Ask an expert: 'I don’t want my children around their racist grandfather'

Ask an expert: 'I don’t want my children around their racist grandfather'

04/10/2019

Q: My husband and I have been married for 10 years. Our children are aged six and eight. Every Sunday we go to my father-in-law’s house for lunch. Almost every week, he praises Donald Trump and says more walls are needed to ‘keep all those foreign spongers out’.

He has always been the alpha male of the family, so no one ever seems to challenge him. When he starts ranting about all ‘the foreigners flooding our country’, they just sigh and say nothing. It’s starting to stress me out and I dread going there.

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I don’t want my children thinking such hateful opinions are acceptable. I am trying to raise them to treat all nationalities with respect and equality. I’ve tried to talk to my husband, but he says that his father is just a bored old man, looking for a reaction. He says that he’ll never change and it’s better to just ignore him. Please advise me on how best to handle this.

Answer: Children learn by what they see and what they hear. Even if they don’t understand the context of conversations, they are attuned to the non-verbal communication around them. When a child hears a respected elder of their community using language that denigrates and excludes other members of a community, they will assume that this is acceptable social behaviour. The next time they are in the playground, they may even imitate it.

Children are immersed in the culture of a family and don’t have the reflective capacity to question older people’s views. I imagine your father-in-law’s comments are very confusing for them, as they are being taught at home, in school, or in their religion, to love all people equally. As they are also sensitive to your body language, your unease at being there may create anxiety or confusion in them.

So I would begin by finding a quiet time to sit down with your partner and clearly state why his father’s behaviour is distressing you. Explain to him that you don’t want your children witnessing his father’s casual racism and xenophobia; that their grandad should be a role model for them, not someone who is full of fear and loathing towards other people.

Empathise with him that you know this is not an easy situation for a son and his father — but he has to support you and he has to speak up to protect his children. Ask him to arrange a private talk with his father when he can explain how his provocative comments on race are troubling all of you. Then, you and your husband should sit down with the children and have a conversation about grandad.

Explain to them how he can say mean things about people who aren’t from this country or about people who want to move to this country. Tell them that his words can hurt people because they are racist; that it’s wrong to judge people because of where they come from. Get them to talk about their classmates if they have come from different countries.

The next time you go there for lunch, do something nurturing for yourself beforehand. Go for a walk alone or for a swim. Take some time to sit and fill your heart with compassion for your father-in-law. Not all racism comes from hatred. Some of it can come from fear and anxiety. He may worry that some groups pose a threat to the safety of his community, or to his national identity. Or it could be rooted in his childhood when many of our elderly were petrified with accounts of foreign invasions.

Racism isn’t always malicious. Sometimes the harm of racism can be done innocently, because someone may not know better. His views are coming from his own mental projections. By that, I mean he is trying to protect his vulnerability by throwing his terror onto these people who are going to “invade” his country.

Children try to manage their own internal fears in the same way by projecting monsters under the bed. It may be that he genuinely has never considered why he thinks like this.

He has probably never once wondered how his language impacts those around him. I am not trying to defend his insidious comments. There is no justification for outright racism. I am hoping that, by challenging him to look inside, he might grow to become a more compassionate man. This would then allow you to develop a closer relationship with him.

If it happens again (after your husband has spoken with him), put your hand up to interrupt him. Ask him why he is afraid of these people? Why is he so angry towards strangers he has never met?

Find a personal story online and tell him how they escaped persecution and came to Ireland to make a better life for themselves. If he is still not prepared to listen, then calmly say, ‘You know I find your opinions racist and hurtful. I don’t like it when my children and I are forced to listen to them. It goes against everything I am trying to teach them about the world.’

Your refusal to collude will teach your children that it is important to stand up for others who cannot defend themselves. It also marks a boundary that the dinner table is no longer the place for him to express these opinions. It may even encourage others to speak up the next time they are with him. I wish you all the best with it.

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