My mother-in-law openly prefers one of my two daughters. What should I do?

Dear A&E,

My mother-in-law openly prefers one of my two daughters. She showers my youngest with affection. She took her to a safari park this summer, with my niece and nephew, and said there wasn’t space for my eldest when I pointed out she’d like to go too. As it was a birthday present I let my youngest go, but the look on my eldest’s face was crushing. As they’re getting older (seven and nine), I’m concerned she’ll notice. My husband tried to raise it with his mother but she flat-out denied it. I don’t want to cut them off from her, but I’m at a loss. — Protective

Dear Protective,

It’s a little heartbreaking to think of your eldest girl watching as her sister and cousins are driven off to an adventure. It’s a little heartbreaking to think of all the young girls who are introverted and unique and therefore a little overlooked. And it’s a little heartbreaking to think of you sweating over the injustice; because we know that we are only as happy as our least happy child. So this problem is very personal.

Not only that, but this is formative stuff for your girls, and your instinct to pull your mother-in-law up on it is absolutely understandable. Nine is still very small, and your daughter’s view of herself will be formed in part by how others see her. So if your mother-in-law makes her feel as if she isn’t good enough for the safari park gang, well, that stuff sticks. It’s not everything – it’s not make or break – but it’s something. A little brick for the wall, a little barrier put up. Nurturing their self-esteem is one of your parental priorities, and should therefore be among your parents’ priorities.

The grandparent relationship has a distance implicit within it that can be both wonderfully innocent and potentially quite troubling. They may, for example, feel justified in having favourites in a way that they wouldn’t as parents. They can tend to take things personally in a way that parents know they can’t. Grandparents sometimes assume that being a grandparent is their free pass to unquestioning love and devotion, but nothing is a free pass to unquestioning love and devotion. You have put the work in. Sometimes it’s hard.

Now, in your mother-in-law’s defence, you can’t change the way that her heart beats. She clearly identifies more with your youngest (who, as your longer letter explains, shares similar interests as her and is similarly extroverted, while your eldest is more bookish and quiet). It will happen. It’s chemistry. And she will of course be horrified when you confront her. No one likes to admit they play favourites; no bad guy thinks they are a bad guy. But it is very simple, and necessary, in families, to put a rule of equality in place: same amount of time, presents, outings. Then everybody knows what they are doing. No confusion, no potential for hurt.

The other thing to remind your mother-in-law is that she is being very short-termist. Some children are more awkward or take longer to come out of their shell. That doesn’t necessarily speak to how they are going to unfold into adolescence and young adulthood. Remind your mother-in-law that it would be wise to invest in her relationship with both her granddaughters, because otherwise it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and she will indeed find she has nothing to say to your eldest. She may not care, because she treasures the relationship with the youngest so, and long may their intimacy flourish, but the point is, it’s not about her. She, like you, is an adult. Your little girl is the child.

We also know, Protective, that if you have a child that is a little more vulnerable, you are on high alert for anything that might knock their confidence. Having said that, cutting your mother-in-law off seems too dramatic. So have the chat. Do not accuse. Explain that you want your girls to be treated equally. Be fearless because you know it’s right. Set the boundary. She may get defensive, but she will come round. You can’t shift her heart but you can shift her actions. Because, in this scenario, you are the boss. Use that power wisely.

Do you have a dilemma that you’re grappling with? Email Annabel and Emilie on [email protected] 

All questions are kept anonymous. The Midults are unable to reply to emails personally.

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