Mom, Grandma is playing favorites again!
October 14, 2014 7:00 AM   Subscribe

My husband's brother and his wife have come to us and expressed some concern over the way Grandma is treating the grandkids. We have the same issue and none of us are sure if we should speak up. It's not life changing or anything, just something we are worried could cause animosity in the future.

The oldest granddaughter is 9, we'll call her Lulu. She belongs to my brother in law from a relationship long before he met his wife. The other granddaughter is almost 2, we'll call her Lala. She was born to brother in law and his wife (this is her first baby). Last is our son, also almost 2, we'll call him Fred.
Grandma has repeatedly taken the oldest aside and told her it's like she isn't even part of the family since Lala came along. She says feels sorry for her. She made her a room at their house and put a sign on it that says No babies allowed. She is constantly putting pics in facebook referring to Lulu as her #1 granddaughter (we get it, she was born first), but never one mention of Lala.

She is always saying things like 'well when Lulu was that age she could do this that and the other, is there something wrong with Lala/ Fred'? Her time lines are clearly off because some if these things aren't even physically possible for babies. She will refer to Fred as the favorite grandson (again, we get it, he's the only grandson), but it is hurtful to my sister in law because again, no love for Lala.

We are concerned that if Grandma keeps making such verbal distinctions of preference, negative comparisons about what the younger ones can't do compared to when Lulu was that age instead of celebrating what they can, and telling Lulu that her family is treating her like an old used sock since her little sister came along, the kids will hold it against each other. We are also worried about what will happen when our next child comes along.
Brother and sister in law are bearing more of this than we are because they live closer, but we still deal with it too whenever we talk to Grandma or visit. It is frustrating and hurtful to all of us. Should the brothers speak to their mother about how this bothers them or just arm the children with thick skins?
posted by MayNicholas to Human Relations (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
While this is obviously something your husband needs to deal with, as they are his parents (if I'm reading that right), there is no way I wouldn't say something to Grandma. If my parents tried anything like that, they'd get a serious talking to. Lulu doesn't need anyone telling her she's not as loved as Lala, and Lala doesn't need to be treated like she's an unwanted sibling. The kids will pick up on this and it will hurt them. Kids shouldn't have to have thicker skins when dealing with family members, especially not close ones. Have a talk with Grandma, and if she doesn't change her ways, stop bringing the kids to visit until she does.
posted by katers890 at 7:06 AM on October 14, 2014 [13 favorites]

The kids might not actually hold it against each other, but they'll certainly hold it against their grandmother. The favourite grandson is probably a joke you don't want to push on unless/until there's another grandson, but the "your family is treating you like an old sock" thing is horrible for both Lulu and Lala, and the comparisons are odious.

You absolutely need to speak up about this. Then, if that doesn't work, you need to stay away from Grandma with the kids.
posted by jeather at 7:09 AM on October 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

My grandmother did something very similar - my little brother and I were the obvious "non-preferred" grandchildren, and our younger cousin was the most precious thing in the world. My parents did address it with my grandmother, to no avail, so when my brother and I were old enough to really notice my grandmother's behavior, my parents stopped requiring us to spend time with her, and made it clear that Brother and I were just fine thankyouverymuch, despite whatever Cousin may or may not be doing. I'm 24 now and really dislike and actively avoid my grandmother, but adore my parents and get along fine with my cousin.

So with that in mind:

Should the brothers speak to their mother about how this bothers them or just arm the children with thick skins?

This isn't an either/or. Both of these things should happen - grandmother needs to be told to cut this shit out, and Lulu, Lala, and Fred should be armed with the emotional and interpersonal tools to deal with it if grandmother doesn't stop this behavior. Parents should be sure to remind all three children that they are loved, and should correct grandmother's favoritism when they see it. And perhaps most importantly, Lulu, Lala, and Fred should know, as they get older, that seeing their grandmother is optional, not mandatory.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:17 AM on October 14, 2014 [14 favorites]

It sounds like she's overcompensating for what she perceives to be the totally understandable natural bias that everyone must have against welcoming a stepchild into the family. The fact that she considers this bias against Lulu to be unavoidably present in everyone's minds is concerning, since it seems like she's overcompensating for what she personally might be thinking, and projecting that negative bias onto you. She sounds like a piece of work, but I wouldn't go there. I would definitely talk with her, but not accuse her of anything other than confusing the kids.

