Sensing Insensitivity

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife is Japanese, I’m white, and our daughter is biracial. When I’m out with her in public, strangers are constantly stopping me to ask what country we adopted her from. (Interestingly, my wife tells me this never happens to her.) I feel like wearing a button that says, “No, you jerk, my child isn’t adopted!” Is there some way I can get people to stop asking me this irritating question?

A: More and more people these days are describing themselves as bi-racial. In fact, according to 2010 Census data , the number of biracial and multiracial people is up 50 percent since 2000 (that’s when the Census Bureau first gave the option to check more than one “race” box.) Theoretically, that should mean that over time, biracial children will be less of a novelty. In the meantime, you’ll still have to deal with insensitive (and/or ignorant) people.

While the questions you’re fielding are definitely irritating, only a very small percentage or people are asking out of racism. Most really mean no harm—it’s their way of admiring your daughter. Some have boundary issues (these are the same people who have no problem coming up to a pregnant woman they don’t know and rubbing her belly). And some weren’t paying attention when their parents tried to give them the “think-before-you-open-your-mouth” lesson. They’re not bad people, just a bit clueless.

That said, your frustration is understandable. Still, the most important thing you can do is stay calm. When you’re out in public, there’s no way to keep people from asking you questions, whether it’s about where you got your hair cut or the ice cream cone you’re eating or whether or not your child is adopted.

Don’t feel that your job is to educate people about race (or manners). Taking on that responsibility will just add to your stress level. With that in mind, the easiest thing to do is calmly say something like, “No, my child isn’t adopted. My wife is Japanese and our daughter is bi-racial.” That’ll clear things up for anyone who genuinely wanted to know about adoption and will probably make anyone with less-than-positive intentions feel a little silly.

As annoying as these questions are, they give you a wonderful opportunity to discuss the issue with your daughter. You might point out that she’s getting all the extra attention because she’s unique—and that being unique is a good thing (this is the same conversation I have with my youngest daughter, who’s constantly approached by people asking her, “Where’d you get the red hair?”) You could also mention that Barack Obama—even though he identifies as black—has a white mother and is just as bi-racial as your daughter.

No matter how these questions make you feel, keep the anger, resentment, frustration, and whatever else out of your voice and body language. If you respond in any kind of negative way, your daughter will feel that you think there’s something wrong with her or that being bi-racial is a bad thing. That’s a message you never want to send. Ever. She’ll also use your behavior as a model for how to react when people inevitably start approaching her directly instead of going through you.

As parents, we can’t keep people from asking us questions about our kids, especially if they’re cute and charming. Your number one priority is your daughter’s well-being and making sure she has a positive perception of herself. That’s a lot more important than educating or scolding some random person that you meet and will probably never see again.

Whose Kids Are These, Anyway?

Dear Mr. Dad: My son has two young children and a few years ago married a woman who has two children of her own. My son and his wife are having some financial troubles and my wife and I have volunteered to help them out with babysitting whenever they need it, which is quite often. My son’s children are pretty well-behaved when they come to my house. They help set and clear the table, say “please” and “thank you,” participate in mealtime conversations, and so on. They’re not perfect, but who is? My daughter-in-law’s kids are a different story. They’re rude, disrespectful, refuse to help out, criticize the food we prepare for them, and generally act like they’re living in a hotel. It’s gotten so bad that I’m about to tell my daughter-in-law that her children are no longer welcome in my house, but I’m afraid that might end up hurting my son’s marriage. His wife truly believes her children can do no wrong. What should we do?

A: Ah, welcome to the wonderful world of grandparenting in the age of blended families. You’re absolutely right to worry about throwing a wrench into your son’s marriage. But you also need to be concerned about how his stepchildren’s behavior might affect your relationship with him. There’s also a serious risk that as your biological grandchildren see what their stepsiblings get away with, they’ll start imitating them. So you’ve got to put an end to this problem right away. Unfortunately, no single approach will work every time, so here are a number of strategies that will allow you to attack this problem from several angles at once.

