Soon after my Ask Dr. Gramma column “Our Daughter Was Stillborn” was posted, I received this e-mail from a reader:
“As always you provide clarification and a ton of resources. However, as tough as it is, the grandparents need to find a way to respect the wishes of the parents. If they are expected to read certain books they must find a way to comply or come to an honest agreement with the parents on how to deal with situation. A thorny but important issue was left out of your answer.”
“In this instance I must respectfully disagree with you: the grandparents are not being disrespectful by choosing not to read a book to their granddaughter when they are not on board with the content. They are simply stating that they would rather talk than read.
My experience is that sometimes a ‘change of subject’ is the best thing to do to preserve relationships, for example, with discussions between committed non-religious people and committed religious people. Many times, and I think this situation is an example, there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost!
Many political exchanges fall into this category!”
In the following days I thought more about this exchange between this reader and myself; hence these afterthoughts.
Not All Conversations Need To, Or Should, Take Place
First, I question the premise presented by the reader that this is a simple “either-or” issue; that is, grandparents either comply with young parents’ expectations to read the books to their granddaughter, or they must explain why they do not want to read them. As I suggested in my response, there are times when explanations or justification are not necessary and should be avoided.
In other words, not all conversations need to, or should, take place, especially when one’s personal values form the bedrock of the position, as with religion and politics. A related point is that these are family members we’re talking about. Chances are that different positions on many important issues are probably known already to all parties, so, why rehash that which has already been hashed, perhaps many times? What is to be gained?
I wonder if the reader’s points would change if the circumstances were flipped around. For example, what if the parents were non-religious, the grandparents were religious, and the parents expected the religious grandparents to read to their children, say, Lynn Courtney’s book, I’m an Atheist and That’s Okay.
This book, written for children ages seven to eleven, “lets kids know that it is ok to not believe in a god or gods.” The book goes on to say, “I’m an atheist and that’s ok. I don’t need to kneel down and pray. I’m an atheist, but what does that mean? I don’t need to believe in what can’t be seen.” I imagine many religious people would consider this sentiment blasphemous and would refuse to read it to their children or grandchildren.
Another example: what if a set of parents wanted the grandparents to take the grandchildren to a political rally and hold up signs in support of someone the grandparents do not support? Should the grandparents comply anyway? Should the grandparents get into a discussion explaining why they will not be taking the grandchildren to such an event? Perhaps such a discussion would be welcome in some families, but I am confident that much unpleasantness and negative exchanges would be triggered in other families.
My point is that grandparents often have options in potentially thorny situations beyond either complying with or explaining their reluctance or unwillingness to comply. Other options include substituting an alternative activity that is comfortable for and acceptable to all parties – no discussion necessary. If some explanation for not complying seems appropriate, a simple response is all that is needed, e.g., “This is what will work better for us . . . ” or, “As you know, we take a different view of this, so in order to respect both our positions, here is what we propose . . . ”
In this way, exchanges regarding religion, politics, or other controversial topics between parents and grandparents can be sidestepped. I repeat: not all conversations need to, or should, take place. It is for this reason that I think the approaches I am suggesting respect differences without pontificating and present effective ways to avoid getting into issues with differing positions, rather than exacerbating or creating them.
In closing I want to say that I always appreciate my readers’ comments, as they afford me an opportunity for additional thinking and reflection. This particular reader’s comments used as the focus of this column are no exception, and I hope my afterthoughts spark further exploration for everyone.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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