Sit down with her and address what she thinks is going on: "I'm concerned, we always go out of our way to treat our children equally, and when you say we treat Lulu like an old sock, that hurts our feelings. Maybe you could tell me what it is that we do that's giving you that impression." Discuss this for a bit, and then move on to "Well, it seems as if the girls aren't perceiving any of that preference, and it can be really confusing to Lulu when you tell her she's been mistreated. I know you're just trying to reassure Lulu that you love her, but we're trying to create an environment in which she would never feel that we're any more or less her family than we are Lala's, and your concern is actually accentuating those differences. I know you're trying to help Lulu, but we worry that it could be hurtful to Lala or Fred if they feels that you love them less. Maybe you can do like we do, and try to treat them all the same."
posted by aimedwander at 7:17 AM on October 14, 2014 [24 favorites]

Does she not like your sister-in-law? Or, did she really like your brother-in-law's first wife? This sounds like it could very well be a way of slighting your sister-in-law, and if that's even a remote possibility, I would really let your brother- and sister-in-law handle it.
posted by jaguar at 7:22 AM on October 14, 2014 [18 favorites]

Yes both of the dads should talk to her. And they should emphasize that it's just as harmful to Lulu as it is to the babies, to draw that distinction. As the "favorite," she has the burden of guilt and secrets. Not cool.
posted by headnsouth at 7:29 AM on October 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

welcoming a stepchild into the family
I believe all three kids are her biological grandkids. The only step-relationship is between Lulu and Lala's mother.
posted by soelo at 7:31 AM on October 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

I definitely think you should talk to Grandma about this, but try to separate what's really a problem and needs to stop, versus what's gotten tied up in this whole thing and is probably not a big deal. Your priorities may be different, but in my mind:

1. Suggesting to a kid that her parents don't love her (in general, or as much as another sibling) = 100% not okay, needs to stop immediately. Honestly, this is bad enough that I would tell Grandma it's a red line, when it happens the parents will immediately respond and everyone will be leaving for the day. Visit is over. That is beyond the pale of inappropriate and I think could really mess a kid up.

2. Comparing kids/having too-high expecations for the little ones. Not awesome, but for me wouldn't be a deal breaker. I would talk to her about this and make gentle corrections when it happens in the moment to try to shift things. As the younger ones get older and more cognizant of what she's saying, may need to step it up and do more.

3. Taking special time with the oldest grandkid/giving her a "no babies allowed" room, etc. I actually think that this part COULD be awesome, if it didn't come along with all the other baggage. I've gotta imagine that being an only kid for many years and then suddenly getting a stepmom + new baby sister + new baby cousin is HARD. People ooh and ahh over babies like nobody's business (I am guilty of this myself!) and I can easily see how the older sibling would feel left out when there's not one but TWO new babies in the family competing for attention. In theory, having a special room at Grandma's house to retreat to where there's not going to be any crying or people talking about how adorable the babies are, and/or some special one-on-one time and attention from Grandma could be an awesome thing if it weren't paired with the poisonous messages of "Your family doesn't love you" and "You are better than these new babies." So I would think about how you might encourage Grandma on this side of things while also stopping the negative talk about the little ones.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:39 AM on October 14, 2014 [20 favorites]

At 9 years of age, it's difficult to overcome this kind of gaslighting. Teenagers have kind of figured out grandparents have silly quirks and it's usually handled with the eye-roll and shrug. So there is a limited amount of time for this to be a Major Problem, BUT I think what I would do is step up the counter-programming.

If I were Lulu's parents, I would simply reinforce with her that I loved them both equally, that I think both of them have great abilities, and that whatever age they are is a great age to be. If grandma says things that simply aren't correct, like "Lulu was writing sestinas by the time she was 5," I would simply, calmly factually correct Grandma, immediately, in front of anyone who heard it. "No, grandma, I think you're mistaken - Lulu didn't learn her letters until kindergarden" - or whatever is true. Laugh it off. The kids may not understand the power struggle, but they can get the idea that grandma is a bit silly.

