Dear Dr. Weisbord,
We are fortunate in having our parents living nearby and invite them often for Shabbos lunch. My wife is generous and caring and has always gone along with this arrangement. My parents are rather outspoken, especially my mother. I enjoy their conversation and am used to my mother’s opinionated ways. I mostly take them with a grain of salt. She can tell me I shouldn’t allow a child to do this or that, or criticize their behavior, and I just nod and then do what I want. However, it upsets my wife a lot. Last time they came over, the kids were a little wild, and my mother criticized our six-year-old. My wife got angry and told her she had no right to discipline our kids. My parents were in shock and hurriedly bentched and left. It was extremely unpleasant. I don’t know where to go from here. Do we owe them an apology? Should they come less often? Should my wife chill out? Our children are fairly young now, but how do we explain the situation to them when they are older? Any tips would be appreciated.
Wants Family Peace Again
Grandparents are important people in the lives of grandchildren. They can offer love and encouragement without the fears and worries that parents have. They can be a bit more generous, like taking the grandchildren out for a treat, where the parents weigh the pros and cons of overindulgence. In theory, having grandparents in town is a dream come true, and many people long for the ongoing, in-the-moment connection to the next generation.
The dream can become a nightmare, though, when expectations collide with reality and nobody confronts that collision – until it forces itself upon them, as in your case. Your mother’s outspokenness and “opinionated ways” are not new to the current situation, and while you are “used to it,” as you say, the criticism has clearly been causing a buildup of tension for your wife. Ideally, these behaviors can be dealt with from the time the grandchildren start arriving; still, I think there are things you can do to ensure a better relationship on all sides.
First and foremost, your job is to support your wife. It’s important that you do not dismiss her feelings or try to convince her that she can just take the criticism with “a grain of salt” or simply nod and then do what she wants, as you do. Whether it feels that way to you is not the point here: Your wife needs to know that you support her and take her feelings into consideration.
The second step is for you and your wife to realize that the grandparents mean well. They don’t wake up in the morning thinking that today they will undercut your parenting and interfere in your lives. They want the best for you, even if they don’t know quite how to deliver that.
The third part is the toughest, of course. It’s time to share your thoughts about boundaries and how you plan to respond when those boundaries are crossed. You and your wife will need to decide exactly what those boundaries are and how you define crossing the boundaries and undercutting your parenting. When you meet with your parents, tell them that you love and respect them, that you want them to be part of your lives and the lives of your children. The message is, “We have love and respect for you and we have boundaries that will protect our relationship and make it work.” The sooner you take care of this, the sooner your relationship can get back – not to where it was but to a better place. It’s all right if your parents feel a bit constrained at first. It’s a learning experience for everybody involved and worth the lesson.
Have a few lines ready for the inevitable times when your parents slip up. Instead of ignoring your mother’s criticism, you can say, “I appreciate your thinking and I’m okay with my way.” Or simply say, “Stay with me on this one, please.” While you thought your approach of ignoring some painful or interfering remarks was working, it actually worked against you in a few ways: It caused your wife to feel countermanded and angry, and it wasn’t good for your children to see your way being criticized. The kids need to know that decisions come from the two of you and are not subject to review. We’re all familiar with the saying that grandparents and grandchildren get along so well “because they have a common enemy,” but we don’t really want to live that way!
For grandparents, the best method is to be helpful, not intrusive; supportive, not judgmental; and to trust your children, even when you don’t agree completely. See something? Say nothing! If there is something major that grandparents feel needs to be addressed, it should not be said in front of the children. And probably the worst time to offer advice is when the children are misbehaving. That’s a great time for sympathy, not criticism.
Please keep in mind that this is a wonderful challenge to have, and it’s worth a lot of thinking and sensitivity to create an atmosphere of love and acceptance for all the generations. Hashem should continue to bless your parents with grandchildren with whom they have a deep, abiding relationship – and you can help make that happen.