Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: My husband is the classic middle child, the peacemaker often overlooked by his parents. He's come to grips with where he falls in his family structure.
My problem is that this pattern seems to have extended to the next generation. Whenever we share exciting news about our son, my husband's parents always counter with something even more incredible that one of his cousins has done.
I grew up with a grandmother who greatly favored my cousins, and it was incredibly painful. I don't want my son to feel the same hurt. How do we bring up this touchy subject with my husband's parents?
Answer: Firmly, kindly, and with concrete examples, but I don't have high hopes. They've been doing this for decades by now, and that's a big mountain for a few well-chosen words to climb.
You can also:
Limit your son's exposure to people who openly play favorites;
Gently assert your concern on the spot ("That's wonderful about Cousin - let's give each his own moment in the sun, though, no?");
Recognize that you and your husband turned out well in spite of the undercutting and not get too worked up about the grandparents*;
Recognize there's no such thing as a childhood without "hurt," and make a calculated decision on how much you can or want to prevent, and how much you brush off as part of life, and how much you use as conversation starters about people's frailties. "Grandma means well, but she has a way of treating life as a competition. Her remarks say more about her than they do about you."
*This is a judgment call. If you turned out well only after needless suffering as a child and hard remedial work as an adult, then skip this one and go straight to protecting your kids from "the same hurt." If instead it was something you were able to process and keep in perspective as you matured, then consider stepping back and being more of a supporter/guide than a shield - and watching closely in case your kids need more.
Comment: My mother was the least favored child, and my sisters and I were the least favored grandchildren. The good news is that I didn't realize this until I was an adult, because my parents took care to limit our exposure to Grandma and were very caring and nurturing on their own.
My mother, however, still has a large reservoir of resentment toward her mother. So, my two cents is to limit exposure to the grandparents, and do your best not to take this personally. It pains me to see how much my mother still burns over things I barely remember.
Answer: Well said, thanks.
Comment: My wife insists my parents favor my two younger sisters over me, and I just don't see it. It's very difficult when she appoints herself my "protector" and tells them they should be doing more for me, but I don't know how to tell her to stop being so divisive.
Answer: "You want to help me, and I love that you do, but stirring things up doesn't help. I'm at peace with my family. What can I do to help you find peace with it, too?"
Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.