It's also a good idea to reinforce these things in private. My sons are both at good weights, but since one is unusually tall and a bit skinny, if anything, the other appears a bit thicker around the edges. My FIL (his grandfather) has an obsession with shaming fat people, and if one's not around who makes a good target, he'll find someone to pick on, and it was my son for a while. Both of my boys are physically active adolescents and therefore eat a lot (especially when my MIL is shoveling food at them). So FIL starts saying "you keep eating like that, you'll get fat; in fact I see a bit of belly already" and shit like that. So I corrected him immediately "No, he's not. He's been playing soccer today/he's starting a growth spurt/his stomach is full because MIL has forced two helpings on him" and later made sure to Have A Talk with my son - not trying to paint my FIL as a bad person,* but simply to make sure he knows that I don't think he's overweight, and that if I were concerned with his eating, I'd tell him.

And all in all, I think most grandparents should be kept out of the business of raising your kids. They have a tendency to meddle; I think they see your kids as a chance to do-over whatever area they think they didn't quite get you in line in your childhood. Kids should get to see them and be loved by them, but their house is a place to visit, not to live.

*whether or not my FIL is a bad person is outside the scope of this post
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:49 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Definitely talk to grandma about this but don't expect much to change.

My grandma is very much conditional in how she doles out love to her four grandkids. I was the first, and for a long time I was the favorite. She used to tell my little brother all the time that she was going to write him out of her will for this or that or the other thing, or how she was going to give [cousin] more because he did more favors for her. She didn't talk to me for 2 years because she didn't like the guy I was dating and another grandkid became the favorite. Then that grandkid did something to piss her off and my brother moved closer to her so my brother became the favorite. Then I got a cute dog that she likes more than the other family dogs and so I became the favorite again. Etc, etc, etc.

My point is, some people are just like this and there's not a whole lot you can do about it. When the other grandkids and I were younger sometimes we felt bad about it but for the most part it was just annoying. As we got older it became just plain frustrating. You can't win with the woman, we all know it, so it's more like this background joke, who's going to get written out of the will this Christmas, and so on. Just reassure your kids that this is grandma's problem and grandma being weird because grandma has her own complicated issues, and it has nothing, absolutely nothing to do at all, with them. I know your kids are super young right now but when dealing with a difficult family member, reassurances that it's that person and not you early and often are very helpful.

Good luck.
posted by phunniemee at 7:51 AM on October 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Wow, it sounds like she loathes the new daughter-in-law and wants to make her suffer, using kids as bargaining chips.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:53 AM on October 14, 2014 [12 favorites]

We had a similar situation in our family, and it didn't get better until the sons talked to the grandparents. (It probably would have gotten even better if it hadn't come in the form of an angry confrontation, so there's something you can learn from our mistakes.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:54 AM on October 14, 2014

Response by poster: Wow! Lots of great insight here, thank you!

In case there was any confusion, all 3 grandchildren are biological to her. Brother in law was never married before, he has eldest with an old girlfriend. But you could be on to something. He married a woman of a different ethnicity so little Lala is mixed race. Grandma always has something negative to say about customs sister in law and her family have that may be different than she is used to. But then again, I took a trip with my son to see my extended family and involve him in some of our family's traditions/ heritage and she told me not to bring back an *insert heritage here* baby. So take that however you will.
posted by MayNicholas at 8:10 AM on October 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

ohhhh yeah with your update, this is totally racism and your niece messing up her (in her view) pure family. she either needs to stop or lala and lulu's parents need to stop interacting with her and stop exposing their kids to this.
posted by nadawi at 8:20 AM on October 14, 2014 [43 favorites]

Holy burying-the-racist-grandma-lede, Batman! This is 100% not okay behavior anyway, but showing overt favoritism to the only grandchild of her race and implying her grandchildren of another race are intellectually challenged is mega-nuclear unacceptable.
posted by animalrainbow at 8:23 AM on October 14, 2014 [58 favorites]

I do think someone should talk to her (I think the most appropriate person is Lulu and Lala's dad, with backup from your husband), but it would also be helpful to tease things apart and figure out what's driving this. She could just be a Bad Grandma--your husband and BIL should have insight from their own childhood to see whether this playing favorites is a long-standing history of hers.

Or perhaps something about Lulu's position in the family strikes a chord with her: was she the oldest sibling, or a stepchild, or in any way treated differently from her own siblings (I mention this because my really quite awesome aunt--in her old age and after her much-younger-brother, my dad, passed away--became increasingly open and a little bitter about how alienated and "less than" she felt as a child when her dad remarried and had a baby with her stepmom.

