“Is your family coming to visit for Thanksgiving?"
I was in a conversation with several others one Sunday when this question was asked. The question was an innocent one, but the receiver literally blanched when it was directed at him. He hemmed and hawed for a moment before explaining why this wasn’t a good idea.
The main reason? His parents couldn’t keep from constantly offering “advice” and counsel about how he and his wife are raising their children. It has gotten so bad with this guy and his family that the stress from his parents’ constant critique has become a strain on their marriage—so, for the sake of his immediate family’s health, they have chosen to limit their time with in-laws significantly.
These parents are the very model of what author Marshall Shelley described as “well-intentioned dragons” in his book of the same title. Although Shelley was describing people in the church—and how ministers might be prepared for such “dragons” and minister to them more effectively—his description of the situation from the very beginning of the introduction fits perfectly with only the slightest modification: “The community that gathers in the name of [family] is often populated by problem people who make things much, much harder for everyone."
If my experience as a pastor is any indication, I think this is a large and growing problem for the current generation of parents. Before you pass the rolls around the table this season—and deal with all of the relational complexity that comes from the holidays—it may be useful to consider why, and to offer a bit of pastoral advice.
[A quick disclaimer for my own extended family: This post isn’t aimed at anyone, and I timed it intentionally for between the holidays so that it wouldn’t come across as if it was. That said, I think what I have to say applies to just about anyone and everyone…]
For starters, let’s think about who we’re talking about. While this problem of well-intentioned dragons can be a sibling or even an older niece or nephew, it is usually a parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent. This means that, in all likelihood, they are from the Baby Boomer or Silent generation. (If you really want to get your head around generations, their “archetypes,” and how these play out in family and social situations, you have to look into the generational theories of Neil Howe and William Strauss.)
If they are from the Silent generation (born 1925–1942), then they may tend to be highly conventional yet possessing confused morals; expectant of disappointment—and even fatalistic—while having desires for ideals that are either long-dead archetypes or impossible to reach; and often holding out a standard for work, family, culture, and especially retirement that are very different from the world we live in today, yet they firmly believe that everything they experienced could (and should) be attainable for their children and grandchildren. They are also dealing with the internal trauma of feeling the increased loss of control of things around them, both on an individual level (they are aging and facing the realities of retirement, physical and mental frailty, and the death of many of their peers)—and may grasp for every opportunity to exert control where they believe they can.
Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers understand cultural change and even counter-culture in ways that generations before them didn’t (remember, this was the generation that brought us hippies); however, they have also lived their entire adult lives with a kind of entitlement and self-centeredness that was unprecedented before them and hasn’t been seen since. This was and is the “me” generation, and therefore they believe that they remain the driving force behind every activity, event, or decision; they are even more confused morally than the generation before them, yet they consider themselves (individually, not as a generation) to be the standard by which others should be measured; they are optimistic about authority, hierarchy, and tradition—therefore considering their role in the family to be the de facto center. Whereas the Silent generation fears their control is slipping away, the Boomers are utterly confident that they will remain in control until their death (an event which they are still not entirely convinced will actually happen).
This is the generational baggage that parents, aunts, uncles, and many grandparents are bringing to your Thanksgiving table tomorrow! This is not to mention the various issues that may affect the situation further: the parenting models that were—for good or ill—put before them when they were younger; the emotional, psychological, and spiritual struggles and conflicts that have been, or still are, at play in their lives; the circumstances they are in, and how they press upon them (be they trouble at work, strife within their own marriages, being shaken by cultural or world events, etc.).
And let’s not discount the fact that, for several generations now, the transition from “parent-young child” relationships to “parent-adult child” relationships has been a persistently difficult change to navigate. Some parents simply have never learned how to relate to their own children as adults, and so they go on parenting as if their twenty-something or thirty-something (or forty-something) child still needs their approval for every decision, and that they have both the right and the responsibility to correct whatever they deem to be a mistake or error in their child’s judgment. Short of feeling free to bend them over their knee and spank them, nothing has really changed in the parent-child dynamic in so many families.
