On every street corner at this time of year, I see small inter-generational huddles: grandparents, parents, and kids, together for the holidays. Shopping for last minute presents, walking the neighborhood, stopping at the fudge shop on the corner. Everyone is bundled up, looking like colorful postcards of families happy to be together as Christmas inches closer.
But behind closed doors, and inside each person’s head, I know the snapshot gets a lot more…complicated. The holidays bring us all together, and all this togetherness brings up a lot of parenting issues. Especially since we parent so differently than most of our parents did.
On Michel Martin’s “Tell Me More” show on NPR, I recently dug into the complexity facing parents today when multiple generations get a little too heavy a dose of togetherness .
The issues on my side were always pretty heavy: my mom (now deceased) was an active alcoholic and my husband and I had to draw some extremely clear boundaries. We had to explain to the kids when they were very young - under five - what alcoholism was, and why Grams acted so strangely sometimes. Separately, my father was pretty much an an absentee grandfather, and we had to explain to our kids why he wasn’t around.
But looking back now, these were not bad lessons for my kids, although they were especially sad for me.
The issues on the in-laws side: my husband is the only child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors. His parents have been divorced since he was 18 months old, so our kids have four grandparents/ stepgrandparents and an intense family dynamic. My husband's parents, who are lovely and kind, want to be intensely involved in the kids' lives, and we've had to draw boundaries there too. Also their European roots bring with them a few (in my mind) sexist attitudes towards women's roles, with a heavier emphasis on service than I espouse.
All this intergenerational “difference” forced us, as parents, to have lots of frank conversations with the kids about World War II, divorce, women’s traditional roles, and the importance of drawing boundaries even among people whose only fault is loving you too much.
The other contributors on the NPR segment had a range of advice drawn from their diverse backgrounds:
1. Set explicit boundaries with your parents before they arrive: kids must be buckled in car seats even to go to the supermarket, no chocolate after 7 pm, no swear words, etc.
2. Set explicit expectation with your kids before their grandparents arrive: lots of hugs, thank you’s, asking what they want to do first, etc.
One person said he tells his parents that grandparenting is a privilege and they need to respect his parenting style.
Another one tells her kids that grandparents are a privilege and children need to respect their elders.
But not one of us suggested avoiding family at the holidays. Even when the postcard has a few jagged edges, even if we bite our tongues, hold our breath, and suffer heated conversations that remain only in our heads, family togetherness at the holidays is what the holidays are all about.
Long into the future, when we are grandparents ourselves,ModernMom.com