I am friends with a young couple named Mitch and Brandi. They have two children, James, 5, and Emma, 2. Mitch’s parents are longtime friends of mine. Mitch’s job recently brought them to LA and I sometimes see him on the train since we both work downtown. I stay in casual touch with Brandi through text messages and visit them every few months. Because both sets of parents live far away, I try to be a supportive older adult friend. Brandi is smart, talented, beautiful, strong-willed and sometimes stubborn. Until recently, she was a stay-at-home mom but has just recently enhanced her education and re-entered the workforce.
They’re currently in conflict over where James will attend kindergarten this fall. When they visited a nearby public school, Brandi observed that many of the children weren’t Caucasian. She later told me she doesn’t want James to go there. She was bullied in school for being blonde and believes James (also blond) will be bullied, too, and she won’t be able to protect him. I was stunned by how emotional and irrational her comments were. They were also made with James in the room. I explained I wasn’t trying to diminish her experience but suggested she shouldn’t stereotype and assume James will have a similar experience.
Mitch told Brandi she could make the decision. Brandi’s plan is to have James live with her parents in her hometown 3½ hours away and attend kindergarten there. Mitch’s father had a private discussion with Mitch about the numerous reasons this is a bad idea. Mitch’s mother asked James if he’s excited about starting kindergarten and he said no.
It seems so wrong to separate James from his parents and sister. I’m also concerned about the fears Brandi is projecting onto him. I don’t feel it’s my place to comment or ask again. Can you offer advice?
It’s clear you care about the well-being of this family. I applaud you for that. Although you want to speak up, I realize you don’t want your concern for James to be taken as meddling and, therefore, dismissed. You’re in a tough spot.
I understand you’re worried about the potential for severe emotional injury to James, and rightly so. It’s a major decision to separate a little child from his family. Where do Brandi and Mitch plan on putting him in first grade? Is he being sent away permanently? What will they do when their daughter starts kindergarten? Will they send her away, too? What other options have they explored? Moving? Family support for private school tuition? Have they researched how their local school is rated? Talked to the school psychologist? Checked into transfer possibilities? What about the school where Brandi’s parents live? How does Brandi know James won’t get bullied there?
Right now, any communication with Mitch probably won’t be effective and only make him avoidant or anxious about confronting Brandi. If his own parents can’t influence him, it may be futile for you to go that route as well.
Do your best to explain to Brandi that while you don’t want to alienate her by pursuing a tension-filled subject, you’re afraid you’d regret it later if you didn’t muster the courage to speak up. It’s important she knows you’re not trying to do Mitch’s parents’ bidding, nor trying to be critical. Communicate your desire to help. If you want her to genuinely listen to your concerns, it’s crucial you really listen to her fears that James could be as painfully bullied as she was.
Although there are multiple issues to explore besides an impending separation, you need to choose your battles. I suggest focusing on James leaving and Brandi, with or without Mitch, attending counseling. If Brandi is inflexible, it may be due to her own childhood trauma. Tread carefully, then suggest she see a professional counselor to ensure she’s not transferring her fears onto James. While there’s no way to protect him from life’s pain growing up, being there for him day-by-day could help tremendously. Conversely, sending him away may cause the kind of intense distress from which she wants to protect him.
Consciously or unconsciously, she may also have a desire for a break from parenting; specifically, feeling overwhelmed with a new job and two children. This topic can be explored in individual therapy or couple counseling with Mitch.
It’s difficult to be kind when people make decisions you abhor, but any one of the family members — including James or his sister — may need you someday.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.