“I Don’t Like Grandpa. He’s Not Nice.”
I have a 3-year old daughter (and another on the way!) who is Ike’s age. I think she’s pretty typical, as far as a 3 year old goes. She speaks well, has strong opinions, and is quite sensitive. We live a plane ride away from the rest of our family, but we try to keep in good contact (Skype, FaceTime) with the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. She knows who everyone is, remembers them from our visits. We’ve always made a real effort to keep our families involved in her life, despite the distance.
My husband’s father is coming to visit us for about a week next month. Since his visit is now only a few weeks away, I thought I’d start getting my daughter excited for his trip. Her response: I don’t like Grandpa. He’s not nice.
Now, here’s the thing. He’s kind of not a nice guy. He loves her very much, but he has a hard time being patient with her, as a 3 year old. (The same goes for his other grandchild, a 5 year old!) My husband acknowledges that he’s not exactly the warmest guy. He has the shortest temper known to man, and is just one of those people who yell/talks. The louder you talk, the better your point will come across type of person. I’ve always ALWAYS watched any criticisms I make about him if she was in earshot.
But he really loves her, and I was genuinely shocked that she had that reaction. Can you give me any advice on how to deal with this situation? Do I ask my husband to talk to his father, asking him to be aware of his demeanor? Is there anything I can say to my daughter?
Oh, the brutal honesty of three year olds. You’ve got to love it, right up until the moment when the brutal honesty comes out of their little mouths at the most appalling/inconvenient moment.
Your daughter is sensitive. Your daughter is having an authentic reaction to her grandfather’s personality. I’m going to guess that she’s probably not the first young child to have that reaction either. If your father-in-law is really that clueless that his volume and temper and overall demeanor can unnerve people — grown-up people too, I bet, and not just toddlers! — it’s unlikely that any quick “heads up” from your husband will make him immediately see the error of his ways and play the part of jolly old Santa Claus during your visit. He probably knows. He probably doesn’t care.
So some do’s and don’ts:
1) DON’T make your daughter feel like her feelings are “wrong” or “bad” or “not nice.” Don’t send the signal that the problem is with HER, or that she’s expected to fake it around him and say things she doesn’t mean. (Like, “oh, you don’t really mean that, you love him, don’t be silly, go sit on his lap and give him a kiss, etc.”)
2) DO give her better descriptions for the things that bother her. Instead of “Grandpa’s not nice,” maybe it’s more that “Grandpa talks too loud.” That might take the sting out of any comments she makes during his visit if she’s got real, concrete words for the behaviors that unnerve her. Encouraging her to be specific will also help you know if his behavior crosses any lines, like “Grandpa yells at me” or “Grandpa pulled my arm,” in case his temper ever gets physically or verbally abusive.
3) DON’T try to magically “fix” everything during the visit with lots of grandpa/granddaughter bonding time. You know he lacks patience with her. And yeah, she’s 3. She can probably test the patience of a saint, so now’s not the time to be expecting much from her OR him. Plan activities that take all of you elsewhere in low-pressure situations where everybody can have their space without a ton of one-on-one time — the zoo, big playgrounds, museums, etc. Keep her occupied at home and don’t try to force extra unnecessary interactions. Let your husband spend time with his dad while you and your daughter take frequent breaks from his presence.
4) DON’T let him guilt you into breaking any of the previous three things. If he gets annoyed that she won’t show affection to him, hold firm and don’t force her. If she gets upset if he yells, don’t let him deflect blame and make comments that turn her sensitivity/shyness into a “bad” thing that she needs to “get over.” Get your husband on the same page as well: It’s okay that Grandpa isn’t your daughter’s favorite person right now, it’s most likely just a personality difference, but there’s absolutely no reason why HER personality should get the blame. He’s the damn adult, and so he should be able to use his damn “inside voice.”
In the coming weeks, talk to your daughter about the visit in terms of all the fun things you’re going to DO with Grandpa, instead of making HIM the focus. If your husband has a chance to talk to his dad, by all means he can give him the heads’ up that hey, your granddaughter really doesn’t like hearing adults yell, and can’t yet tell the difference between a VERY LOUD LIVELY POLITICAL DISCUSSION and an actual grown-up fight or argument. Maybe that will help a little, but I wouldn’t really count on it. Even if he keeps the yelling in check, your daughter will still probably get the cold/impatient vibe from him. When she’s older, this might not bother her so much…and maybe his patience for her will grow as well, once she’s out of the admittedly-irrational toddler stage.
Her “I don’t like Grandpa” statement is real to her right now, and you need to acknowledge that realness…but also don’t completely freak out about it. She might think he’s “mean” and is just tossing out the meanest words she knows right now. (My three year old’s favorite phrase when he’s angry is currently: “I’M THE BAD GUY. I DESTROY THE GOOD GUYS.”) It doesn’t mean she’ll always feel that way or that this is a relationship that needs to be SAVED RIGHT NOW OMG. Adjust your expectations for the upcoming visit accordingly and focus on finding ways for them to have fun together…without really having to be “together-together,” if you know what I mean.