When a fa­ther-in-law plays fa­vorites with his grand­chil­dren, no­body wins

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Hi, Carolyn: My hus­band and I have been to­gether for three years. I came into the re­la­tion­ship with a 2-year-old son. My hus­band’s fam­ily has been ex­tremely ac­cept­ing ofmy son, and I’ve felt re­ally lucky to have them.

Now we have a 6-month-old baby and things have changed. My glass bowl of a fa­ther-in-law seems to re­ally like the baby and ig­nores the older child. The now5-year-old took a nasty spill re­cently and cut up his knees. My fa­ther-in-law made baby-cry­ing noises un­der his breath atmy son. My fa­ther-in-law re­ferred to my hus­band’s “first Fa­ther’s Day” last month. My hus­band men­tioned that it wasn’t his first, since he’s been rais­ing my 5-yearold for the past three years. His dad replied with, “Well, I meant your first Fa­ther’s Day with your ac­tual DNA.”

We are at a loss of what to do. My son will strug­gle enough deal­ing with a fa­ther that was never there for him, so he doesn’t need a mis­er­able Grandpa. I’d like to cut him out of the chil­dren’s lives, but I’m aware it will changemy hus­band’s re­la­tion­ship with him. Any ideas on how to pro­ceed?

Aw­ful In Laws

You wrote that “we” don’t know what to do, and “I” would like to sever the tie. We need “we” here.

If you ban­ish Glass bowl Grandpa, then you are com­ing be­tween fa­ther and son. If in­stead your hus­band in­sists, then Grandpa’s be­hav­ior is the ob­sta­cle. The lat­ter lo­cates the blame out­side your mar­riage, while the for­mer drops it right in the mid­dle. The most im­por­tant thing is to pro­tect your chil­dren, yes, but a healthy mar­riage is a key el­e­ment of that pro­tec­tive shell.

Grand­par­ents who buy into the fam­ily ethos can be pow­er­ful pro­tec­tors, too, so for­tu­nately we are not yet at the point where ban­ish­ing Grandpa is the only op­tion.

As­sum­ing your hus­band is open to this so­lu­tion, he can ask his dad not to show any fa­voritism, with five key points:

“Dad, I un­der­stand you feel a spe­cial tie to the baby.”

“A 5-year-old, though, won’t un­der­stand. In­stead he’ll be­lieve he’s not as im­por­tant a kid.”

“I feel sad as I no­tice your fo­cus on the baby. I also feel bad for the baby, be­cause fa­voritism cre­ates con­flict and com­pe­ti­tion be­tween sib­lings, not mu­tual sup­port.”

“You have been so good with the older boy all along, I have to think you’re not fully aware you’re do­ing this.”

“Would you please ap­proach fu­ture vis­its with fair­ness in mind?”

If Grandpa pushes back against even this mea­sured a re­quest, then you’ll need a hard limit.

You ac­tu­ally don’t need your fa­ther-in-law to love your older child as much as he loves the younger, or to re­gard the two as equals among grand­chil­dren. You just need him not to demon­strate his pref­er­ences in any way vis­i­ble to the chil­dren.

And when the “why” doesn’t mat­ter — all you need is the “what”— you have one of the rare sit­u­a­tions where an ul­ti­ma­tum is ap­pro­pri­ate. Equal treat­ment or no Grandpa. I hope it won’t come to that. Dear Carolyn: My chil­dren are the only grand­chil­dren formy inlaws, who live some­what nearby. So when our first child was born, they bought her ex­pen­sive items, bags upon bags of clothes, per­son­al­ized gifts with her name etched, painted and em­broi­dered. Two years later, our sec­ond child ar­rived. They bought her a sin­gle out­fit. We as­sumed the fanfare was just over with a sec­ond child. Ba­bies cer­tainly don’t care about hand-me-downs, and I didn’t think much about it.

But the fa­voritism has con­tin­ued since then. Child 1 re­ceived a pile of birth­day presents, spe­cial at­ten­tion and a spe­cial din­ner with the whole fam­ily. Child 2 re­ceived two out­fits a month af­ter her birth­day, handed to her fa­ther to give to her, un­wrapped, and noshows for her birth­day din­ner. Both were given books with their name as the main char­ac­ter: Child 1 got the large edi­tion, Child 2 the travel size. Child 1 is the one snug­gled and en­ter­tained, Child 2 is told there are a cou­ple toys in another room she can play with. They’ve gone so far as to say how much they en­joyed when Child 2 was ill and they got to spend time with just Child 1.

My hus­band has at­tempted to re­spect­fully say we do not want the chil­dren to be treated dif­fer­ently, but it is mostly ig­nored. Any ad­vice on how we can ap­proach this?

E.

Yes. Seemy an­swer above, and see that your in-laws have roared past the “re­spect­fully say” in­ter­ven­tion stage and are about 20 lov­ingly in­scribed gifts into the ul­ti­ma­tum zone. You both square your­selves and say that if this open fa­voritism con­tin­ues, they won’t see their only grand­chil­dren again. Save your kids. This is not hy­per­bole. Save them, now.

If these in-laws are as emo­tion­ally warped as they sound, your hus­band might need help find­ing the strength to stand up to them. Three words: skilled ther­a­pist, fast.

NICK GALIFIANAKIS FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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