It's the season when extended families -- who may not see much of one another during the year -- come together to celebrate the seasonal holidays. Thanksgiving is upon us, and if popular culture is to be believed, many parents and their adult children look forward to the holiday with a mix of pleasure and worry about how everyone will get along.
To find out how to make the holiday more enjoyable for the extended family, I went to my studies of older Americans' advice for younger people. The lives of the 2,000 elders translate to the experience of around 160,000 Thanksgivings. Here's what they recommend for a harmonious holiday together.
Eliminate Politics from the Dinner Table Discussion
When you are together at Thanksgiving, the elders tell us, make contentious political arguments out of bounds. The elders say that these conflicts are simply unnecessary. Often, the urge is to make your loved ones "really understand" what's going on in society and to show them how irrational or wrong-headed they are politically.
The elders' guidance: Get your family to make it a rule to take noisy and unnecessary political debates off the table. (Remember, we're not talking here about a lively, enjoyable political discussion; they mean the kind that ends with slamming doors and a spouse crying in the car).
Gwen Miles, 94, after many angry family fights over Democrats versus Republicans, put her foot down:
I made the rule that there would be no discussions of politics when we were all together. And I said to my husband: "If Dad starts in about politics, I'm going to walk out of the room and you come see what's wrong with me because I don't want to hear this anymore."
The elders recommend applying this same rule to other "hot-button" issues (in my extended family, Red Sox versus Yankees is right up there). When buttons are pushed on a repetitive and sensitive topic, "just saying no" to the debate is an excellent -- and potentially relationship-saving -- option.
Don't Try to Fix Each Other's Life at Thanksgiving
When it comes to parents relating to their adult children, the elders are unequivocal: Let them live their own lives. They sum up this principle as: Don't interfere unless they ask for your help. As Harriet, age 79, told me:
Give your kids their own lives. Don't make demands on them. Just be there for them when they need you. And certainly don't tell them what to do.
Joyce, 90, agreed: ]
It's their life. It's not my life. They all have their own way to do things and if they get into trouble and want some help, they'll come to me.
Thanksgiving is not the time to exhort your child to get out of a relationship or get into one, to get a new job or stay in the old one, or to get his or her life on track. And the same holds true in the other direction: This is not the time for adult offspring to push the folks to sell the house or to start exercising. Let the holiday also be a break, the elders say, from trying to change one another.
Don't Take Everything Personally
The elders recommend an important strategy when the family is all together: de-personalize negative interactions as much as you can. By considering, for example, how parents' (or parents-in-law's) background and upbringing influence their attitudes and behavior, it's possible to take conflict less personally and achieve some emotional distance in the relationship. Annie, 81, lived near her parents-in-law for most of her married life and the relationship was not an easy one. But when they got together on holidays, she made this rule:
Rather than assume the worst, it's more helpful to assume that they are saying things to you because they want to help their child and you. Try to realize that their intentions are good and sometimes people, especially as they get older, can't change the way they deal with others in their life.
Parents can take the same approach toward their adult children.
Remind Yourself Why You Are Doing It
This final tip from the elders is one that many have used like a mantra in difficult family situations. Tell yourself this: the effort to accommodate your family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer -- both to them, and to yourself. The closest thing to a "magic bullet" for motivating yourself to put the effort into a Thanksgiving gathering, the elders tell us, is to remember that you are doing it because you love your family. Talking about in-laws, Gwen, 94, said: "You may not like your in-laws very much but you certainly can love them and stay close to them." According to our elders, stepping back and taking this larger view can get you through the pumpkin pie with a minimum of stress.