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Stop Excusing Bad Behavior from Older People
We need to stop making excuses for the inexcusable.
This past week I had the difficult task of attending a funeral, which brought together a conglomerate of people.
There were the family, ex-family, married-in family, and a few spare part-people who were there out of the goodness of their hearts or to service the family with food and comfort, and those of us that seemed to know a few of each of these groups of people.
A week before the funeral a family member, of the married-in sort called me, very upset that at the hateful comments she’d been subjected to by an older family member regarding whether she was “A Mexican.” She’s actually of Cherokee descent, but you know with all that black hair and dark eyes — who can tell right? (Sarcasm intended.)
Regardless of her descent — who asked for approval?
Kindness while standing around in a bereavement situation would be fairly expected, I would think. But families, being the imperfect structures that they may be, can bring together all the “lovely bunches of coconuts,” as the saying goes.
“She’s just set in her ways…try to avoid her…” were some of the things I said over the phone, to my later regret and dismay. Although my first comments were to console my upset family member, why on earth did I even try to sugar-coat a very clear episode of prejudice?
Because the offender was old.
A week later I stood in the church for the funeral service with the same family member who held her small baby. As we waited for the service to begin, I decided to make small talk with two ladies sitting there in the pews. Not knowing who they were, I introduced myself.
“I don’t know why that baby has brown eyes — we have always had blue eyes in our family,” came the terse-lipped reply to my introduction.
Oh, no. I had inadvertently struck up a conversation with the wrong person. The one we were supposed to be avoiding, to keep the peace right? My own advice so poorly given and inadvertently unfollowed.
“Yes,” I replied, quickly, kindly, but very firmly, “She has beautiful brown eyes, just like her mother.”
You could hear the humph.
A moment later I pointed out another family member with brown eyes. Another humph but no more reply from the disgruntled older woman.
She’s just set in her ways.
How often have we used this phrase to excuse bad behavior? I have never really heard that phrase used to explain good behavior.
I was raised to respect my elders. But sometimes when the behavior isn’t respectable it is ok to speak up and say that it is not ok.
I recently witnessed online a person saying some truly terribly prejudicial things. I was rather disgusted by what I read in a series of posts condemning people of various non-white, non-American, non-Christian populations.
Who had the bravery to speak out against the bad behavior? This person’s own grandchild.
I was so impressed with this young person’s boldness to speak out against their own grandparent and say that is just not ok for you to say those things and I cannot support that. I commend this young person for standing up for what is right, even when it is highly uncomfortable to do so. I showed the exchanges to my own daughter as a teachable moment.
For example, in 1958, just 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage. This support only reached 50% in 1997, while now it is at 87%. — Business Insider
There’s probably not an easy way to handle these types of situations, but I find myself vowing to no longer use the old familiar excuses that a person is just “set in their ways” or just “doesn’t know any better.”
How will they know any better if we keep excusing them simply because of their age. Age is not a prerequisite for knowing “any better.” If a person hasn’t learned that certain perspectives are no longer socially acceptable and are morally wrong, then even as we attempt to respect our elders, we can still let them know that it is not ok to treat people poorly or voice offensive opinions to the detriment of others.
And simply having lived many years does not give someone a free pass to behave disrespectfully.
Here are a few tips on handling these types of situations:
Convey disapproval or discomfort, without provoking a defensive reaction.
Question their use of the words or action so you can gauge their intent: “Why do you say/do that?”
Convey your feelings: Let them know how the comment or joke makes you feel.
Question their fear. These can be very useful moments to question someone’s fear and ignorance.
Don’t get triggered. Racists want to push your button to get you angry. Just laugh and keep walking.
Compliment them on something: ‘Nice shirt’, ‘Nice beard’ or just ‘Love you, mate’. And refuse to participate in the bad comments or behavior. Setting an example can help.
Thanks for reading. I enjoy writing articles such as this one and usually have a positive message, advice, inspiration, or a heartfelt mission to empower. My truest passion, however, is my poetry and creative writing. Perhaps you would enjoy this story: