Helping My Mother Not Terrify Racialized People With Kids
November 2, 2019 9:59 AM   Subscribe

My mother, a middle-class elderly White lady, is magnetically drawn to children of other ethnicities. More than once, I've seen that this attraction make parents and children feel really uncomfortable. I'd like to see her stop approaching strangers and attempting to touch their kids.

My mother, who is almost eighty, has a compulsion to interact with parents and their children in public. Most especially, she cannot resist approaching Black and East Asian families. If she's particularly taken with a child, or if she receives a smile, she may follow them in a store for far longer than is comfortable. She has also said inappropriate things to Aboriginal families, one day twice in one store. My mother has lived in Indigenous communities thirty years ago and she perceives Indigenous people in some particular way linked to the Colonialist enclave mentality. She thinks she's being cheerful and funny and twinkly, but I can see some Aboriginal people find it beyond uncomfortable. On the above-mentioned day, I did not hear what she said to the young Indigenous girl at the grocery store but the child's mother twice asked my mother "Please do not talk to my child." Yesterday, I had to fake a problem with my shoe to keep her from swooping toward a Black family in the mall, already exclaiming "Look how cute their children are".

My mother has deeply Colonialist roots and Colonial attitudes toward other ethnicities. I want my mother to stop approaching racialized strangers (and in this very largely-White city, many of these racialized people are immigrants ). She thinks she's being magnanimous, but she's freaking people out on a regular basis now. There is some kind of awkward interaction almost every time I take her out to shop. I try to smooth things over and move her along, but I feel deeply embarrassed for her and worried that she will have a repeat of "Ma'am please stop talking to my child.", which really shook her up, or that someone will get really angry with her (which I could understand because honestly these interactions are so awful at times).

I've told my mom repeatedly than she just can't touch people's kids, period, but she thinks it's okay because she's old and loves children. I've tried telling her that times are different now and people are very protective of their kids (her favorites are babies and small toddlers). I'm not sure why children of non-European families attract her so much. So, I'd like to understand her behaviour but, more importantly, I'd like to get her to stop it.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
[Pre-emptive note: Take OP at their word that this is a problem, and stick to constructive suggestions for getting this behavior to stop. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:05 AM on November 2 [15 favorites]

Has she been this way your whole life, or is it a new trait that might be related to aging and related mental issues?
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:17 AM on November 2 [17 favorites]

If she's almost eighty, as Corpse in the Library said, she might have some issues related to that, and a doctor visit could help. I believe you when you said she always had this kind of "colonialist" mentality, but, when she was younger and her brain was sharper, she could keep those reflexes under control. Now that she's aging, she can't hide them anymore.

Beyond a doctor visit, can you "quarantine" her away from situations where she might run into a lot of families with children? Take her, or send her - I don't know how independently she gets around - to adults-only events or ones where there aren't likely to be many children. If she has to go out to malls and zoos and other places with lots of kids, can there be a rotating cast of minders - not just you - to keep a grip on her and prevent her from running off and being obnoxious to other people's kids? Can you (or others) say "You don't need to walk, mom, it's so tiring, you deserve the rest" and put her in a wheelchair where you control where she goes?

I'm really sorry. This sounds difficult and embarrassing (and not much fun for the kids and their parents who are accosted, either).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:32 AM on November 2 [2 favorites]

At her age she might not have the ability to regulate her behavior anymore. It reminds me of my uncle who is about that age and goes around saying inappropriately "flirtatious" stuff to women he doesn't know, which he never did before. My family is dealing with it by just quietly mentioning he's senile and doesn't know what he's saying and moving him along. If you can't make it stop, at least people might understand her situation if you explain it like that.
posted by bleep at 10:36 AM on November 2 [6 favorites]

When you see her doing this Mom, that family looks really uncomfortable with your attention. It's not socially acceptable to interact with children that way
If you are with her and in another family's presence. I'm sorry, it looks like this attention is making you uncomfortable.

I am older and white and I love kids. But it's not cool to get too familiar, so mostly I make eye contacts with kids and smile, maybe some peekaboo in line at the grocery store. This must be difficult for you, but you are not your Mom and can't control her. Sounds like she is unwilling to learn boundaries. And, yes, age-related mild dementia may be involved. Thanks for trying, though.
posted by theora55 at 11:04 AM on November 2 [2 favorites]

My coworker does this, as does a casual friend of mind. I find it strange and unsettling and I try to be a good example and I keep walking and mind my business.

