Care and Feeding

My Parents Love “Teaching” My Kids About Their Beliefs. Oh God.

I never leave them alone.

An older woman and a younger woman holding hands and looking at each other.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding, 

I was raised by two very overzealous individuals. As a child, they taught me that the world was divided into good people (people who had similar political and religious beliefs) and bad people (everyone else). Snap judgments were often made about others and rarely were they willing to consider that another person may have a different perspective based on different life experiences. There was also a heavy emphasis on very traditional, patriarchal values and just an overall lack of flexibility in anything that differed from their worldview.

Once I was able to leave my parent’s home and explore the wider world, my beliefs and perspectives changed 180 degrees. Nothing has changed for my parents—their belief system has only been emboldened by the current political climate. I don’t remember my parents being overtly racist when I was a child, but they do make racist comments now. They are vocally anti-LGBTQ+. There are comments about how they hope I can find a part-time job because of my kids (since full-time working moms are frowned upon). They have refused to get vaccinated against COVID. And rather than keep these ideas to themselves or only discuss them with close friends, my father is happy to wade into a discussion about his beliefs with anyone, which has resulted in strained relationships with friends and neighbors. He struggles to understand that other people might not agree with his perspective.

They do show interest in me and my kids. And while they mostly respect boundaries I have outlined clearly, they are happy to jump in to “teach” their ideas when something comes up.
Am I acting inappropriately by limiting access to their grandkids because of these issues? We currently keep visits fairly short (once a month, at most), and I don’t typically let the kids hang out with my parents alone. They aren’t physically or verbally abusive in any way. I second-guess myself a lot because I feel guilty—I know kids benefit from grandparent interaction and that problematic parents can still turn into good grandparents. But my parents also don’t understand how any of their beliefs or behaviors could be problematic. I am just struggling with what the right balance should be. My kids are 6 and 11, for reference. How do I talk to my kids about this?

—Not Sure In Nebraska

Dear Not Sure In Nebraska, 

Given the extreme political divides in our current climate, there have been a lot of discussions and disagreements about just how tolerant we should be of those we disagree with. I tend to bristle a bit at those in the “reach across the aisle (and love your racist, sexist, homophobic neighbor)” camp, because doing so is often a privilege that people within those marginalized groups do not have. And especially in the case that someone in your family is gay, trans, or a person of color, I believe your allegiance lies in protecting them.

But even if you simply want to raise kids who are contributing to the creation of a better world, intolerant or prejudiced behaviors and messages from the influential figures in their lives could be harmful. It sounds like you’ve already developed good boundaries around your relationship with your parents—time to flex them. You can try making statements that reassert your family’s values, with phrases like “In our family, we do things differently because…” or “It’s important to me that my kids learn that…” You may need to make it clear to your parents that their involvement with you and your children is contingent on them respecting your boundaries about pushing their beliefs on your children.

As they grow, your children will be increasingly bombarded with messages that you may not agree with, from the media, pop culture, school peers, etc. While it can feel overwhelming to compete against all that noise, if you actively educate your children about the important issues, your influence will have a much larger impact. And in the worst-case scenario, encountering prejudice can become a teachable moment, like when my son came home from elementary school parroting “Boys don’t kiss other boys” from another kid. (I replied, “Oh honey, they can and do.”) Modeling your values and refusing to shy away from tough conversations will lay a solid foundation that is likely to prevail.

A big part of anti-racist parenting is teaching your kids about the realities of racism and racist beliefs, so be age-appropriate but honest about the fact that grandma and grandpa have harmful beliefs you don’t agree with, and use this opportunity to further clarify your own values. For white and/or heterosexual families, this may be something like, “In this family, we value all people equally, regardless of skin color or who they love, and we stand up to people who bully or mistreat others.” Your kids will have to deal with people who hold beliefs they don’t agree with, so this is a chance to model for them the way you would like them to do so.


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