Raising Bilingual Kids when your In-laws are not in the Bilingual Realm

Regardless how good your relationship could be with your in-laws, if they don’t speak your language, there will always be challenges. The way you handle them could lead you to a happy bilingual parenting experience, or a constant battle with your beloved ones.

Yes, I know…I can almost imagine the face you are just doing as you read the title above. What a topic, right? No matter how lucky could be some with their in-laws, there will always be something big or small. Life is not that perfect.

Things might be ok before you have kids. Then, after your first child is born, you start to discover how different all of you are in so many ways, and the process to adjust to each other gets started (if you are lucky to finally adjust.)

Now, add this to the fact that when a couple decides to raise a bilingual child, the in-laws might not necessarily be bilingual.  

This could raise a lot of questions.

If you are lucky to have supportive in-laws, not even that can ensure that everything will be ok. They could still question some of your decisions or techniques.

They are the grandparents after all. They want to have a relationship with your child that involves being able to communicate with her or him, share traditions, teach them family values, childhood songs and books, etc. That is where most of their concerns might start.

Regardless of your bilingual parenting approach, or the method you and your partner decide to follow (MLAH or OPOL,) at some point, the grandparents will feel they are missing out if they cannot properly communicate with your child.

Sometimes they just don’t understand

I remember my in-laws were very anxious in the beginning when my oldest started to talk. They loved the idea of him being raised bilingual, and they were extremely supportive, but they were asking all the time: What is he saying? What are you saying? What is happening? And more than once, I caught their faces of frustration.

I was very new to raising bilingual kids. All I was reading until then, was about being very consistent speaking my language no matter what, no matter where, no matter who.

However, I saw this wasn’t easy for them, and I started to translate all the time. Sometimes, depending of the circumstance, I started to use English with my child and then repeat in Spanish.

It was exhausting, but my priority was family over language.

Some might say: “It’s their fault for not speaking another language” but is it? Shouldn’t we try to apply those famous skills that science has proved about bilinguals? Like empathy, or the ability to consider the perspective of others.

The importance of grandparents

We are not raising little robots, we are raising human beings with feelings and needs. When it comes to bilingual kids, there might be even more factors to take in account.

For example, some of them might be growing up in a bicultural family, and have half of their relatives leaving abroad.

Some might not be able to see the other grandparents or relatives more than once per year.

Some might not be able to see any of them. There are some kids who are only able see their grandparents through a screen.

There have been so many studies about the importance of the grandparents in the life of a child. Despite our personal issues, it will always be a good idea to think about ways to keep open minded about bilingual parenting goals with an open and compassionate approach to everyone in the family.

I am not saying that we have to disregard our goals, or let others dictate over our decisions to raise a bilingual child. But as bilinguals, we are supposed to have a flexible thinking and the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes.

Of course every case is different. Maybe you live with your in-laws and they keep fighting you on your decision to speak your language with your child. In that case you will probably have to seek more than tips on how to handle the situation and set boundaries.

Maybe you don’t live with your in-laws, but they take care of your kids while you work and they need to communicate with your child.

If there are issues, chances are they just don’t have enough information and are falling for those popular myths that scared certain people in regards bilingualism.

Tips to help your kids relationship with their grandparents

Whatever the case may be, here are some tips that can help you handle the situation for the sake of family union and your kid´s relationship with his or her grandparents.

  1. Identify if there are concerns or real issues regarding opposition.
  2. Find the reasons for their concerns: Are they afraid that your kids will not speak their language and be able to communicate with them? Do they think he/she is going to be confused or behind in terms of language development? Do they have a strong ideology about languages and nationalism?
  3. Educate them about bilingualism and have an open communication about your goals and the method you are following
  4. Make them part of the plan. Regardless any bilingual parenting approach you might have chosen (OPOL or MLAH or other) you can always ask grandparents to help you introduce and teach your child their language.
  5. Ask them for things they will like to share with your child in their language. Are there songs they used to sing to your partner or books they would love to read to your child?
  6. Let them choose some books that they want to share with your child and leave them at their hose for them to read to your kid when you visit them. That will also make it special and a bonding opportunity for both sides.
  7. Ask them how they will like your child to call them?

Things to take in account before adopting a radical position towards your in-laws in regards your bilingual approach:

  • How often do your kids see them?
  • How important is the relationship with them for your kids and your partner?
  • How much could the interaction with them in their language really affect your child’s language development in the minority language?
  • What can you compromise?

Research supports the importance of a close relationship with the grandparents, it even suggests it has a good influence on both grandparents and grandchildren. So don’t take for granted the opportunity to have a set of them close by if you can and try to apply all those great brain advantages you have just by being a bilingual to become a bridge between the cultures your child is growing up with.

In my case, I am glad my kids were able to communicate and have a special relationship with my mother in-law, at least for their first 9 and 6 years of life, before cancer left them without the only grandmother they have close by and were able to see without screen time.

Regardless how supportive or stubborn your in-laws are, just remember all they probably want is the best for their grandchildren, and to be able to understand what is going on.

So, before you adopt any kind of defensive position or find yourself falling on feelings of persecution, try to welcome some ideas of empathy that can help you navigate the situation and evoid conflicts that can jeopardize your and your child’s relationship with such an important people for his/her life.

Ana Calabrese is bilingual parenting advocate raising bilingual-bicultural kids in the U.S. You can find Ana’s original songs on Amazon, iTunes & Spotify. Download lyrics & tips, on her website & follow on Instagram where she is also a founding member of Red de Apoyo Crianza Bilingüe, an information hub in Spanish for parents raising bilingual kids.

Raising Bilingual Kids when Grandparents don't agree