Dear Carolyn: Ever since my two sons were born (now 19 and 16), my father has sent a modest monetary gift on their birthdays and Christmas. He is a wealthy man and it was just lovely that he thought of them.
This Christmas, my father sent me a chatty e-mail explaining that he would not be sending my older son a Christmas gift because it was his policy not to send gifts to anyone over 18.
The whole thing is odd because I’ve exchanged Christmas gifts with him and his wife every year.
I was very hurt by this and embarrassed by his lack of generosity. My children only have one grandfather, and although they do not get to see him very often, there is deep affection for him. In my mind, the birthday and Christmas gifts signified that he cared about them and remembered them at these special moments during the year.
I could talk to my father and let him know that I am flummoxed by his lack of generosity. However, I’m not sure what good it would do. He will be hurt and defensive. I also sense that he might withdraw even further from engaging with our family. I would appreciate your advice.
Carolyn says: Is this what you want to teach your sons, that monetary gifts signify love and the absence of them warrants pressure for their return?
Maybe it’s odd that you’re over 18 and still get gifts from your father, but people have an inalienable right to be odd. (And they seem to exercise it most with their money, don’t they?)
Since your sons feel a “deep affection” for their grandfather, your primary mandate is not to screw that up. Break the news to them that Grandpa’s gifts stop with their 18th birthdays — with not a molecule of disapproval in your breath — and, as befitting this arrival at adulthood, you recommend they use the occasion to approach the relationship as adults. Where they’ve been conditioned to receive, they can now take the initiative to stay in touch with their only grandfather. To suggest they do otherwise would betray an embarrassing lack of generosity.
Dear Carolyn: Sibling D is going through some mental health and substance abuse challenges and is angry at my parents for their failures while we were growing up. We’ve discussed it, and I sympathize — I went through a long period of anger myself — but I’ve gotten over it without ever directly discussing it with them.
D is demanding an apology, and seems to believe that without one it will be impossible to get healthy.
I don’t want to excuse or ignore my parents’ failures, but demanding an apology under these circumstances feels like emotional blackmail. I have no reason to believe that my parents are the cause of D’s problems or that it would make a difference if they apologized. Selfishly, I have no interest in revisiting my anger or in reopening what I thought was a closed issue for me.
D needs my support and I can’t avoid my parents, so this will come up again. Any suggestions for how to handle it?
Carolyn says: Ask him why, if he’s so unhappy with your parents’ handling of his past, he wants to put his whole future in their hands, too?
Ideally he’ll understand this without explanation, but if he doesn’t:
Tell him you’ll stipulate to the errors your parents made. Even allow, for the sake of argument, that your parents’ mistakes back then are directly responsible for his challenges now.
Agree that sincere apologies can be transformative.
Then explain the “but.” By demanding one from your parents — and by putting his life or recovery or whatever else on hold till he gets it — he gives them control over his life. Again. And what if they died tomorrow — no health for him, ever?
I realize how hard it is to choose health when feeling wronged, with that awful sense you’re letting the wrongdoers out of jail free. Your brother likely feels ready to wait in perpetuity for your parents to do their share of suffering.
Don’t negate that feeling. Instead, try describing that choice in non-emotionally charged terms: He’s waiting to be fed ambrosia — the apology — though he has no say in when he gets it, if ever. Meanwhile, there are bran flakes that he can serve himself at any time — as in, a decision to accept what he has and make the most of his life.
Almost everyone holds out for the ambrosia at least once, at least for a while, understandably.
You can’t make him stop waiting any more than he can make your parents apologize, but you can understand. And as the brother who chose the bran, you can also attest to how much better you feel since you did.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.