There is one in every family, right? The great uncle who went out for cigarettes and never came back; the relative who raised her much younger adopted sister who looks remarkably like herself; the wild cousin who had a run-in with the law. These are the stories that add interest to those large family gatherings where the adults reminisce and the kids listen, sitting so quietly in hope that the grown ups won’t suddenly notice them and send them away, or worse, change the subject and make them stay.
Discussions of questionable behaviors that happened long ago or far away, the actions of unknown but traceable members of our clan, have not been difficult for me to have with my children. They have, in fact, provided a safe yet comfortable platform from which to share my stance on issues such as commitment, honor, and responsibility.
But what about the black sheep who are closer by, both temporally and geographically? Forging a relationship with some of them would be far too toxic or dangerous. I carefully explain to my children why we must steer clear of these relatives. But what about the others? What about when we are faced with relatives they know and love whose behavior is clearly questionable? I suppose I could try to hide such behaviors from my children, but even if I could, I no longer think I should. (And sometimes I clearly can’t!)
When my children first approached me with questions about the Big Black Sheep behavior of someone close to them I found myself angry that I was being put in the position of having to answer their questions. Angry at the relatives who were making me either soft pedal my disapproval or forcing me to say bad things about them to my children. My reaction was to put the onus on them. When the children would ask, “Why do they do that?” I would respond, “I don’t understand it myself. Perhaps you should ask them.” Not a stellar parenting moment when I chose to throw my children into the thick of it rather than wade there myself, I know!
It was a bit later when found myself reprimanding my daughter for something and consciously remembering to use language which made it clear that it was her behavior I didn’t like, not her, that I realized the same could be applied to our relatives as well.
While I still wish that these were conversations we weren’t having so early in my children’s lives I am now able to take these opportunities to talk with my kids about how people we love and admire can behave in ways that we don’t think appropriate. That loving someone does not mean loving his behavior but at times loving him in spite of his behavior. That caring for someone does not mean we need to aspire to emulate her.
And maybe now, as peer pressure becomes an even larger part of my children’s lives, is exactly the right time to be having these discussions.