More Reasons for This Phenomenon
So that’s the background. Now consider what is at work in our culture now, today, and how it affects these family dynamics…
For one thing, we are in an age where there are “experts” all around us, and their so-called expertise is for topics and subjects that are not always academic or matters of certainty. There are dozens of books proclaiming the “right” way to raise children—despite the fact that they often contradict one another blatantly—and hundreds of others who are claiming expertise in parenting because their field abuts the border of this nebulous category of knowledge (read: psychologists, pediatricians, etc.). Whereas parenting was once understood as something that was largely mastered by experience and influenced by the monoculture that they young family existed within, now it is something that we are convinced can be studied and universal truths grasped about it, while the multi-cultural world we live in exerts diverse influences on our thoughts and views on what makes for “good” parenting.
(This, too, is partly an artifact of generational influence—both the Silent and the Boomer generations revere academia and the culture of expertise—but it is also the fruit of changing world philosophies and the expanding sense of global culture that we live within.)
Whereas even a few generations ago there was not enough information about parenting available, today there is such a surfeit of information (and, even more, opinion) about parenting that no one should be any more certain about it than they ever have been. Yet, the tendency is not to look at this objectively and recognize the uncertainty of it all, but to latch onto one or two “experts” and evangelize their views—which, it just so happens, probably line up pretty closely with the even lesser-informed opinions and views that are held by those latching onto them.
The “Truth” about Parenting
There ARE “right” and “wrong” ways to parent. The problem is that the line between them is wide, fuzzy, and gray.
An analogy (one I’ve used before) may help here: to say that someone is “middle class” means very little objectively. It might mean that, most months, all of the bills get paid on time and no one misses meals if they don’t want to; or it may indicate that the big decision next year is whether to buy a boat or that time-share you’ve been looking into. Usually, simply saying someone is “middle class” means either, “Not as poor as so-and-so” or “Not as rich as so-and-so.” It is a term of comparison.
Apart from the clear “right” or “wrong” categories of parenting (and even here there seems to be some soft edges), parenting advice is much like this. It may be a little good but mostly bad, or it may be a little bad but mostly good.
The Bible helps us with the “right” and “wrong” categories. Careful attention to biblical principles on parenting, ethics and morality, character development and sanctification, and love will firm up the softer edges of right and wrong when it comes to parenting.
However, God did not see fit to provide a parenting manual (as we think of one, at any rate) within the realm of Scripture. Rather, God demonstrates that there are some good parents who do well with some children and poorly with others, and some bad parents for whom some kids still turned out alright. And even these are examples, and not normative in their form or presentation.
Therefore, we have to recognize that no parenting strategy, system, or set of principles will be both explicit and also biblical. Any of them will invariably venture into speculation, opinion, and/or matters of experience. (And since one parent’s experience is inevitably different from another’s, even the most experienced parent can offer only so much counsel and wisdom to another.) We have to hold these things loosely.
What to Do: If You’re the “Dragon"
Some of this—maybe a lot of it—hits pretty close to home for some readers. Maybe this is you exactly, and you don’t even realize it. Here’s a diagnostic: if you’re related to parents (of children any age up through adulthood) and you offer unsolicited advice with any frequency, you probably are falling into the category of “well-intentioned dragon” for them. Of course, I can’t comment how much this bothers them; it may roll right off their backs, or it might be creating trauma in their marriage! (Or anywhere in-between.)
What can you do? Here are some suggestions:
- First and foremost, please care about this. The chances are good that at very least, whether you realize it or not, you are damaging your relationship with your child (or grandchild, nephew, niece, cousin, sibling, etc.—insert relationship for the parent in question here). There may be more damage than you are aware of (witness the guy I mentioned in the introductory paragraphs), but you should care about this for no other reason than the self-preservation of whatever relationship you have with your relative: if you want to be a welcomed, healthy presence in their lives—and I assume that you do, since you are “well-intentioned”—then you should take note of what I am saying.
