Two days before Christmas, I took my son and his friend to lunch at a local diner. This place has developed a reputation of “being slow,” which I had completely forgotten about. We grabbed a table, ordered, and started talking.
A few minutes later, a family came in and sat at the table across from us. Mom, dad, little girl, baby in a carrier, and an older woman who appeared to be grandma. Grandma sat in the middle on one side, with little girl to her left, and sleeping baby to right. The parents sat across from them.
Little girl was petite and pretty. Dishwater blond hair, big blue eyes, and a wide sparkling smile. She was dressed pretty cute, with snow boots on. Two minutes in, Grandma says, “For the love of God, not so loud!” Two minutes later, “Sit still.” Every two minutes for an hour, Grandma says something negative to this little sweetheart. Twenty-five to thirty belittling, hurtful things came out of this woman’s mouth in an hour. At some point, my son’s friend whispered, “I’m going to smack her.” I wasn’t the only one who noticed.
You know who didn’t seem to notice? Her parents. Her parents who would swear that they love this little girl to the point that they would take a bullet for her. Except, while the verbal bullets were flying, they did nothing. ONE time, mom said, “You expect too much out of her – she’s only five!” I was thinking to myself, “Yes, go you mom! Make this crap stop!” But, the abuse continued, and the parents said nothing else.
I want you to know that little girl wasn’t running around the restaurant. When she left her chair, it was to go get a cuddle from mom on the other side of the table. When she fidgeted and played with the silverware, it was because she had been sitting patiently for thirty minutes or more waiting for food, and nobody had provided her with crayons or a book to keep her busy. From my viewpoint, she was a perfectly behaved little angel handling herself exceedingly well in a boring situation.
I wonder what those parents said to that little girl once they got away from Grandma? “Honey, we’re sorry Grandma bitched at you for an entire hour while we did nothing. We’re hoping she dies soon and leaves us all her money.” “Sweetheart, Grandma was wrong, you were perfectly well behaved in there, and daddy and I are so proud of you! It’s just that we have to put up with Grandma’s crap because she gives us money every month to help us out.” Worse, they probably said nothing at all, leaving her to believe that Grandma must be right.
I’ve got some harsh truths for you here, and you can agree or disagree – but I believe in putting the child first. A child should never be put in a position of maintaining family harmony. A child should never be used as a bribe with extended relatives. A parent does have the right to tell an obnoxious family member to curtail their foul or racist language. A parent does have the right to tell Uncle Johnny that the little girls in dresses are not to sit on his lap. An Uncle or a cousin (especially a grown up) that holds your kid down and gives them a “Noogey” or a “pink belly” or tickles them until they nearly pee their pants deserves to be called out and told no. In family situations where one set of grandkids is clearly favored, a discussion is perfectly acceptable. You do have the right to protect your babies from harm, both physical and emotional – not only the right, but the duty.
So back to five-year-old little sweet girl in the restaurant. What does all of this mean for her? A relative who berates her every two minutes over “infractions” that you and I would see as normal behavior for her age. Two parents who allow it to happen and don’t step in. Would it be too much to assume that this little lady is being trained to see herself as a doormat who can never do anything right, and who has no one who will ever step up and protect her?
Over the years I have had countless conversations with people about how young girls can’t wait to find the love of their life at sixteen or seventeen, how kids get into drugs, how women get beaten and stay in an abusive relationship. THIS is exactly how those situations arise, whether you see it or not. I see this poor child as a huge mass of potential, whose self-esteem and understanding of her worth are being whittled away, piece by piece, with every visit with Grandma. Oh come on Tracy, it was one lunch. No, I could tell by the child’s and parent’s lack of reaction that this is a regular occurrence, and this was Christmas. There could have also been a Christmas Eve or Christmas day visit, or a New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve visit. This poor little girl might have had contact with Grandma five times this week. For all I know, Grandma babysits.
If this child was bullied like that at school, mom and dad would be livid. Isn’t it funny how when it comes from a relative, we have a tendency to sit back, shut our mouths, and try to pretend it isn’t happening? You know what’s really sad? Assuming she was Grandma, either mom or dad grew up with her, got talked to the same way, knows that it hurts, and sat there silently. Ouch.
There are toxic people in this world. Negative people, people filled with hatred. Mentally ill people who play games and manipulate. Sometimes they are your own relative. You can’t help that; it wasn’t your choice. However, how you deal with it now, while you have kids, is entirely your choice.
By the time you read this, the Holidays will be over. It is not too early to start thinking about next year. If you dreaded the get-togethers for weeks before they occurred, gritted your teeth throughout the get-together, and went home with a splitting headache…. you might want to ask yourself why you put yourself (and your kids) through that over and over again. “Well, it’s family,” you say! Yes, yes it is. Wouldn’t you think they would treat you and yours better?
That little girl has been on my heart. I’m afraid that her Christmas will be a do-over of lunch two days prior. “You are making a mess with the wrapping paper!” “Can’t you open that present more quietly?” “You are too excited – sit down!” I’m also afraid that I’ll run into her again, when she’s seventeen or so, in the Early Intervention program with an infant who is delayed, and a guy who treats her like a doormat, because this is how she is being raised. Like she is nothing. Like she doesn’t warrant love and praise. Like she can’t do anything right.
Self-esteem develops early on, and once it is shattered, it so very hard to get back. I do not believe in participation trophies. I do not believe in rewarding bad behavior. I do believe in discipline. But, this crap where an unhappy adult is allowed to damage a child’s mental health…. I can’t go there.
My wish for those of you who relate to this blog in 2017 is that you will make a real, concerted effort to cut the toxic people out of your life. That you will set boundaries with people and stick to them. That you will put your child first, even if that means deciding to forgo family get-togethers. It’s not going to be easy, but you might very well find yourself liberated and happier than you’ve been in quite a while. But, remember, it’s much more about your child’s development, self-esteem and seeing a parent’s love than it is about you.