Or perhaps did she have a closer relationship/greater involvement with Lulu when she was little because of the different family circumstances? Like, if Lulu's parents split when Lulu was very young, maybe grandma stepped in and took more of a maternal role with her and feels more bonded to her as a result.

Or, on preview, maybe Grandma is just a racist. :-(
posted by drlith at 8:28 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Should the brothers speak to their mother about how this bothers them or just arm the children with thick skins?

Holy crap yes they should speak to her and she should not be left alone with Lulu until she shapes up and is 100% trustworthy. That shit is abusive -- I don't even understand why there is backchannelling going on. That shit has to stop yesterday.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:30 AM on October 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

Yeah, that just went from an interpersonal problem to racism/xenophobia. I suspect that most effective route will be for her sons to tell her it's unacceptable and for everyone to agree to leave if she starts it.
posted by jaguar at 8:34 AM on October 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

Grandma is entitled to feel however she feels, but she needs to be told to treat, speak to and speak of all of her grandchildren equally or she will have access to none of them. That includes your child. Both brothers need to be 100% in accord on this.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:40 AM on October 14, 2014 [19 favorites]

It's not life changing or anything,

Think again. The messages she is sending these kids is most certainly going to affect their lives. Either Grandma stops this now, or she loses access to all her grandchildren.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 9:11 AM on October 14, 2014 [11 favorites]

I can speak to this, as I have some of this going on in my own family.

My mom is greatgrandmother to three children. Two of them are my youngest daughter's mixed race children, and the third is my son's daughter.

First of all, my mom has always favorited my son. My oldest daughter gets on with her fine. She is prickly with youngest daughter. All my children resent their grandmother for this, and are closer with each other as a result.

Mom is friendly with my biracial grandsons, but treats them more as generic children rather than beloved family members. (I have actually gone out and bought them presents for christmas "from grandma"...which made her snap out of it a bit for the next Christmas.)

Her greatgranddaughter on the other hand-she constantly talks about her, shares pictures, etc. This child lives out of state and is still a baby so fortunately the children don't yet realize the unequal treatment.

My advice to mom is in her mid 70's. I have talked to her till I am blue in the face but she doesn't seem to grasp that she treats them unequally. So I have simply decided to save my breath for when it counts. In your case, your brother in law and your husband are going to have to get in her face and let her know that they aren't going to tolerate hurtful behavior to the children. If it were me, her access to any of the children would be contingent on her behavior, to be honest.

I am so sorry you are all dealing with this. But take heart that children are smarter than we give them credit for. If they are loved in their nuclear family, good chance they will see grandma for who and what she is. I also have personal experience in that regard as a grandchild. ;-)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:20 AM on October 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

This is really hurtful. But the people who need to speak with Grandma are the people related to her by blood. So perhaps your husband and his brother can meet with Grandma for lunch one day, and lay down the law. BIL can say that until she stops this hateful behavior, that there will be NO visits from any of the grandchildren, and your husband can back him up in that.

If I had kids I wouldn't want them exposed to this kind of emotional manipulation. It would be hard, because we want kids to have as many people in their lives who love them, but the cost, in this case, is too high.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:30 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Besides talking to grandma as everyone's good suggestions have already recommended, I hope someone has already talked to Lulu. Telling her her family treats her worse than her new sister is extremely hurtful, and she's young enough that she still probably believes everything grandma says. My mom told us that my father didn't love us when I was around 12, and while I was old enough not to believe her, my sisters weren't , and it was damaging to all of us and I'm still pissed off at her for saying such a fucked up thing.

And does Lulu feel like she has become second best now? Babies of course take up much more time and attention than a 9 year old, so it certainly wouldn't hurt for Lulu to get some extra attention, from her parents, and maybe some one-on-one time with grandma, but it shouldn't be framed as having anything to with how much she or her sister is loved. Of course the comparisons must stop, and I think there should be an ultimatum with grandma, no visits unless she treats all children equally, and that her saying Lulu's family loves her less now should be an automatic visit ender.

If this does have anything to do with racism, this is going to be a much bigger problem in the future, and the line should be drawn with grandma now.
posted by catatethebird at 10:01 AM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

So it sounds like there's two things going on.

First - it's always important to remember cultural context. Is grandma old enough to remember when babies born out of wedlock were kind of shameful and/or to think that "legitimate" children would be prioritized? Also, what was the atmosphere around Lulu's original entrance into the family? Where is the ex-girlfriend and what is her relationship to Lulu?