- Next, recognize that you don’t understand the situation like the actual parents do. If their kid is rebellious, overly quiet, disobedient, overly obedient, or whatever pathology you are sure you have identified, it can be way too easy to assume that you have fully comprehended the situation. I can tell you this with certainty: unless you have lived with this family for more than a year, then you do not understand all of the dynamics. Maybe it has been long enough that you forget how drastically the behaviors, attitudes, and life patterns change when there is company in the house—even, or especially, family. In 95% of contemporary households, there is almost no chance that you have succeeded at being the normal presence in the kid’s life that you would need to be to observe him/her in their normal, natural life patterns.
- Also, you need to realize how condescending your input may sound. It probably comes across as if you are either a know-it-all or an over-simplistic naif if you come up with “have you tried doing x?” or “all you need to do is…” Here again, you are coming into a situation that these parents live with every day and probably have spent hours, if not cumulative days, trying to deal with. It’s not possible that a one-sentence solution is the answer to the whole problem, or even part of it. (If they don’t outright roll their eyes, it’s because they are striving hard to obey the fifth commandment.)
- Please, also: watch it with the passive-aggression. You know what I mean: instead of telling your relative what you think they ought to be doing, you’ll drop “hints” by posting articles on their Facebook page or buying them a subscription to a parenting magazine. (Congratulations: now you have crossed the line from merely butting in to butting in and lying about it!) Assuming a passive-aggressive stance is deceitful, untrusting, condescending, AND even more damaging to a relationship than a direct approach—and the even worse news for you is that it doesn’t even work: healthy people often just delete the e-mails and throw out the magazines, regarding your advice as even less valuable each time they do.
- Finally, wait until you are asked to weigh in. You successfully raised a child of your own, and possibly more than one! Chances are good that you probably do have some good wisdom to share—though it is probably more from your own experience as a parent than from some book or website that you visited. Your family members know this, and it’s likely that they have a lot of respect for it. When they are ready—and when they recognize that your experience has real relevance to the situation(s) they are dealing with—they will ask you for advice. This is really what you want, not just because you are itching to share your thoughts but also because now they are ready to truly listen to you and take your counsel to heart. This is one of those times where the hard work of waiting will pay big dividends, both in your relationship with them and in your own sense of personal satisfaction.
What to Do: If You’re the One under Fire
If this has hit close to home for you, as well, then you probably don’t need a diagnostic. In case you do, consider this: if the anticipation of Thanksgiving (or any other family-oriented holiday) causes you to experience any feelings other than love, nostalgia, and hospitality, then you probably need to read on and take at least one or two of these ideas to heart.
Here are some suggestions for dealing with well-intentioned dragon family members in a more healthy way:
- You also need to care about this. You may not realize how much the dynamics of your family relationship are unhealthy and even damaging. We all grow up assuming that our family is normal, and those other families are the weird ones; this can continue well into adulthood, even when a spouse and our own children are introduced into the mix. It’s not wrong to long for unhealthy aspects of relationships to be different, and if you struggle to allow yourself to care that may be a good sign that this has a deeper hold on your than you realize.
- Also, you need to be attentive to how this affects the others in your immediate family. Hopefully, you already have your finger on the pulse of your marriage enough to recognize how difficult it may be for your spouse to be with certain members of your family; if not, then ask him/her outright! (But be prepared to hear an answer that could make you feel like you are being forced to choose between your spouse and your parent/grandparent/etc. And here’s another thing to be prepared for: you already made that choice when you committed to your spouse in marriage.) You might be able to shrug off the nagging critique of your parenting, but it could really get under the skin of your spouse. It may also be affecting your children in ways that aren’t immediately apparent; at very least, it is teaching them about the way that their parents relate to other adults in the extended family, probably in ways that you wish they would not learn.
- Beware of “co-dependency” in your relationship(s) with extended family. “Co-dependency” is when a (dysfunctional) relationship enables you—or someone else—to remain in a state of immaturity or irresponsibility. If you find that “it’s just easier” to go along with the unsolicited advice you’re given from a well-intentioned dragon than to find your own way, you may very well have a co-dependent relationship with that dragon. That’s not good! It needs to change, for your health and for the health of your family.