  • Do NOT talk directly to your daughter-in-law, at least not alone. From your description, she’ll just get defensive and will end up painting you as the bad guy. That will put your son in the awful position of being in the middle between you and his wife.
  • Treat all four children the same. If anything you do comes even remotely close to favoritism, again, you’ll be branded as the bad guy.
  • Talk directly to all four kids at once. Tell them—without singling anyone out—that there are some behaviors going on that are simply not acceptable and that if things don’t change in a hurry, you’ll make a report to their parents.
  • Call a family meeting; you, your wife, son, daughter-in-law, and all four kids. Tell them that you have certain rules in your house and that rude, disrespectful behavior will not be tolerated. Ask the kids to create consequences (don’t use the word “punishment”) for breaking the rules. Chances are they’ll come up with things that are harsher than anything you would have. The added bonus is that when they break the rules they won’t be able to gripe about the punishment.
  • Talk with your son and his wife. Tell them that you often have trouble with the kids and that you need their help establishing some rules. Be very careful that you don’t single out your daughter-in-laws kids. It’s critical that she and your son support you by telling the kids that when they’re in your house, they play by your rules. And that violating those rules will result in serious consequences. This is critical. The kids have to hear from their own parents that you’re the supreme authority in your home.
  • This one is hard but it has to be done. Tell your son and daughter-in-law that if the behavior doesn’t stop, they will have to make other childcare arrangements.

A Nice, Relaxing Dinner Out? Yeah, Right.

Dear Mr. Dad: When I was single, I hated it when noisy kids were allowed to run around in restaurants and spoil everyone’s meals. Now that my wife and I have two children, ages 4 and 6, we’d like to occasionally go out to eat with them, but we’re worried that they’ll do something to embarrass us. How do we keep them in line while we (and everyone else in the restaurant) enjoy our time out?

A: One of the most amazing things about becoming a parent is that no matter how many loud-children-in-a-restaurant (or movie theater or opera house) horror stories we have, we tend to be immune to the noise our own kids make. But other people’s kids? Well, that’s a different story.

There are some hardliners out there who say young kids shouldn’t be allowed in places where adults come to enjoy some peace and quiet. For example, just last month, McDain’s Restaurant in Monroeville, PA banned kids under six from its premises, saying they’re too loud and disruptive to adult diners.

Then there are more moderate voices—like mine—that argue that children should be welcome pretty much everywhere, as long as they’re well-behaved. Although the loud, screaming, unruly brats make the biggest impression, if you think about it, you can probably remember plenty of kids the same age who were downright angelic. So in my opinion, an outright ban isn’t fair to those kids or their parents.

At 4 and 6, your children are still young, but not too young to be taught good manners and respect towards others in public places where they’ll need to be quiet. If they can follow age-appropriate rules at home, chances are they’ll be able to follow them outside of the house as well.

Here are some guidelines for you:

  • Pick carefully. Make sure the restaurant you’re considering has booster seats, kids’ menus, crayons, and other distractions. Places where you know lots of families go are a good choice. Restaurants that have crystal wineglasses and white linen tablecloths, or where people go for romantic meals or business meetings are not.
  • If the restaurant doesn’t provide crayons, bring your own, along with coloring books or other small toys that will keep your kids (quietly) occupied.
  • Before you take your children to a restaurant, tell them it’s a special treat and let them know that you expect them to sit quietly at the table, speak in a low voice, and not run around, scream, or throw food off their plates. But don’t belabor the point, otherwise it’ll sound like a list of suggestions.
  • Let them choose their own meal from a children’s menu. If you order something they don’t like, they may spend the rest of your dinner complaining about it—loudly.
  • Watch the clock. Expecting overtired kids to follow rules—especially in public—is a setup for disaster (and embarrassment).
  • If, despite your best efforts, your children misbehave in a way that draws complaints (or dirty looks) from people around you or the restaurant staff, get your dinner to go, and leave. You can use this opportunity to tell your children that because they didn’t obey the rules, you have to leave and you won’t be taking them out again until they can prove to you that you can trust them to behave appropriately.

Most kids love to go, out so chances are that they’ll eventually learn how to behave so that your family—and everyone else around—can enjoy what they came for: a nice, quiet meal.

The Trouble with Kittens Is That They Grow Up to Be Cats

Dear Mr. Dad: Our adorable little girl has turned into a difficult, rebellious teenager. She’s only 14, but she already insists on wearing make-up, and screams things like, “I hate you!” and “It’s my life so you can’t tell me what to do.” Help!

A: And people say the terrible twos are bad? Ha! It won’t come as much comfort right now, but just about every parent of a teen has watched helplessly as their sweet baby morphed into something not nearly as sweet.

The first thing to do is take a deep breath and summon up as much patience as you can—you’ll need about four years’ worth.
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