I sat with Khyati (name changed), a lively 5-year-old and talked about her vacations to her grandparents'. Khyati talked animatedly with her eyes wide open; the way only children can talk without any preamble. I asked her when she was going next. Her agile face immediately transformed into a mixture of sorrow and innocence, again, the kind only children can manage. "We may not go again; they had a fight."
Adult relationships are plagued with misunderstandings. I do not know of a single relationship close enough that has NO friction at all. Moms/daughters, Dads/daughters, Sons/moms, Dads/Sons, mothers-in-law /daughters-in-law, brother/sisters, even close friends; every relationship has its own sour points and those 'better-to-shut-up-than- to- talk" moments. Oh, yeah -- not to mention husbands and wives. Somehow, in all this, a child's relationship with other important adults (grandparents, etc.) should not get sidelined.
The most common and insidious ways that this happens are:
Complaining: Constant bickering about how we have been "wronged" by the other party, instills a sense of confusion first, then, distrust for people in growing children. Children are very highly equipped to read emotional signals and can become emotionally distant from everybody. Moreover, it can be a terrible let-down that the person so loved by them is projected in bad light. Many children grow up into adults with relationship issues because of this.
Putting barriers: When there are unambiguous signals that they (the children) should not see/meet/talk to the other "party" unless one adult apologizes to the other. We see a lot of this in hierarchical societies where a visual token of apology is expected before things can be "normal" again. Very young children may still want to spend time with the other, but may be too scared to ask barring their communication skills forever.
Vindicating yourself: Some adults put up an emotional smokescreen by justifying their actions to the child, (irrespective of whether he is ready for it or not) to make themselves look good. Digging up the past to reinforce their own ideas and opinions of the other and worse still, drumming it into the child for their own benefit are more common than we would like. It could be because they are desperately looking to break a communication barrier somewhere or it could be just their insecurity that the child will judge them wrongly -- whatever the reason might be; the child deserves better than being a patron to the adult misery.
Judging the child's behavior based on preconceived opinions. "You have taken after your father's disgusting habit." We have heard this so many times. When they feel powerless about their own child-raising methods, they launch into an indirect attack on the counterpart. What they skip to notice is that that statement is having a very damaging effect on the child -- because the child has come to identify himself with the counterpart as well!
So, is there no way out? There might be, if we stepped back and reconsidered our positions.
In cases of a physically or emotionally abusive relationship, it's a much better approach to sit the child down and talk to him about the choices. If the relationship has to end, he deserves to know why, and what he should expect next. But feeding him bits of our own anguish every now and then, after having made a decision to stay in the relationship can be even more detrimental.
Most cases are non-abusive but annoying parts of a relationship. It is really a great policy to pledge to keep your children out of your issues. Even if you have just had a hot new fight with your parent or in-laws, refrain from stopping your children from spending time with them. It will help your children learn to separate issues from people. "Mom doesn't like granny doing this -- but that does not mean she doesn't love her anymore."
Are children never supposed to learn of your power struggles? One of my friends once lamented, "I wish I knew my mom had those struggles with my granny. It would have helped me understand her better as a person. Sometimes, I have judged her harshly." At one point, when the children seem ready, it's really okay to bring them to see our side of reason as part of a conversation rather than indiscriminate constant ranting. But even then, we need to make it amply clear that their relationship need not change based on our own.
Our children should not have to deal with the stress of our inability to get along with their loved ones. It's never a good idea to spill your unresolved issues onto the next generation. With the exception of risking their safety, involving a child in adult differences should never be an option. They have a right to make, build and foster their own relationships.
Our children really deserve all the love the world can offer.