Overcoming Problematic Language

A PSP member shares awesome advice for dealing with generational and cultural differences of language and gender in tactful and inclusive ways.



Original message:

I am a new mom to a 12 week old baby girl and I am having an issue with my parents and the way they talk to and about her. I love my folks and they are so excited (she is her first grandchild), but they are super old fashioned when it comes to traditional gender roles.
My mom calls her a "minx" and tells her she "wasn't very nice to me in labor" as she "hurt me" and did me "damage" when she was born. I was injured but I think this is ludicrous. They both comment on her weight (she is 13lbs at 12 weeks - 65th percentile) saying she has a fat beer gut and making comments such as "I love her chunky thighs but she will hate them when she is older". I told my mom that I think she is gorgeous and I would even love her to be fatter, and she said that those fat cells stay with her for life and I shouldn't want that. I kind of can't believe my 12 week old is already being body shamed. My mom also gets upset that I buy her mostly gender neutral clothing & don't buy her dolls or princess dresses yet. I want to raise a confident, strong, feminist daughter and I don't want this sort of talk to become a habit.
I know I just need to use my words and talk to them, but I was wondering if any other parents had similar experiences or any suggestions for how to diplomatically but firmly shut this sort of talk down. I want to get out in front of it."


Summary, from the original poster:

Thanks so much to all the PSPs that wrote in response to my post. It was so supportive to hear all of your stories and suggestions.
A central theme was that while my daughter won’t remember any of this now, it is important to get out in front of as the real worry is when she's 2 to 7 years old and it gets internalized and she still won't remember it later. That’s when the seeds are sown and there’s little defense mechanisms internally.
There were two schools of thought – say something now, and how to counter their messages if it is just too problematic to continuously confront them.


How to talk to the grandparents:

-        Say something now, because you may end up seething about it if you keep it in.

-        Lay down the law. This is painful but letting it exist like this is stressful to you as a new mother and violating boundaries that are important to you around your child.

-        Moderate your tone into something as neutral as possible, and be calm but very firm.

-        Sit down with them with your talking points actually written down so that you don’t get emotional and forget your original points. Let them know this is unacceptable and won’t be tolerated.

-        Explain that gender norms hurt girls (and boys) and you want your daughter to be self-confident and enjoy options available to any gender.

-        If they try to make out like it is not a big deal, hold firm that you know your own mind. My child, my decision, that was that.

-        Suggested phrase: “this is not a negotiation. This is a relationship. If I tell you this is hurtful and you choose not to believe me or hear it or respect it, then it is a clear-cut message that you don’t respect me.”

-        Come right out and firmly but respectfully ask that they don’t comment on her body.

-        Say that comments about appearance and anything food related are off limits.

-        Say I feel strongly about this and it’s important to me and the baby’s father. That we believe the words we use are important and meaningful even if the baby doesn’t “understand” now.

-        Say “I don’t want her to hear this, and this is why.” Lay the groundwork, tell the grandparents: “She can’t understand you yet, but she will understand sooner than you think, and it will hurt her feelings. I don’t want that.”

-        Say "I know she's a baby and can't understand what we're saying, but we're trying to get out of the habit of commenting about her in ways that we wouldn't want someone to comment about us."

-        Repeat, repeat, repeat, but always in a pleasant voice. Use the same voice that you would use with a toddler. 'No, no, we don't talk about X'

-        If they do comment on her body / tell her she is beautiful respond by saying, yes, but more importantly, she is determined, strong willed, curious, etc. Please tell her that, too.

-        If they start up again just whisk your daughter away and say, "Okay, thanks for your opinion," or "That's now how I want my daughter to be," and change the conversation or end the visit all together.

-        Make it about them. If they make a comment about her thighs say, "You seem to have a problem with big thighs. Does it bother you when you see people with big thighs?" And if they say something nasty about women with big thighs shrug and say, "It doesn't bother me. Everyone is made differently" and "I see a healthy baby." If they comment about the pain of childbirth, "Yes, childbirth can be painful. Does that make you remember how I was born?" Just keep making it about them, not about you or your daughter. After all, their comments have everything to do with who they are, and nothing to do about you or your daughter.

-        Share articles about commenting on bodies on Facebook for her to see.

-        Be firm about not going crazy with pink and princesses until your daughter starts her own obsession with it.


How to counter the messages:

-        Just keep countering their language with the positive message that you want your daughter to hear. Start saying things that take the conversation away from commenting about her body at all.

-        Counter people's comments on her appearance with "better yet, she's pretty clever" or something like that - it's doesn't embarrass or scold the person, but reminds them (and more importantly) my daughter that her looks are not the most valued part of her person.

-        Take whatever the person says and make it a positive. Something about talking to the baby rather than the person helps a lot. For example, when someone said she's nosey (which is crazy for anyone to say about an infant), I'll say in a polite way and looking at the baby, she's not nosey, she's curious. Or when someone said she's a cry baby, I would say, she's perfect... babies are supposed to cry. When your mom says the comment about delivery, make it a positive. Tell your baby "and I'd do it all over again!"

-        Address your daughter as if he is a real, conscious person. Get into the habit of addressing your daughter regarding these topics. Tell your daughter the things your mother said are WRONG and why. You can tell her this in front of your mother, or after your mother leaves if that's the only way to keep the peace. But I think at the end of the day the thing that matters most is the message your daughter gets from YOU, and it's never too early to be explicit about it.

-        The most important influence is you. Your kids will have all kind of input and opinions around them, all their lives. And yours, for a long, long, time, are the ones that really matter.

-        Kids will always take grandparent nonsense with a grain of salt, especially if you raise her with social consciousness.

-        Lead by example -- choose outfits that aren't super pink and talking about why I like them, just making comments wherever I can about gender identity, our over-emphasis on beauty.

-        Daughters are going to get way more messages from you about their looks, so definitely think about how you talk about your own body and eating habits in front of them.

-        Talk to your daughter about what beauty really is, how beauty means lots of different things and is found inside a person, not outside. Read a lot of books to her about characters that don't necessarily fit the typical princess ideal.

-        If they say something in front of you, counter it with the message you want your daughter to receive. They may think it's snarky, but you want her to hear your message louder!

-        Limit the grandparents time with the baby if they won’t change and I am not able to control their behavior... parents get consequences same as kids!

-        If (as is likely), there are still a few things said in front of your child once she’s old enough to understand, you can talk about it with the child, either in front of the grandparent or privately later. “Grandma said this thing, but it’s not what we believe, and here’s why. We love Grandma, but she’s from an older generation and they didn’t use the same words we think are okay today.”

-        Sometimes we taken a "grin and bear it" mentality, and now we use it as a teaching opportunity about how sometimes different families have different rules, or sometimes people say things that aren't nice and what's important is how they feel about themselves.  

-        As she gets older, you’ll find you can flash her an eye-roll or general non-verbal expression of "what she is saying is ridiculous" and then revisit it when we're alone to remind her that whatever nonsense was said is not what we believe in our family or is categorically untrue or not a nice language.


Other thoughts from other PSPs dealing with similar issues:

The experience turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It highlighted for me all the messages I'd heard about my body growing up that I took as received wisdom and didn't consciously question – how much beauty is prioritized for women and girls and how our sense of self is intertwined with our weight and our looks. Becoming aware of how much I heard that as a kid felt freeing.Thanks again