Caustic Dad

2 Mar

Letterbalm Snarling Man's MouthDear LetterBalm: I have a problem that infuriates me. My father has a mouth that won’t quit. He’s rude and insulting to the point where his grown children and grandchildren don’t want him in their vicinity. He has something sarcastic, racist or negative to say about everybody – no one is immune, even my son, his eight-year-old grandson who, gets a steady diet of sarcasm and who, according to him, “acts like a little fairy” because he impersonates Elvis Presley to our old rock n’ roll records (spot-on hilarious, by the way). My dad’s not stupid, not ill, just nasty. He gets defensive if any of us challenges him, so we’ve given up. Unfortunately, my dad still is invited to family events because we all love my mother, his long-suffering wife. What can I tell my son who asks why his granddad is so mean?

–Futility

It infuriates Ms. L.B. when otherwise healthy and active older people are insulting and insolent in ordinary conversation, simply because they think their age entitles them to respect. Snappishness can be understood when a senior is in constant pain or discomfort, but rudeness for its own sake is never justified. Your son sounds like a clever little charmer (does he dress like Elvis in Vegas?), and he knows more than you think. But your job as his dad is, first, to reassure him and, second, to inform him of life’s realities without scaring him. Engage him in an activity the two of you enjoy and have an informal chat. Let him know he can come to you and his mom with any questions or problems:

Eddie, I just wanted to take a little time to talk with you about Granddad. Your mom and I are really sorry that he’s being so mean. You know he’s pretty nasty to everybody, including your cousins and grownups. Some people are just like that – it doesn’t mean we excuse this kind of behavior, not even if a kid does it. It isn’t nice to say bad things to people, and your mom and I never want you to act this way because you think it’s O.K. It’s never O.K. to hurt peoples’ feelings and say nasty things. Your mom and I and other grownups in the family have tried to talk to Granddad about this many times. So, we have to be patient with him, even though we don’t like what he does. Eddie, we want you to know that you can come to us with any questions you have about Granddad or about anything. You’re our special son, and, as much as we can, we always want to tell you the truth.

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