My husband and I have an eleven-month old son. We are trying to raise him in a gender-neutral way. We don’t buy him the typical “boy” toys like trucks, cars, swords, etc., because we think such toys convey pretty obvious expectations about the “right” and “wrong” way for boys to behave and we want to shield him from these expectations. We want him to grow up in an open-minded environment in which he is encouraged to explore anything that is of interest to him without us sending signals, however well intentioned, about what is and is not acceptable for boys to be interested in.
The problem is my parents. Frankly, they think this whole approach is a lot of nonsense. They are entitled to their opinion, of course, but they are not entitled to simply ignore our wishes, right? And yet, every time he returns from spending time with them, he has one of these toys. This past weekend it was a Matchbox dump truck. It annoys me to no end that they so flagrantly disregard our wishes on something we consider very important to our son’s growth. And by the time he returns from these visits, he has become attached to whatever they have given him and he puts up quite a fuss when we take it away. I don’t want him to get caught in a power struggle between me and my parents. I have spoken to them and I will do so again, but do you have any thoughts about what I can say or do to let them know this is unacceptable?
He’s Our Son, Not Theirs
The gender-neutral aspect of this problem makes it seem more complicated than it really is. I think you should treat this the same way you would if, say, your parents were giving your son candy right before dinner. You just have to make sure they’re not in a position to do what they’re doing.
The next time you have a chance to speak with both of your parents together, calmly explain that you and your husband have made your wishes concerning your son’s toys perfectly clear, yet your parents have chosen to disregard them. (What they think of these wishes is entirely irrelevant, so make sure you don’t let them turn this into a discussion of their opinion of your approach.) Remind them that this is very important to the two of you, so the next time they are found to be ignoring your request, you will insist that all visits be supervised by you or your husband for the foreseeable future. (If you’re sufficiently frustrated, you may not want to give them one last chance to comply. That’s up to you.) Then follow through if they continue to make this a test of wills. They had their chance to raise children as they saw fit. Now it’s your turn.
I am in my mid-40s. I’m happily married, have a wonderful family, and really have no complaints. I have a good life. I say this by way of providing some background for my question, so you know that what I’m writing about hasn’t had any major detrimental effect on me.
My father is elderly and in ill health. We have a normal relationship (I guess that’s the best way to put it), but when I was in my teens, I really disliked him. He was a very distant, unhappy man, and he expressed his unhappiness by being terribly cruel to my mother. His cruelty was never physical, but it may as well have been for the environment he created at home. It still brings a tear to my eye just to think about the things he would say to her. Every day, I couldn’t wait for the day when I could escape. That’s how I saw it.
While I was in college, my mother passed away and I drifted away from my father, although drifted makes it sound more passive than it was. I deliberately distanced myself from him. We were never completely estranged; I just didn’t have much contact with him. Didn’t really think about him either. Years later, when I began my family, he became more a part of our lives and I have to say he adores his grandchildren. He has become less miserable over the years and is now hard to reconcile with the embittered, frightening presence I recall from my childhood.
Which brings me to my question. As I mentioned, my father is in chronic ill health. I have no idea how much longer he will be around. But we have never, ever spoken of what he was like all those years ago. Sometimes I don’t really care, but other times I just want to ask him, why? Why was he so awful? Was there something that could explain his cruelty that I was unaware of as a child? As a wife and mother now, I know there are all sorts of things going on in a marriage that kids have no inkling of. I feel like there must be some explanation, even a bad one. When I think about bringing this up, though, part of me thinks, what’s the use? What could he say that would make a difference? And as rotten as he was, is it worth upsetting the nice, frail old man he is today? I’m too close to it, so I would like your opinion.
Just the fact that you’re thinking about doing this (and writing to me about it) leads me to think that yes, you probably should talk to your father while you can.
First off, I wouldn’t worry about upsetting a “nice, frail old man.” He did what he did, and as the child who had to grow up in this poisoned atmosphere, you have a right to ask for an explanation, even all these years later. Sometime relatively soon, asking him will no longer be an option. So the question you have to ask yourself is, which are you more likely to regret: bringing this up with him now or continuing to avoid it? I think you’re more likely to regret the latter course.
He may welcome the opportunity to unburden himself about his behavior. He may be wondering whether he should dredge all this up with you, too – this is the kind of thing a man his age would find very difficult to talk about without being drawn out a little. And it’s conceivable that he might say something that helps you come to terms with the environment in which you grew up, or at least to understand it a little better. This may well be a difficult conversation to have, but my advice is to have it while you can.
I have a friend who is driving me crazy! She tells me so many things that I’m not supposed to tell this person, that person, that I can’t keep them straight. Literally everything she tells me comes with a list of people I can’t share it with. Well you can guess what happened recently – actually TWICE recently. I accidentally told someone something she wasn’t supposed to know about, totally by mistake, and now my friend is mad at ME! She says a friend wouldn’t betray a confidence (her words and I agree) and now I guess maybe we’re not friends any more! I’m mad at her for being this way and also hurt she’s blaming all this on me. What do you do with someone like this?
Dear Conversationally Confused,
If you’re no longer friends, consider yourself lucky. She sounds like a gossipy pain. Of course a friend wouldn’t betray a confidence, but neither would a friend put you in a position of needing to take notes just to remember what you can say to whom. I suspect this will blow over, but if it does, don’t just pick up where you left off. The first time she says, “Don’t tell Marcie I said this, but…” interrupt her to say that considering the strain these conditions put your friendship under, she should only tell you things you can share with everyone else. Once she has to abide by that condition, I suspect she won’t have much left to say.
Originally appeared at GoLocalProv.com.