Thanksgiving last year. Aside from the sheer madness of traveling with a
kindergartener and a toddler on the busiest travel weekend of the year, my
stomach did the Macarena anticipating the moment my youngest saw my father
During our last
visit, my easy-going toddler decided Gramps was the only person on the planet she feared. By the end of our stay, she
wouldn’t even sit in the same room as him without wailing. Dear old Dad sulked
on the deck, watching us through the sliding glass door, while we ate the
farewell breakfast he’d lovingly made.
concluded in an epic meltdown between me and my father, the likes of which I hadn’t
experienced since my high school fender bender.
“I’m mad at you,”
he snapped as I stood at the door to leave. “You’re doing a bad job of teaching
her who her grandparents are. You don’t visit enough, and you don’t stay long
enough when you do.”
I sobbed that I
was a working mom, living states away, doing the best I could with the time off
I had. I reiterated that he was welcome to visit any time and stay as long as
he wanted, to which he shouted that grandchildren get to know their grandparents
best at the grandparents’ house. All this happened while I held my already-petrified
toddler as my shocked husband and oldest child looked on.
The fight nearly
wrecked our father-daughter relationship. Friends were tossing around words
like “toxic” and suggesting I no longer visit my family. But I know my dad. He
was just hurt that his grandchild, who he only sees a few times a year, was
afraid of him. He felt rejected and lashed out at me. I also know that
children’s opinions change quickly, and the person they fear most today may be
their favorite person tomorrow.
Which is exactly
what happened. My youngest warmed up to Gramps eventually, and I no longer
worry that we will be eating turkey in separate rooms. I just wish we could
have avoided the whole father-daughter fall out. Holidays can be a stressful
time, especially for families spread across miles. So, in an effort to avoid a
big scoop of family drama for nada, I have the following advice:
1. Don’t take it personally if a child fears you.
It’s not a reflection of
parenting skills if a child has an irrational fear of someone.
I agree that
children often read people better than adults. If a child doesn’t like someone,
there may be good reason. As parents, our job is to protect our kids, so when
they raise the fear flag, we pay attention. However, for small children the
unfamiliar is sometimes terrifying. Facial hair may be reason enough to send a
kid scampering or a strong aftershave or even glasses. It’s not a reflection of
parenting skills if a child has an irrational fear of someone, and no one
should take it personally.
2. If the parents say a child doesn't like something, believe them.
my father that my youngest hates scary voices, he continued to growl at her. Yes,
my father growls at small children. All the other grandchildren love when Gramps
growls like a bear. But sorry, not happening with this kiddo. It’s just not her
He kept doing
it, she kept hating it—and by extension him. Honestly, who could blame her?
“fun” you might think you’re having, it’s always a good idea to listen to a
child’s primary caregiver (even if it’s your own kid). Eventually, children are
old enough to tell others what they like and don’t. Until then, trust that the
child’s parents know their little one better than someone who only visits three
or four times a year. Unless you see the child on a regular basis, take the
advice of someone who does.
more often won't always make it better.
We live a mile
from my in-laws and see them at least once a week. Still, my eldest daughter
wanted nothing to do with my father-in-law until she was 3. He’s a tall man
with a booming voice, which is enough to terrify some children.
By the time we
had kids, he’d already experienced grandchild fear with my niece. “I don’t push
it,” my father-in-law would say, retreating to the other side of the room at
the first whimper. “Eventually, they’ll come around.” And they all did.
4. If you're mad, wait to vent until the kids are out of the room.
The fight that left me in
tears left my kids fearing my dad more than monsters under the bed.
often look to their parents for behavioral cues, venting frustration or having
a big fight in front of them only makes things worse. The fight that left me in
tears left my kids fearing my dad more than monsters under the bed. This works
both ways, of course. Whatever issues may exists between parents and children don’t
need to trickle down to the next generation.
5. Have fun with the kids who do like you.
look to each other for how to behave. “Don’t be afraid of Grampsie,” my oldest
told her sister. “He’s not going to hurt you.”
When we visited
last Thanksgiving, my youngest still kept her distance as her sister had a
dance party with Gramps and let him brush her hair. She finally warmed up to
him after seeing how much fun her sister was having. We enjoyed a nice dysfunctional
Thanksgiving like we always do, minus the toddler drama.
I show my youngest pictures of Gramps with all the grandchildren. He even
recorded a storybook for her, so she would become familiar with his (sometimes
gruff) voice. FaceTiming or Skyping on a
regular basis also helps. But time, more than anything, has created the bond