It's odd with my coworker because they feel very comfortable and entitled to approach babies as if they are a doll to be admired but they don't approach white babies. If you're comfortable, you might remind your mom of this -- "Mom, why don't you pay white babies the same attention?" I often want to say this to my coworker but that's not going to happen.

Best advice I can give is to keep walking.
posted by loveandhappiness at 11:19 AM on November 2 [2 favorites]

In my experience, the only way of getting my racist, elderly, losing his brain cells dad to stop saying racist things in my presence was to tell him to stop and then to leave if he continued. You probably can’t do that exactly but can you do a version of it? Instead of making it about the other people, can you consider making it about your own needs? In that case, you would tell your mom something like, “Mom, this is making me very uncomfortable. If you do not stop I am going to have to leave immediately.” Please note, do not get into an argument with her about why it bothers you. Just explain that it does bother you, it makes you very uncomfortable, and it doesn’t matter why. The point is that it has to stop. And then you need to follow through with whatever you say you’re going to do if she continues with that behavior. It won’t stick the first time but if you are consistent, and if she cares about you, she will change her behavior most likely.

Your mother does not have any relationship with those adorable children who belong to total strangers, with whom she also has zero relationship. But she has a relationship with you. So give her a more salient reason to stop doing it. Make it about you and your boundaries instead of making it about the feelings of strangers, because your mom is clearly never going to hear that message.

During my last visit to my dad, for example, he was trying to tell me stuff about his bank account out loud in front of his two new impoverished housemates, one of whom was calling his grandmother and mother every single day asking, unsuccessfully, for money. So I was extremely uncomfortable and wanted my dad to stop talking about money stuff when we had no privacy. He said, “it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t bother me.” And I touched his arm, and looked into his eyes, and said firmly but without anger, “but it bothers me, dad.” And this man who has disappointed me over so many years looked back at me and said, “well, then we can talk later.”

So give your mom a better reason to stop her behavior. If my dry-drunk, narcissistic, brain-damaged and yet genuinely beloved-by-me dad can change parts of his behavior because I make it clear it’s hurtful if he doesn’t (and that I will leave briefly to go for a walk instead of giving him attention), perhaps your mother can as well. My dad is nearly 90. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 11:53 AM on November 2 [23 favorites]

Yes, my mum is 80 and I have told her to stop with racist language (which is her problem). Last time I did it was after she had used a slur at an employee in the nursing home she lives in. She insisted it was not racist and she was being funny. I apologized to the employee and said loud and clear to my mother that she needed to stop now. I didn't enter a discussion at all. When she tried, I just repeated: stop, I will not tolerate this. You embarrass me.
As Bella Donna said, make it about you. They are from a different age, where weird stuff was a acceptable. You cannot reason them out of it. But you can say it hurts you. This hasn't stopped my mother entirely, but it has made her aware of her language and partially stopped her.
posted by mumimor at 12:14 PM on November 2 [6 favorites]

How much truth can she take? You say the incident where she was told to back off shook her up, but that's sort of ideal, you want her to be shaken up, she needs to be shaken.

because if it were my mother, who was not like this but who had her moments of breezily ignoring any social norms I tried to instill in her, I would get her alone at home and say: Mom, you need to stop approaching -- (whatever terms she understands, probably not "racialized" -- even if you must repeat her offensive terminology, you must make sure she understands you) -- children in public because it is not appropriate; it appears racist even to you, who love her; and it bothers people.

When she says it doesn't matter that it's inappropriate because she's an old lady, tell her old ladies have the freedom to be eccentric and say shocking things, but they do not have the freedom to stalk, corner, trap, and harass children. If this description shocks her THAT IS GOOD. She is persisting in this threatening behavior even after a public rebuke; gentleness does not convince her.

When she says it's not racist because she loves (term) people, or whatever justification, say: These people don't know you. your behavior looks racist and odd and threatening. If you expect to trade on looking like a harmless old woman, then you understand that people judge your behavior by what it looks like. You must accept that you also look like a scary racist when you do this, and accept the penalties for that. Strangers are affected by your behavior, not your heart.

when she says it doesn't really bother people and you're being silly, remind her she knows perfectly well that's a lie: remember that woman who was so upset she said Stop talking to my child? Other people think it but are afraid to say it.

and then leave her along for a little bit because this is a lot to absorb and if she if going to change, she will have to ruminate on it for a while first.

