Surviving Cringeworthy (and Sexist) Family Holiday Situations
Gathering with family and friends to celebrate the holidays is a time-honored tradition that many of us look forward to. But—let’s face it—family members come to the table with a wide range of attitudes and beliefs, especially when it comes to gender dynamics. Sometimes inappropriate comments can turn joy at being together to hurt feelings or anger. So should you let it slide and pass the sweet potatoes, or should you address inappropriate or sexist behavior head on to support your girl and others?
“Every family is different, and every situation is unique,” says Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald. “So while it might be best for one family to use a cringeworthy moment as an opportunity to teach kids about choosing our battles—always an important one—it might be important to another that they set an example for the younger people at the table by standing up to sexism and saying something.”
With a little diplomacy, it’s often possible to both address the issue at hand and keep the conversation constructive. If you think you might find yourself in one of these situations, use these tips to think ahead about what you might say or do. “Emotions can run high when it comes to family and the holidays—and being rude in response to rudeness doesn’t solve anything and can potentially escalate the issue,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald.
The Situation: Relatives Who Police the Plates
At big family dinners, unhealthy focus is sometimes put on how much (or how little) the girls and women at the table are eating. From grandma commenting on your daughter going back for seconds (especially if she’d never say anything about your nephew doing the same) to other guests telling your relatively thin daughter to eat up so she can fill out that strapless dress and look good for prom, the way families talk about girls’ and women’s bodies can leave its mark in damaging ways.
Before it happens: Whether relatives have a track record of policing others’ plates or you know your daughter is struggling with body image and food issues at the moment, Sheila Heen, bestselling author of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, suggests taking time before dinner to have a conversation with the other adults who will be present. “Make a few calls and give people a heads up that, although you appreciate their concern—these comments usually do come from a place of wanting to help, even if it’s misguided!—it’s actually best and most helpful if they don’t bring it up or comment on more sensitive topics, like your child’s weight or eating habits,” explains Heen.
In the moment: If you hear someone critiquing what your daughter or niece chooses to eat and feel the need to stick up for her, try saying something that gets your point across, but in a positive way. Dr. Bastiani Archibald suggests, “The food is delicious, and we’re in wonderful company. Let’s focus on that and let everyone enjoy the meal in their own way.”
The Situation: Sexist Jokes or Comments
From “have you heard the one about the girl who . . . ” to “that’s a job for a man!,” chatter that was commonplace in years past has no place at today’s dinner table (or anywhere else, for that matter). But when it’s your host or a beloved grandparent making the comment, the right response can be less than clear. “Some may think they’re just being funny with these comments,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “But even if they mean no harm, it’s important to note that the youngest members of your family are looking to their elders as role models and listening to every single word.”
Before it happens: If anyone who will be in attendance has a history of making sexist or inappropriate comments or “jokes,” consider talking to your kids about it ahead of time, and listen to their thoughts. Heen advises, “Let them know what your strategy will be for dealing with it, and why—but also listen to their ideas and feelings when coming up with a plan.” Helping kids, especially older children who may feel impassioned in the moment, think about all the dynamics at play can give them the tools to speak up with both confidence and grace at the right time, should they feel the need to.
In the moment: If what’s said degrades or generalizes women and girls in a negative way, you can use it as an opportunity to be a role model for your kids by showing them constructive ways of speaking up with confidence. “If you’re going to say something,” suggests Dr. Bastiani Archibald, “try to be quick and to the point, and give them the benefit of the doubt before transitioning to a more positive subject.” This approach lets everyone know what kind of speech and behavior is unacceptable but also sends the signal that you’ve said your piece and can now continue to be friendly and move on. Try something like, “You probably didn’t mean it this way, but that type of [joke/statement/comment] is hurtful. While I’ve got your ear, I heard you got a new job! Tell us about it!”
The Situation: Girls Clean Up While Boys Kick Back
Last we checked, boys and men were equally as capable as girls and women at clearing the table, putting away leftovers, and doing the dishes. Yet in many homes, these more domestic chores are still relegated to female family members while the guys are invited to kick back and relax in front of the TV.
Before it happens: If you know there’s traditionally been a gender imbalance when it comes to after-dinner cleanup and other chores, Heen recommends having a conversation with your immediate family leading up to the get-together. “You might want to tell your kids that, because you don’t follow traditional gender-based roles at home, you’re going to suggest that all the kids—boys and girls—pitch in this year,” she explains. She also notes that reaching out to other parents who will be present could be helpful. “If you don’t think the way things have been done in the past is fair, there might be others who feel the same way but haven’t felt empowered to act,” she says. One way to make newly shared responsibilities go a bit more smoothly? Write the names of all the children on slips of paper and put them in a “chore jar,” Heen suggests. Then they can draw their names out for specific jobs one-by-one at random. Fair and square.
In the moment: Before you blow a gasket at your host’s insistence that your daughter is needed in the kitchen (while your son isn’t asked to pitch in), take a deep breath and compose yourself. “It’s totally possible to stay calm and respectful even while disagreeing with the gender roles set up by your host,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “If you choose to address the imbalance, you can mention that this is a perfect chance for the boys and girls to practice the skills they’ll need when they’re fending for themselves in a few years—plus, the job will get done a lot quicker and leave more time for relaxation if everyone pitches in.” If you’re met with a hostile glare or get pushback, you may decide to give in and then discuss your decision with your kids later, especially if you’re the guest in someone else’s home. But by speaking up in the first place, you still let the girls in the family know you see them and support them.