A: Dear ktarpley19841:
I absolutely agree that it is important for all of your children feel that their grandparents try to be reasonably fair with their expressions of love. The favored stepson is likely to feel guilty inside about his special privileges eventually, even if he doesn't seem troubled on the surface at this time--and this isn't good for him either in the long run. The problem is that the grandparents may not be very sensitive to children's feelings; the issue of equal treatment among the grandchildren doesn't seem to have occurred to them. The grandparents may not have any awareness of having shown preferences--even if this pattern is obvious to others--and may simply feel that the older child is easier to manage. They may feel that three children at once are too much for them to handle.
Your best path to changing your in-law's behavior is to get your husband to help you, since his parents are not likely to listen to your point of view unless he--as their own son--joins with you as a team. Your husband may not have recognized the problem or he may recognize it but feel that nothing can be done about it. As a first step, you should find a time to speak alone with your husband, and express your concerns frankly about your children's natural reactions to unequal treatment. Try to keep your cool and be sure to listen respectfully to your husband's assessment of the situation, even if it is different from your own. It would be likely, for example, that your husband may feel somewhat protective of his parents and unwilling to acknowledge that the problem is as serious as it seems to you. Your goal is to find some common ground with your husband, even if there isn't complete agreement.
Next, go as a team to meet with the grandparents and ask for their help. You can explain that the problem of "being fair" is something that you and your husband are working on in general--so that the grandparents don't feel especially picked on, embarassed, or put on the spot. Try not to accuse or shame them (this might be hard, since you yourself may feel pretty upset about how they have acted). Your goal is not to be critical but to get them to think in new ways about their grandchildren's feelings. You want to get the grandparents on board as team members too. Perhaps alternating among the children, one at a time, would work better for sleep over experiences.
If your husband cannot help you here, or if you and he fail to get through to his parents with this message, then you might be stuck. In that case, you will have to explain calmly to all of your children that the world is full of different kinds of people and that their grandparents have a few strange quirks. Let your children each express themselves and respect the validity whatever they say. Your own sense of fairness as a mother is, in the end, much more important to their wellbeing.
Elizabeth Berger MD Child Psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character.