I fundamentally don't understand why you're worried that the incident of public pushback will repeat or that people will get angry at her. don't be worried, be hopeful. she needs that to happen. She needs to see that the consequences of her behavior are not all in your mind. It may not be as effective for you to get angry at her, because you're her child and she can ignore it. but try.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:23 PM on November 2 [24 favorites]

Oof. This sounds really difficult - I’m sorry and am glad that you’re working and thinking about this.

Also a note, white people are also “racialized” too - white people have a race! History would argue that whiteness is a very primary example of a race formation or racialization. I know you meant well, but personally speaking as a POC, the term “racialized people” weirds me out. FYI for future reference, hope that helps

As someone who has often been on the receiving end of racial exoticization-driven “friendliness”, I really appreciate you intervening, instead of thinking “oh that’s just how she is”, etc. (Examples include people thanking me in Chinese (I’m Korean) on the street, or friends of roommates being all excited about the “tofu” and “soy sauce” I was using to make my salad (actually mozzarella and balsamic vinegar)).

Once a white person said something like “welcome to America” or something similar, and their younger acquaintance looked at me with pleading eyes and mouthed “I’m so sorry” before ushering them away. It’s better than nothing, but I think the explicit acknowledgement and apology was helpful. Even better would be if it was public.

So I’m suggesting, in addition to other suggestions above, to apologize in front of your mother to the other person. This might help for your mother to realize what she’s doing, as well as to actually make the other person feel a bit better when you recognize publicly that how your mother’s actions are problematic.
posted by suedehead at 12:26 PM on November 2 [50 favorites]

Would you be more ok with it if the children and your mother were of the same race? Presumably not, as it's not ok to grab at other people's kids unless someone's about to get run over by a car.

I get that the race, immigration, colonialism overlay makes this especially fraught for you, but focus on the behavior ("don't touch random strangers") and not the prejudice, as the latter is a much bigger battle that you are less likely to win.

(Another vote to avoid terms like "racialized" in this context, as it makes it sound like race is something that is done to me, like being "victimized" and flattens the complexity of racial identity, including White identity. Also it's a pretty academic word and may well confuse your mother more than clarify.)
posted by basalganglia at 12:55 PM on November 2 [7 favorites]

I honestly think if you are sure there are no cognitive issues, white privilege means that you have to either publicly embarrass her a bit and/or loudly perform to these poor families, and the other white bystanders, that "OH MY GOD MOM WHAT THE HELL, CHILDREN OF COLOR ARE NOT YOUR TOYS." This is way past the point of sparing her feelings.
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:58 PM on November 2 [12 favorites]

(A note to US-based commenters: judging from various clues in the post I think the OP may be in Canada, and in this context the term racialized is considered important and appropriate by many POC organizations; it is often used by progressive groups/ in academic feminist and anti-racist contexts. I am a Canadian POC myself and have used the term, though not that frequently. It seems the term is much less common/may be viewed more negatively in the US.)

Seconding the suggestions you get your mom checked out for age-related neurological conditions if this is getting worse (not the attitudes but her ability to filter and act appropriately). And also seconding basalganglia’s suggestion that you target the inappropriate behaviour of touching anyone’s kids.

But like suedehead, as a person of colour myself (mixed East Asian) I would support you making it clear to the families you yourself don’t approve and are apologetic and trying to address your mom’s behaviour. It has made me feel a bit better, when I’ve been treated in a racist way, to have the racist person’s companions apologize and see them address the behaviour with the offender in the moment.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:14 PM on November 2 [39 favorites]

Yes to the cognitive checkup.

I think a bright line nuclear option is to tell her that kidnapping* is now a very serious concern and that is why it is "no longer" okay to touch other people's children or approach strange children or follow children around, regardless of what "used to" be okay. Tell her someone is going to call the police on her - not necessarily the parent, it could be a security guard or store manager or passer-by, not someone she gets a chance to convince she means "well" - and that from here on out you will immediately remove her from the situation if she does it again because YOU don't want to go to jail for human trafficking, are we 100% clear? Tell her the child kidnapping rings use "harmless" little old ladies to do the grab, and so it is simply not negotiable that this will stop. She is scaring people and you're lucky there haven't been consequences yet. If you need to invent narrowly-averted trouble from the most recent incident, like you saw a store manager on the phone watching the two of you, go on and tell that lie.