If your brother in law was a single parent for a while before he met and married his new wife, they absolutely would have had a relationship that is far different than any relationship that can possibly exist with a stepmom and new baby. Especially if she doesn't have contact with her mother, she will undoubtedly, whether she says it or not, be feeling justified loss. It is completely natural for a loving grandmother to want to mitigate that feeling of loss by making a special room, etc.

First grandchildren also sometimes get special treatment. I was the first grandchild on both sides, and have very different relationships with my grandparents than my cousins do. I was around when they were younger, and had more energy, and also got the first burst of their "yay grandchild" energy. When I was young, I had hand made baby clothes and they spent as much time as humanly possible with me. Cousins did not get this - not because they were less important, but because the burst had faded. The grandmother in this case may simply not be as into baby pictures anymore - and frankly, nine year olds do more interesting things and get in more interesting poses than babies do.

How much are you sure the grandmother is saying "you get treated like an old sock" rather than validating Lulu's actual feelings by saying, "Yeah, it does seem sometimes like you get treated like an old sock. That must be crummy. Let's make things better!"
posted by corb at 10:26 AM on October 14, 2014

I kind of feel like this is something that just happens. My maternal grandmother and I always had a tighter bond than any of my siblings or cousins, and in fact a lot of that did relate to things she'd say like "poor thing, only girl in a family of pesky boys", being the first grandchild, etc. Meanwhile, my father's parents have always had a special relationship with one of my brothers. It's never seemed weird or unusual to me that this would happen.

That said, I think there's a difference between the fact that different people will have different kinds of relationships with the same person, and actively saying things that are insulting to others. I think that's your real problem, and the thing you should nip in the bud now. The way I would do this would just to be upfront about it. "Mom, I know you and Lulu have a special bond that is different from your relationship with the other grandchildren. But when you say things like [negative talk about Lala], it's insulting and hurts everyone's feelings. We also feel like as Lala grows up, she's going to become aware of these insults, which is inappropriate."

Also, one response to a specific part of your post:

telling Lulu that her family is treating her like an old used sock since her little sister came along

Here's the thing. I'm the eldest of a bunch of kids all spaced very close together. When I was little, there was always a new baby in the house, and a toddler going through the terrible twos. I got very little attention from my parents in general, and virtually zero individual attention during my entire childhood (even after there wasn't always a baby). My special relationship with my grandmother was absolutely my lifeline, and frankly, her openness with me that I wasn't getting enough attention validated a lot of my feelings about my place within my family. Pretending that everything was fine, and that it was right for my parents to always skip over me in favor of another kid, would have been worse than the slight favoritism she showed me.
posted by Sara C. at 10:28 AM on October 14, 2014

What is important here is not grandma but the kids. So, do have biologically related family members correct grandma (and that can include the older daughter, Lulu, if she feels that something is not right). Not because it is likely to change grandma's behavior but so the kids and the spouses feel supported. But more importantly, make sure that kids know that they are all cared for and that their development is fine. And then, it is the beginning of the conversation with all the kids that just because someone is an adult does not make them nice or fair or always fun.
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 11:00 AM on October 14, 2014

Parents have the power to keep kids away from a grandparent who might hurt or confuse them. Don't gasp and say that's too harsh. It's really the only persuasive tool you have. Appealing to her sense of kindness and wisdom isn't going to work.

Her sons should say calmly, these are the specific things you've been doing (A, B, and C). These things aren't good for any of them, including the child you favor. And this is what we expect: specific, clear, behaviors from the grandmother. And never any of these other specific behaviors. And she is not to discuss any of this with any of the children.

She will object or try to get out of the conversation. Don't try to persuade her; just repeat your expectations.

This probably won't work right away. As soon as you suspect she's not complying, tell her she can see the grandchildren only if she will treat them equally and kindly. Don't let her see any of them for a meaningful interval -- but not too long. Then try again.

It's really, really important for all the kids not to have to experience this kind of treatment from their grandmother.
posted by wryly at 2:25 PM on October 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

My mother did this with regularity. I told her to stop; she refused. She did not see the kids till she agreed. The kids noticed; they still talk about it.
posted by OhSusannah at 7:48 PM on October 30, 2014

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