Every summer, my little family of four heads travels to the family cottages in Northern Michigan. Once there, we meet up with three generations of cousins, two sets of grandparents, and a multitude of friends. The friends’ cottages are also full of multiple generations across their family trees. Intergenerational living in cottages is a lot of fun, but it can also have its share of challenges.
What does this have to do with you? Intergenerational living is subject to a long list of struggles—and joys—that others don’t have. But at the heart of this complex dynamic, the challenges are the same: human issues and disagreements ignited by generational differences that every family navigates. And you can apply these principles of emotional intelligence to your situation!
Challenges in Intergenerational Families
One of the main challenges circling intergenerational living is specifically related to how to care for, communicate with, and entertain the youngest of the family, the children of the children of the children. How do two and three generations of adults simultaneously care for, nurture, and help to discipline the children, especially when these adult generations might have dramatic differences in their child-rearing views?
In our cottage community, no matter where one is—waterfront, tennis court, baseball field, music hall, or walking in the woods—generation after generation, and conversation after conversation, people can’t help but comment on others' parenting. Questions are raised and discussed the challenges of intergenerational child-rearing. Throughout all the stories of joy and fun, here are some of the questions and comments floating around:
- Why are grandparents so easy (or hard) on the grandchildren?
- Why don’t the grandchildren listen to their grandparents?
- It is vexing to watch adult children parent their children.
- My parents don’t know how to interact with my children.
- The grandkids are much better behaved when their parents aren’t around.
- My sister is so hard on my children, but her children get away with everything!
- The children are so disrespectful!
Acknowledge and Honor Parenting Perspectives and Differences!
Even with the challenges, it’s an ongoing tradition! Our families continue to get together every summer to vacation together. How can these families close the gap, ease the conflicts, and increase their understanding? What can be done to make intergenerational living and child-rearing, whether in communities or on vacation, a little less challenging? And how can you apply these lessons to a family that also deals with similar problems daily?
First off, recognize the potential reasons for different views around child-rearing.
It is safe to say, for many generations, children were raised with two general methods: “Do what I tell you to do when I tell you to do it!” and “Children are to be seen but not heard.”
Families and communities throughout the country have had these same two attitudes driving the child-rearing train for decades. A child was expected to follow these edicts given by a parent, grandparent, or other adults in the family (or out of the family for that matter). It was unspoken and expected.
However, over the last sixty years or so, these two widely prevalent child-rearing tactics have gone by the wayside. In modern society, as these approaches disappeared, scores of other parenting philosophies arose. Unlike generations of previous families, modern families no longer have clear, intergenerational, multi-community standards for child-rearing. There is no culturally accepted formula of who is “in charge” or what is “right vs. wrong” with regards to child/adult behavior and interactions. Thus, each modern family has carved out new and different examples of child-rearing protocols.
Related reading: "Under One Roof: How to Keep the Peace in a Multigenerational Household"
Ease the Stress of Intergenerational Clashes with Understanding
These different generational opinions around parenting can cause significant stress among intergenerational households, whether they live together year-round or only for a week or two. Perhaps, no two adults in the same room agree on adult and child behavior expectations, proper communication, etiquette, or household rules. These varying perspectives, as one might guess, are a springboard for vacation challenges.
Let’s imagine that my grandparents, parents, myself, and my son are all in the cottage at 5 p.m. after a long day at the beach with no dinner in sight. As my son is nutritionally crashing and moving into the status of a hungry youth, his behavior unravels. Immediately, three generations are trying to get him to “behave.”
The adults of earlier generations are thinking or saying things like, “Pull yourself together! We just had fun at the beach!” or “Why are you so out of control? Can’t you just be quiet so we can make dinner?” The younger parents are grabbing fruits, veggies, some crackers, a blanket, and a book while simultaneously sequestering the strung-out boy to a quiet, zero-stimuli room. Generations 1 and 2, of course, think that generation 3 is spoiling their child or bowing to his tantrum. In truth, generation 3 is only trying to meet the basic needs of an exhausted child. Once he finds his balance, he can engage happily in the night’s events.
My parenting style is vastly different from previous generations. When my son is melting down due to hunger, I don’t generally yell at him to control his behavior. Instead, I first ask him what he’s eaten containing any resemblance of nutrition. Next, I ask if he would like something to eat. Then, sometime later, when he's in a good head space for reflection, I inquire about how his lack of nutritional intake felt in his body. I help him connect his choice with his behavior and altered emotions and ask if he wants to repeat this experience. By and large, my son doesn't like those famished, blood-sugar meltdowns and can identify events that contributed to the missteps in his behavior. Lastly, we brainstorm ideas to avoid the discomfort of nutritional capsizing in the future.
KEY POINT: Don't tell, ask. By evaluating how my son got to his unpleasant result, he is learning how to think, not just how to comply with adults. This way when I'm not around, he'll be equipped to handle himself effectively.
Let me tell you; this is NOT what my grandparents would have done for me; it is not even what my parents would have done. I would have been told to pull myself together and stop acting like a brat.