Whatever it takes, you know? The story is not exactly a lie, one day somebody's going to snap. And this relieves you from having to invent a shoe problem every time, you can just take her by the arm and remind her we leave other people's children alone. You can remind her on the way to the store that we're not going to bother anybody else's kids today. She's 80, if she's got some mild cognitive deficits and self-control issues, you may have to apply some manipulation in order to get the desired outcome that is in her best interest and also not putting the burden on other people to deal with her.

*If you need to use the term "pedophilia" or whatever word she will understand to be equivalent, use it.

As a side note, many elderly people even without cognitive decline are incredibly lonely and touch-starved, and are drawn to babies and small children as "huggable" people that it's okay to seek that contact with, which when combined with a lack of impulse control can be a real problem (and then layer on the colonialism and hooboy shit gets serious). If you have opportunities to improve her amount of consensual physical contact like by holding her hand more, getting her access to a willing pet or therapy animal, getting her a cuddle pillow or soft toy, it might reduce her bolting so vigorously when she spots a kid.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:49 PM on November 2 [14 favorites]

You probably can’t control, and only mildly influence, what happens when you’re not there.

When you are there, I would personally react with authenticity and upset, and a slight degree of caring warmth. “Mum! That’s not okay!” “Mum, that’s not okay to say. Mum, you cannot touch people’s children!” Stand up for everyone in the situation by making it clear that it’s just not okay. You are the ally best placed to address your mother in the moment and within hearing of those harmed. She may well stop this behaviour, at least around you. The genuine stress in your voice may work wonders.

Source: My dad has some cognitive issues due to an aneurysm that lead to a lack of filter.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:08 PM on November 2 [6 favorites]

I think it’s highly unlikely you’ll get her to stop, given what you’ve shared. Your efforts should focus on damage control.

Second a visit to the doctor. Could be her ability to inhibit behaviour is compromised (for any number of reasons).

If it turns out she does have cognitive issues: the Alzheimer’s Society near me actually makes cards family members can discreetly show strangers who are unwilling participants in idiosyncratic/embarrassing/hurtful exchanges. The cards say, “My companion has Alzheimer’s”. That may set people at ease, somewhat. They still may not understand or appreciate the interaction. When she’s on her own, unfortunately, she’s on her own, and obviously there’s no way to do damage control.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:19 PM on November 2 [2 favorites]

I have to agree with everyone who says that the idea of stopping her acting on her almost eighty years of lived-in colonialism/racism is a lost cause. You have to make it personal and you have to make it frightening.

Does she live independently?

Threatening to put my father in a "home" stopped his racist bullshit right quick, at least in front of me.

(but yes to getting a senility before any nuclear option.)
posted by tzikeh at 6:47 PM on November 2 [1 favorite]

^senility "check"
posted by tzikeh at 7:15 PM on November 2

Maybe try holding her hand when you go places. When she reaches a place where young children are if she goes to touch them gently pull her back and explain "kids dont like to be touched by strangers, Mon. Your going to upset them". It may not have the same effect on her just waiting until afterwards. Remind her everytime beforehand.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 8:59 PM on November 2 [1 favorite]

nthing having her cognitive function checked...and a firm "mother, these kids are not your relatives and they are not your pets. do NOT touch them!" I've also read that many East Asian cultures consider touching the head a huge insult.

Flannery o'connor's civil rights era story Everything that Rises Must Converge deals with a similar situation that does not end well.
posted by brujita at 9:06 PM on November 2 [2 favorites]

Oh my god I FEEL YOU.

(I don't think it's a senility thing, I think it's a being-white-and-clueless thing)

I am a white person living in India and my mom comes to visit and does all this and more, including taking photos of other people's kids, submitting those photos to suburban photo competitions in the U.S., calling them her "new friends" and telling me how much she "loves them."

I am a literal professor of critical race studies and have been more or less unable to stop her. Sending articles about the history of photography in colonialism got a "how interesting!" Straight up: "this is making me really uncomfortable and you need to stop" did not work. This one: "if you want me to show you around, the rule is that you need to ask EVERYONE permission to take their photograph, and no photographs of other people's kids!" did get her to stop, but then when we weren't together.... yeah.

Doing my own damage control (apologizing discreetly) helped me feel better.

I've had marginal success by talking to her on her own terms: "TREAT OTHERS THE WAY YOU WANT TO BE TREATED." "Wouldn't it have been scary if a stranger came and took photos of me without asking when I was a baby?" But she usually responds that she would like it (whatever the it is).

Can empathy be taught? I don't know. Solidarity. Reading all these comments with interest.
posted by athirstforsalt at 10:02 PM on November 2 [11 favorites]

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