Dear Rachel,

I have three daughters, ages 16, 14, and 11. While I know their grandmother loves them, she seems to favor the eldest, often doing things with her or for her that she doesn't do with my middle daughter. Just yesterday, my mother-in-law went shopping with my two oldest girls. She ended up buying the eldest two pairs of Puma shoes, while the middle one came home empty-handed. Unfortunately, things like this happen all the time. My daughter doesn't say anything to her grandmother, but I know this is hurting her and damaging her self-esteem. She simply feels that her grandmother doesn't love her as much. What is the best way to approach this situation?

Upset Mom
Jacksonville, FL

Dear Upset Mom,

Favoritism can be so hurtful. From what you describe, I can understand why your 14 year old may be struggling with self-esteem. It sounds like she is receiving some very potent messages about her worth in her grandmother’s eyes. The gifts and attention given to her sibling appears to be disproportionate. But before we incriminate Grandma, I think it wise to do our best to understand where she may be coming from.

We have a Torah commandment to “judge each other favorably.” This means that before we start analyzing your mother-in-law’s actions, we must start with the premise that there is a rational explanation for her behavior. For example, was the initial purpose of the shopping trip discussed beforehand? Was the eldest rewarded for something she did, while your second daughter failed to do something that was expected of her? Did they originally set out with a particular agenda to purchase only for the 16 year old? Are there some hurt feelings on Grandma’s side because of something your 14 year old did or did not do?

There may not be answers to these questions that will satisfy you or your 14 year old, but, by giving Grandma the benefit of the doubt, you make her a little more human and approachable.

There is a story of a well-known rabbi named Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov. He was notorious for finding the good in every situation. One day, he came across a Jew eating a sandwich on Yom Kippur, and Reb Levi said, “Oh, you must not know that it is Yom Kippur today.” And the Jew said, “I know.” “Oh, so then you must not have been taught that on Yom Kippur it is forbidden to eat or drink,” Reb Levi retorted. “No, I learned that,” said the Jew. “Oh, so then you must be so sick that you have to eat.” “No, Reb Levi,” The Jew answered, “I feel fine.” Reb Levi turned his eyes heaven-ward and said “Master of the Universe, you see how holy your Jews are, they don’t even lie to their Rabbis!”

I think that your 14 year old definitely needs to speak to her grandmother about how she is feeling. But before she does so, she needs to take a long look at the good that exists within her grandmother. Whenever we have something difficult to share with someone, it is always wise to remember that they are human, fallible, and capable of wonderful things. Then, she can make a special time to speak with her grandmother and tell her how she feels.

It is also really important for your daughter to know that sometimes people hurt us, and they absolutely don’t realize what they have done. The responsible and mature thing to do is to be honest with her grandmother and tell her how hurt she feels. If she is really uncomfortable with this idea, maybe she could begin by writing a letter and either reading it aloud to her grandmother or allowing her read it alone and respond in her own time.

This situation is really about your daughter and her grandmother. While it may be tempting to intervene on her behalf, I think that it will be far more meaningful and constructive if your daughter approaches this with her directly. Growing up can be down-right painful at times. But the growth that comes out of facing a difficult situation and coming to a resolution or deeper understanding because of it, is a gift that she will cherish forever.

(However, if after she speaks to her grandmother nothing changes, I would then suggest speaking to your mother-in-law and explaining that this is painful and hurting your child, and cannot continue.)

It’s not easy to tell people we love that they have hurt us. But if we really care about them, then we owe it to them (and ourselves) to gently show them where a correction needs to be made.

I hope this works out. I wish her (and you) much strength, confidence and clarity with this.