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Miss Conduct

Matters of silence

How to interact with children when you despise their parents, plus reacting to racist comments.

By Robin Abrahams
January 3, 2010

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My social set is in a quandary. A close friend of ours is in a nasty custody battle. The ex-spouse is a louse with no redeeming values. We all spend many holidays and vacations together, so our friend’s children may mention this parent in conversation. We’d all love to tell the children (in no uncertain terms!) what we think of their parent, but we know how snide this would appear. How do we handle this? It seems cruel to continually ask the children to change the subject when this individual comes up, but none of us is prepared to sing the praises of this person, either. S.T. / Brookline Look, hon: The children’s feelings are more important than yours. Keep repeating that until you can believe it, OK? I know you think you believe it now, but you don’t, really, not if you’re still so concerned about your intellectual integrity and your freedom to express yourself that you are writing to me. No, you cannot ask children to change the topic when they are talking about their own parents -- good grief!

There is a line between singing a person’s praises and excoriating that person, so learn to walk it. It’s not hard; it’s a fairly broad balance beam, really. Child says, “Dad took me to Santa’s Village for Christmas! He’s the best dad!” You say, “Santa’s Village! That must have been fun. What did you do?” Child says, “My mommy is the prettiest mommy in the whole world!” You say, “It’s good to feel that way about your mom! I bet if you have kids someday they’ll think you’re the prettiest mom/handsomest dad in the world, too!” Get it? You validate the child’s experience and emotions, without having to agree with his or her evaluation of the parent.

Recently, one of my children was wearing a Larry Bird shirt, and an acquaintance and I mused about the young generation still honoring the legendary player. She then said, “Well, there isn’t a white player on the team now, so there is no player whose shirt he would want to wear.” I was so taken aback, I am ashamed to admit I didn’t say anything. My children did not hear her comment, but if they had, I would have wanted to say something to let them -- and her -- know her comment was not acceptable. What should I have done? A.D. / Norwood You could have said, “I’ve taught my kids to look up to anyone who deserves their respect, regardless of color.” Or perhaps, “Yes, Cody used to talk all the time about wanting to be president, but now he thinks that’s a black thing. And being secretary of state is for girls, so I don’t know how we’re going to talk him into doing Model UN this year.” (I’m generally opposed to the snarky retort, but it does have its place on occasion, and this would be one.) Or a simple, authoritative “Let’s not go there,” in one of those voices. You’re a parent. You know what voice I mean.

But please don’t beat up on yourself for being gobsmacked into silence. Most of us are, when someone suddenly says or does something wildly inappropriate. There’s that moment of “Wha-wha-wha? Did that actually happen?” and by the time you recover enough to respond, it’s too late. We hear a lot about the flight-or-fight response, but there’s a third “F” as well -- freeze -- that some animals and many humans also do in the face of threat.

Even if your children had heard, you could have talked to them afterward -- about how racism works, and how even “nice” people can say and do racist things. And about what you should have said, and why you didn’t say it, and how can we be better about standing up for what we believe in. Admitting that you’ve made a mistake, and discussing it with your children, can give you an extraordinary and memorable teaching moment.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Got a question or comment? Write to missconduct@globe.com. BLOG Read more of Miss Conduct’s wit and wisdom at boston.com/missconduct. CHAT Get advice live this Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., at boston.com.