol at 5:13 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know that in an ideal politically correct world, we'd all just shun close family members who do this sort of thing, but OP, considering that your parents aren't in good health and you're moving overseas soon, I don't think you should avoid visiting or actively not allow your kids to have a relationship with their grandparents.

FWIW, I have liberal-leaning Democrat grandparents on one side, and very conservative Republican grandparents on the other side. I had absolutely no idea of their political stances until I was an adult. While I think some of this may be due to the different political zeitgeist (I very rarely remember politics ever being discussed among anyone in my family, as a child), I would be seriously upset if I had grown up not having a relationship with one side or the other for political reasons.

Even for reasons of bigotry. Unless we're talking about Westboro Baptist or Aryan Nation levels of vitriol, I think this is one of those things you have to suck up because family is more important.

Concentrate on shielding your kids from this as much as possible and raising them with good values that include being an ally to people who are different from them. That's what my parents did, and I think I turned out OK despite the fact that my grandparents are old friends with Ron Paul.
posted by Sara C. at 5:33 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think this is one of those things you have to suck up because family is more important.

But the OP already seems to be doing exactly that: "We will be moving abroad soon and this may be the last chance for my kids to see their grandparents for a long while, so I'm doing this for them (to forestall "cancel the trip" advice)." The question isn't "should we visit them or not?" but rather "since we are definitely visiting them, what's the best way to enjoy the time rather than merely tolerate it?"
posted by scody at 5:58 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Keep your phone in your pocket at all times. Whenever the conversation is heading in a bad direction pull it out, remind your dad it's on vibrate, and excuse yourself to go pretend to talk to your caller, someone from work, or the pet sitter/house sitter/neighbor. Or call a good friend who is aware of your plight.

Plan a lot of expeditions away from the house, daily walks, trips to local museums, whatever. Include your parents in these, or not.

Are there any small home repairs your folks need that you could do? Any rooms that need painting? Find ways to keep busy.

Do your kids take naps? When they do, take one too, or read, listen to music.

I wouldn't worry about what they're saying around your kids unless they're using specific words you don't want your kids to hear.
posted by mareli at 8:14 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You could try to play around with visualizations and see if you can find one that works. I know someone who imagines she is a window screen, which air can blow right through. What works better for me is to imagine that I'm in a plastic bubble. It seems like I'm in the same room as everyone else, but actually I'm not. I'm in this bubble where sound cannot travel out so speaking would be useless, and anyway, who cares what they're saying, since I'm in this nice comfortable bubble. You could potentially put your dad in a bubble where the sounds he makes can come out but no sounds could come in (since presumably you have to still communicate with the children). You know you've found the right visualization when you feel relief, like, "oh, that's good, he's in a bubble, so I can just ignore him and don't have to even think about how to respond."
posted by salvia at 8:44 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

When your children are in their 20s or 30s. it would be sad if they could say, "Yes, our grandparents were alive when we were young, but we never met them. They were too judgmental."
posted by Cranberry at 12:31 AM on November 30, 2013

I don't think many are saying avoid the trip because you disagree on Obamacare. People are saying to either skip the trip or make boundaries to avoid exposing impressionable children to racists and homophobes.
posted by munchingzombie at 7:47 AM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

When your children are in their 20s or 30s. it would be sad if they could say, "Yes, our grandparents were alive when we were young, but we never met them. They were too judgmental."

I almost feel like it would be worse if the kids went around saying, "Yeah we hung out with our grandparents but they were total racists and everyone was always uncomfortable when we went there."

I'm not suggesting the OP not take the trip. There's tons of good advice here for dealing with the crap. My personal favorites are the redirecting tactics, if that doesn't work then just stating calmly that you are not interested in discussing a certain topic. I AM suggesting that sometimes biological family is NOT the most important thing in the world. Family can be people you choose. If I had kids and the grandparents simply could not be stopped from saying racist, homophobic, or otherwise hateful things, I would choose raising my kids in an hate free environment over exposing them to that kind of crap. I'd find them some other grandparents who were loving and kind. There are tons of older folks around who would love to get adopted by a nice family and tons of ways to find them.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 10:04 AM on November 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

If this really is one of the last times your kids may spend time with them, then do your kids the kindness of getting to know their grandparents as they really are.

"Dad, you didn't raise us to talk about people of other faiths that way, and I expect I'll show my kids the tolerance you taught us growing up. But can you explain to our kids why you now say things that you would have punished us for at their age?"
posted by anildash at 1:21 PM on November 30, 2013

I had a similar, but not nearly as severe, relationship with my late father-in-law. After some discussion with RedBud about it, we developed the following custom:

I told F.I.L. one afternoon that he was not allowed to make racist remarks in my home. If he couldn't contain himself, then he couldn't visit us.

When I was at his house I was not comfortable dictating to him what I found acceptable. It was his home. But I didn't have to sit and listen to it. The first time he did it, I excused myself, and told RedBud to give me a call when she got ready to come home. After that he made an effort to avoid voicing various of his racist notions in my presence. He got better at it as time passed. RedBud told me he slacked off on that sort of stuff around her, too.

(He, also, was a lover of Fox news. I say this part because he was an intelligent man who's opinions on quite a few things I valued, but this Fox News thing really baffled me.)

The best advice I saw in this thread, above, was the firm, polite, and consistent request to not talk about certain topics with you. No means no. If a "final" confrontation is necessary, you must decide whether to fold or leave. As I read your essay, their is no completely good choice in the offing here. I guess it would be helpful to recognize that you may piss off your father no matter what you do, so maybe it's better to do the thing that doesn't involve loud screaming, and/or pulling out tufts of your hair.

Without the good will and efforts of your parents, there is no way to reconcile this rift. My hope is that you develop a plan that kicks in before the screaming fantods come into play--by then you tend to burn bridges you'd rather not burn. I recognize that my situation is only vaguely similar to yours. I wish you the best of luck with this.
posted by mule98J at 1:56 PM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

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