- Also beware of “triangling” in relationships. This is a lesser-known problem, but can be equally as damaging. Relational triangling (the unhealthy kind) is when a third person is a necessary presence for the relationship to exist or advance in the way that one member wants or needs it to. An example would be: father has strong opinion about adult daughter’s parenting style, and suggests to son/brother that he needs to encourage sister/daughter to change in a certain way. (This can be a form of passive-aggression, but it can also take other forms.) Triangling gets a little tricky in a marriage, because the husband and wife are “one flesh” and therefore can function healthily as a relational unit—but often it can be unhealthy, even when the third part of the triangle is the spouse to the second member of it. Some extended families have all kinds of triangles, and the family members rarely deal directly with relational matters. Start moving away from these immediately!
- Don’t be afraid to say “no” to unsolicited advice. If the well-intentioned dragon in your family give you the opportunity, simply decline their advice! Maybe they lead in with, “Can I make an observation about so-and-so and her behavior?” Don’t be slow to respond, “No thank you—we’re dealing with it in the way that we believe is best.” Even if they don’t give you such an easy “out” then you can find ways to politely refuse; whether it is, “Thanks for sharing your thoughts, but we are already well-sourced with information about how to address this,” or, “You know, I have so many articles I want to read as it is; you can stop posting those parenting columns to my Facebook,” one of the best ways to deal with a well-intentioned dragon in the family is to address their advice and critique with a polite but firm comment that will make it clear that it is unwelcome.
- Above all else, protect your family. Your marriage and your children are your first priority in the grand scheme of family relationships. Lay down some boundaries for your extended family if the polite refusal (above) doesn’t work; make it clear to them that, unless you’ve asked for it, their input about your parenting is not welcomed. If, after that, protecting them means that you need to spend the holidays apart from certain relatives, you should do that. This is a hard choice, but it is the right one. (And if you make this choice, don’t believe it if other family members offer you the lie that says, “You’re keeping the rest of us from enjoying the holidays by refusing to come.” YOU aren’t the one keeping them from that—your unhealthy, well-intentioned dragon family member is.)
A counselor I saw once used this analogy: when a damaging, unhealthy family member presents themselves to you, it is as if they are coming to your doorstep with muddy shoes. The healthy response is to say to them: “We have worked hard to clean the floors in our house; you are welcome to come in, but you need to take off your dirty shoes and leave them at the door.” If they do it, then welcome them in and engage them honestly and earnestly in the relationship that you have with them; if they refuse, then simply say, “Okay—we would love for you to come in, but we can’t have you inside with your muddy shoes; it’s your choice."
It’s hard to make that “leave and cleave” break from relating to parents, siblings, etc. as your immediate family to relating to them as extended family. Once you are married, however, that break must happen—and the struggle of a well-intentioned dragon family member offering unsolicited counsel for your parenting choices is a perfect illustration of why.
If you’ve read this far, you probably really do care about the well-being of your child/relative and their circumstances. Given that, let me broaden this out a bit more: “parenting” in this post is simply a microcosm for a more general harmful and sinful attitude toward others.
Maybe you don’t offer any unsolicited advice on parenting to your family members; they may not even have children. But maybe you’re guilty of being the same kind of “well-intentioned dragon” about another issue: work, health, appearance, lifestyle choices, weight, dating, financial matters—all of these are potential candidates for the same sort of damaging intrusion that unsolicited input from well-intentioned dragons too often is.
Check yourself: are you “butting in” where you don’t have a right to? One way to diagnose this is simply to ask, “Would I say this to a peer?” (Sometimes even that’s not enough, and hopefully if you’re the kind of person that speaks up too frequently in unwelcome ways then you know that by now, and have learned to keep it under control.)
Paying attention to this is, in my pastoral assessment, probably the biggest—and hardest—step in forging a healthy relationship with a relative as they move through the varying stages of life and adulthood. Your child (sibling, niece, etc.) does NOT have to think, feel, or act like you in order to be someone who loves you and whom you love well. Please, for your sake and theirs, stop trying to make them do so.