“Goodnight, John-Boy.” That was the iconic closing line of The Waltons episodes, a 1970s television series about seven children, their parents, and grandparents, who lived together in a rural Virginia farmhouse during the 1930s and 40s. The children scrapped amongst themselves, as children do, but were respectful and obedient to their elders. And the parents and grandparents seemed to have nary a conflict — maintaining the coordinated household like a clinic in compatibility. The family was poor but idyllic.
According to recent Pew Research, 19% of Americans are living in multi-generational households (3 or more generations). That’s nearly 1 in 5 of us. Job loss, divorce, and illness are some of the common factors that bring families back together under one roof. But our households are not as commonly ideal as the Waltons. As one who’s lived the role of Grandmother in a multi-generational household for nearly a year and a half, here’s my best advice for keeping the family relationships healthy and happy:
- Have defined responsibilities for each member. Because financial loss is often the reason for combining households, some may not be able to contribute to bills 50/50, if at all. They can contribute in other meaningful ways such as cooking, child care, household maintenance. Each member should also participate in keeping the shared living spaces tidy.
- Understand each member’s habits and preferences. It’s unlikely everyone will be night owls or early birds. Understanding this will help you work out when the house needs to be quiet. And not everyone can eat pizza or salad four nights a week. So if you’re sharing meals, take this into consideration and compromise. Each person should also get one “I can’t live with” annoyance that everyone respects (i.e., whistling, sticky door handles, the smell of Parmesan cheese).
- Establish and respect each other’s privacy. Everyone should have a place they can retreat to. They should also have a place to keep their things with the expectation that no one will go through them. If phone conversations are overheard, you shouldn’t make comment on it later; nor should you insert yourself into another’s relationship drama. Mind your own business.
- Respect each other’s roles. Adult children must be respected as adults. Grandparents should refrain from unsolicited advice, especially parenting advice. Adult children in their parent’s house should make responsible financial decisions to keep from taking advantage of parent’s retirement resources.
- Plan for success. A harmonious household won’t materialize without nurture. When conflict arises, listen and speak like you want to be heard and spoken to. Hold family meetings to tweak any responsibilities that need to be changed as circumstances change. Be deliberately thoughtful of others. Go to church. Don’t forget to organize some fun – have a game night, go for a walk, celebrate something! And remember to say “Goodnight”.