With the last day of school behind us, I now look forward to the next milestone of the summer, The Big Family Trip. Not the one you take with your own spouse and kids but the one you take with your family, your siblings’ families, and your aging parents. That One. Ours is coming up in July. And, though my 80-year old father proclaimed to me on the phone one day after returning home last time that really, he only needs three days with my kids, we are doing it yet again. One full week together, all 11 of us in one house.
Ever since I became a parent, it’s been a little more challenging to coexist harmoniously with my own parents. It’s ironic, though, because I thought parenthood would bring us closer, by shining light on our similarities, and strengthening our connection. But, all it really seems to do is poke giant gaping holes in our relationship, causing heartache and stress. The judgments about how I rear my children are fierce and frequent. They can be sneakily subtle or blatant and bombastic. It has made cohabitation with the crew a bit gnarly to say the least. But I look forward to this years’ week together because I am armed with a new strategy that has been working well for me.
With this trip on the horizon for not just me, but likely many of you, I’m going to share my strategy, in the hopes it may also help you through your time, however long, with Your Entire Family. My strategy is a simple one. It’s so obvious and yet we all overlook it. It is this: Treat your family like your clients or boss.
I know – it sounds crazy, but let’s first consider the amazing diversity of the group of 11 people in my family, which comprises seven adults and four children. We are diverse in age with the oldest turning 81 and the youngest at 7. We are diverse in level of education, with some graduate degrees, some college, and some high school. We practice different religions, and some of us practice no religion at all. We have members who are ethnically and culturally different, making the game of charades or Trivial Pursuit a little more interesting, if not frustrating. Some of the women are Moms, some are not. Some are business owners and some are not. We are mostly liberal Democrats, but there is also one Republican. God help him. I could go on here, but the point is, we are as diverse a group as any office may be, and this makes it challenging to reach consensus on everything from what to do about dinner, how to spend the day, and how much to spend on accommodations. Every individual comes to every decision point with a unique set of needs and desires, a different value set and a strong opinion. Just because you are family, doesn’t mean you will all click.
On vacations past, I’ve cried the whole flight home, wondering how I was even related to these people, vowing never again. But now, with my new found strategy, I return home with my nerves intact. Now, I’d like to impart this wisdom to you. Here’s how to survive your family on vacation, using basic strategies employed at the office.
1. Change Your Tone. You know how we all have our business professional tone and lingo at the office, but on the drive home, we all morph back into our casual slang selves for family? Well, the first rule of surviving vacation with your extended family is not to do that. When you arrive to your vacation destination, maintain the business professional tone with your parents and siblings. I don’t mean be a stilted suit. You are not a stilted suit at the office, right? I mean, just be your most courteous self. No swearing, no back talk, no muttering under your breath. Enunciate. Speak slowly. Choose your words carefully. Use a positive, upbeat tone. Be assertive without being aggressive. Be affable. Don’t, whatever you do, let yourself slip into your old familial role, whatever that may be. I am the youngest, by the way, in case you’d like to psychoanalyze me as you read this. But, I swear this works wonders. Your whole family will see you differently and they will react differently to you. Treat them as you would a difficult colleague or boss, with courtesy, respect and the assumption of goodwill. You may not feel less annoyed by what they say and do, but you will survive. You can scream into your pillow late at night or on a jog on the beach, when no one is around.
2. Don’t React Emotionally. This is critical. Someone is likely going to say something to you that rocks you to your very core. Whatever you do, DON’T REACT EMOTIONALLY. Let the offending words roll over you like an angry ocean wave. Let the salty sentiment gently exfoliate the outer layer of your skin, but don’t let it penetrate in. Calmly acknowledge what was said with perhaps a genuinely said, “Interesting,” then, redirect the conversation elsewhere, or if you can’t, hum a tune in your head instead. I choose “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. Walk away whistling it.
3. Practice Socratic Questioning. You know this savvy management trick, right? Peel the onion. Don’t assume. Get to the heart, not by proclaiming answers, but by asking questions. “What do you mean? How’d that happen? Where did you learn that?” Asking questions (not in a judgy tone, but in a “pass the butter” neutral tone) instead of giving answers, not only shows others you are very interested in what they are saying, it has the added benefit of leaving your opinions and judgment out of the conversation, which can be triggers for arguments. It also helps to keep the conversation going. You’ll seem insightful, too.
4. Take Criticism Gracefully. Perhaps this is the toughest of all the lessons, but arguably, the most critical for the good of the trip. This will likely happen a lot. You have to be strong. They mean well. Instead of thinking of them as siblings or parents who exist merely to make your life miserable, think of them as your personal, trusted advisors, giving you the keys to unlock your future. When they say you should put more money away, be tougher on your kids or turn down dessert more often, don’t blow them off. Blow them away with a, “You know, you are so right. I am going to do that.” Then serve the additional blow by asking them, “How do you suggest I go about doing that?” We both know you are not going to do that. But at least they’ll feel they’ve been heard and considered. That’s all they want. And it sounds like you are genuinely interested in bettering yourself, even if you’re not.
It can seem awkward at first to use this level of formality with your parents or in-laws or siblings, but you will be amazed at the positive reactions you receive and how much smoother things go. You may even get to planning next year’s trip with them a year in advance. And if all else fails, bring some voodoo dolls along. It can’t hurt.