Child-rearing isn’t the same as it was even thirty years ago, and it can be hard for families to adjust. As younger generations use new parenting methods, the drastic change can cause the older generations’ eyes to roll and judgments to fly.
Why isn’t parenting the same? Why don’t we still parent with “Do what I tell you" and “Children are to be seen but not heard”? Some families might still follow these principles, but many more families don’t.
Nowadays, scores of parenting books, classes, and lectures are available unlike when my parents and grandparents raised their children. Many of these parenting models have the common threads of building self-understanding, empathy, emotional understanding, negotiation skills, giving choices, and setting boundaries. It seems that parenting is not just about getting children to listen to adults and obey mandates anymore.
These parenting concepts are relatively new in Western Society. And with this surge in psychology and parenting research, a couple of things have become clearer:
1) "Good behavior" is not the end goal. Raising children to be free-thinking, capable, and loving adults is.
2) Through observation and reflection, we can parent and grandparent with new awareness, understanding, and empathy.
3) The new thrust is to empower our children to become engaged, holistic members of their families and communities rather than passive members who comply with whatever adult is in the room.
There has been a shift in parenting that says, you, my child, are a human. You are worth listening to; you have unique experiences, perspectives, emotions, and ideas. And I want these qualities to be integral to your developmental years and our relationship rather than you just doing what I tell you.
Now, this is not to say that grandparents do not want children to be empathetic, holistic human beings. Adults desire for children to have respect for themselves and the people around them. I am just saying that the old approach to child-rearing is being replaced with a new one, and it can cause many intergenerational conflicts.
Tips to Build Better Understanding Between Generations
- Take intergenerational differences into account as families carve out their vacations and time together.
- Seek understanding and tolerance. If one generation cannot see or understand the different viewpoints of another generation, it does little good for anyone.
- Connect your parenting approach to your highest values.
Using the example of my son’s meltdown after a long day at the beach, if I am parenting with emotional intelligence as my value, time is spent helping my son understand his behavior. By doing so, he can make better choices next time as well as learn to listen to his body’s needs. I will parent much differently than if I am parenting with obedience and respect of elders as my leading values.
- Ask yourself: "What is motivating you as a parent or grandparent?"
→ Frustration with behavior? My way or the highway?
→ Seeking obedience over free-thinking and playfulness?
→ Are you trying to nurture emotional intelligence?
→ What about the other adults in the cottage—what values are motivating? Their parenting style?
→ What common ground can be created and respected?
- Reflect on why you parent (or grandparent) the way you do and share your perspective while listening to others. Have conversations around child-rearing views. The better we understand each other and honor differences in child-rearing, the better we will navigate interactions with varied personalities and opinions in a living situation, no matter how temporary.
- Make necessary adjustments! In our own homes, with our own systems, we can operate freely without generational conflicts, an outsider’s criticism, or the interference of others. However, when there are varying generations and different families interacting under the same roof, we need to make adjustments and plan for the possible clashes.
For example, maybe obedience is essential to some people in the house, so the children need to be prepped to honor these guidelines before showing up at the cottage. If obedience and quiet indoor play are important, adjust the day’s schedule, so the children are well-fed, well-rested, and response-able to be obedient.
Or maybe cleanliness and order are a big deal for one family. Then work out ways to help the children rinse their feet after playing in the sand; know how to load a dishwasher; require them to pick up after themselves, etc. Or have children responsible for keeping an area clean and tidy; they are generally more likely to keep a space clean if they are the ones doing the cleaning.
If members of the family have incompatible sleep needs, set up early-to-bed sleeping spaces and late-to-bed sleeping spaces, use white noise machines, have activities ready for the early risers to do quietly, or set up some tents in the yard to accommodate nature lovers.
- Plan for conflicts and disagreements. Things will not always go smoothly, and that is alright. We move out of our parents’ homes and create our personal lifestyles. When there is a bit of strife between the generations or even within them (i.e., adult sibling differences), recognize it is temporary. It won’t be long before you are back in your own space and routines.
- Be willing to say no. There are always options other than squeezing into a cottage with multiple families. If the situation is too problematic, then find another way to participate. Set clear boundaries and don’t stay at the family vacation home; rent your own space, so you have privacy and a place to chill.
Suggest other locations and times to spend quality time with extended family that feels more comfortable for you. Likewise, if you are an older generational member, don’t invite the younger generations to stay in the same house. The noise level alone can be stressful when you’re used to a peaceful environment. Or perhaps, you enjoy being a part of the activity since you miss the days your home was full of children, laughter, and vitality.
There are always solutions to getting along with each other. Empathy, clear boundaries, and understanding go a long way to building bridges between generations.
In closing, when I shared this topic with my son and the question, “Why is intergenerational cottage living is hard?” here’s what he said:
“I can’t believe someone would even ask that question. It’s because they [the grandparents] were raised that way, they are so much older than the grandkids, and when they were kids, kids were treated a lot differently than they are now.” ~William Hubbard, age 10
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