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Lessons to be learned from extended family time together


28Nov 2006

Having just completed the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, we now have an opportunity to do some reflecting and learning from the experiences we just had. Many extended families were able to visit one another and spend some extended time together. This opportunity can be both rewarding and frustrating (and often is both).

For many families, especially those in business together, the holidays provide an intensive experience in cross-generational relationship dynamics. Often, there is the senior generation (the patriarchs and matriarchs of the extended family, and sometimes, the founders and primary owners of the family business), the second generation (the “children” who are now adults themselves, ranging from early twenties to their forties), and the third generation (grandchildren ranging from infants to teenagers or early twenties, typically).

Points of tension arise from a number of issues:

*family members feeling “controlled” by their parents

*perceptions of “poor attitudes” among younger family members

*the extra demands placed on some family members

(food preparation, hosting visiting family members)

*relational conflicts among family members

*resentment of the imposition of “business talk” during

family gatherings and meals

*being bored or wanting to use one’s free time in another way.

Having lived through holidays as a member of all three generations, I have some observations of key issues that can make the family times less conflictual (and hopefully, more enjoyable).

First, senior generation members desire respect from younger family members. This respect is often expected through attendance at extended family gatherings. Part of this is due to the increasing value they place on “family” as they get older. Thus, not coming to the family gathering is viewed as an act of disrespect to the family and the family leadership.

Secondly, older family members tend to want appreciation for what they have done for the family (from making the meal and hosting the gathering, to their accomplishments in the business and the resulting financial benefits to the whole family). The converse of this issue is a disdain for any sense of entitlement they perceive among younger family members.

Second generation family members (adult children) also want respect
, but usually from their parents. Respect for this generation is communicated by being related to as an adult, not a child. That is, not being talked to in a condescending manner, not being told what to do (as in a command), and being recognized for what they are doing in their lives (either at work, in the home, or in the community).

A second issue for adult children is that they appreciate flexibility in planning and scheduling. They have busy lives and much to manage. They have to balance demands from both their family and their spouse’s family. And they can’t control their children’s independent choices – when (or whether) they will show up, how long they will stay at the gathering, and how much they will interact will others.

Third generation family members value freedom. As is true for all of us, they appreciate choice and resent feeling controlled. Therefore, planning large family gatherings in a way that provides some options and choices (with whom they will eat, a variety of activities to do after the meal, freedom to leave early) will ease potential tensions with this group.

An important issue to understand is the additional factor of personality styles and characteristics. There are extroverts (people who like being around others, and get “energy” from being with others) and introverts (individuals who like their “space” and get drained from being with others for too long). There are leaders, doers, background supportive individuals – all types of people.

Probably the most important personality type to understand in family gatherings (especially those who have family-owned businesses) is the “D” personality type. In one personality type system, the “D” personality is described with various “D” words: dominant, driven, decision-maker, determined, dogmatic.

Many times this is the patriarch and family-business leader. Obviously, this individual has accomplished much, demands respect from others, and leads the family (and usually the family gatherings).

My experience is that this personality type creates challenges during holiday family gatherings. The senior family leader can be overly demanding and domineering, running the family gathering like a business – giving commands to others, making executive decisions without considering input from others, and being offended if they are questioned.

On the one hand, family members have to realize they cannot change others (no matter who it is). As a result, individuals have to learn how to manage their expectations and reactions to others.

On the other hand, I have found that when the patriarch/founder is able to “back off” of their business leader role and be less controlling, more relationally oriented, and generally more gracious toward others – the extended family gathering goes well.

My own personal experience enters into the issue – having grown up with a driven, Depression-era entrepreneur and then moving into the patriarch role of my own nuclear family (I’m 49 and my children range in age from 15 to 23). Although I am not always a real high D, I can be domineering and overbearing, and have to work at “backing off” — which means giving my family and kids some space, the freedom to make choices, and for them to give their input on what we will do as a family. I have had some wonderful role models of older men who lead their families, but who do so graciously rather than through an overbearing dominance. I hope to grow more into that type of leadership.

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