By Vicki Edwards
My daughter and her husband moved back home after she had earned her bachelor’s degree to mitigate the debt they would incur while in graduate school. She was aware there was a stigma to living with her folks. She joked that she would tell her friends she was moving home to take care of her parents. Then they had their first child and we became a 3G family—three generations under one roof.
In these difficult economic times, extended family living is becoming more common. The arrangement holds potential benefit for each generation, but considerations must be made to maintain a healthy atmosphere.
We rely on four pillars for harmony: communication, mutual respect, compatible lifestyles, and flexibility. Below are principles gleaned from personal experience as well as from listening to other 3G and 4G families (where elderly parents also live in their children’s home). While I offer my perspective as the parent of an adult child (PAC), my daughter (age 25) contributes the young adult (YA) point of view.
When bringing multiple generations under one roof, it’s best to start fresh. If your family has suffered abuse or has other unresolved issues, consider counseling before merging households. When deep wounds are present, a time of healing may need to precede the merger.
YA: Growing up I always said I wanted to live in the house next door to my parents. I enjoy the company of my family and I think they enjoy my company as well. Turns out I really can’t afford the house next door; besides, it’s not for sale. Now I’ve come to my senses. Why would we want two houses when we would really just be constantly hanging out in one?
Ideally, multigenerational living should sprout out of the desire to be with family and not out of financial need. If the latter occurs, it may be harder to break out of the mindset that you don’t have a choice. Feeling forced into any situation makes it much less pleasant.
PAC: It’s best to start the arrangement with a meeting of all household adults. It’s good to know the long-term strategy. (Examples include, “We will live together until we have adequate income to move out,” or “We plan to find another place in three months.”) Clarify expectations regarding how household expenses and household responsibilities will be shared.
Discuss preferences and points of irritation, as they have the potential to strain relationships. Is television volume an issue that will prevent some from sleeping? Do allergies or pet care issues need to be addressed up front? Also, decide on the topic of communication itself. Will it be important for a parent to know if a grown child will be home late? Some things are no longer parenting issues, but rather common courtesies intended to keep loved ones from unnecessary concern.
Learn to deal with household issues as they arise. Don’t let them fester to the point of contemplating throwing your kids out. If and when the situation arises where new arrangements should be made, you will want to provide ample time to find a suitable alternative situation. Most important, you want your living arrangements, including the final chapter, to strengthen—not harm—your relationship.
YA: Accept that all relationships come with a healthy measure of misunderstanding. Get used to saying you’re sorry, asking questions, and making compromises. Problems often occur when an issue is left unaddressed.
PAC: Will you drive each other crazy? At times, yes! Our son-in-law, Matthew, is a leading candidate for the most laid back person on earth. But even he could not believe the careless way we closed cereal boxes. Our daughter quietly let us know.
How did we handle it? With humor! Although we did work at folding the package liners and closing box tops, we also made some “Matt approved” stickers for his Christmas stocking. Then, when a box was adequately sealed, Matt could give his thumbs up. It was our way of letting him know we love him and appreciate what he brings to our family.
YA: Although we humans are a quirky lot, we should work to keep the fun in dysfunctional. It’s good to schedule family recreational activities from time to time, as well as some privacy time for couples.
PAC: Although we changed their diapers and remember their immature missteps, the Scriptures say, “Value others above yourself.” This goes for our offspring as well. There will be something (or even many things) they do better than we do. Don’t fight it. Rejoice in each others’ strengths. My daughter and son-in-law often help me with computers, phones, remote controls, and other electronic gadgets.
Sometimes we haven’t accepted the grown up version of our children. If our primary way of relating with them has been limited to our authority role, we may need to retool our view. There comes a time to see our children as the unique individuals God made them to be, and treasure them as such.
On the other hand, “Honor your father and mother” is a biblical command without an expiration date. Even as adults, we must acknowledge the experience and role of our parents. It doesn’t mean parents get to make decisions for their adult children. It means God wants us to treat our parents with respect.
YA: The older generation must genuinely respect and view their children as competent adults. The young adults must reciprocate such respect.
Young adults, if you don’t want to be treated as a child, don’t act like one (clean up after yourself and don’t assume your mom is going to make you dinner; in fact, make her dinner some time).
PAC: Expect to be flexible on most issues. It’s their own business what time they go to bed, as long as there is consideration for the schedules and needs of the other householders. However, things get strained when parents foot the bill for all expenses while adult children neglect job searches, or even helping with household chores.
Consider where each generation stands on moral and ethical issues as well—such as social drinking and sexual purity. I have seen a trend where young people become homeless because they pushed other family members beyond where they could stand to go.
Nobody’s perfect, but it’s hard for parents to see their children choosing an unhealthy lifestyle. It’s often unbearable when they are asked to support those choices and live in the same home with them. Try to foresee which lifestyle differences may become deal breakers. Communicate these clearly, yet lovingly.
YA: So if you can overcome all the obstacles, what do you get in return? It seems everyone in the equation wins. The parents get to see and enjoy the children they spent so many years bringing up. The children continue to benefit from their parents’ wisdom and experience.
Add another generation to the mix and you increase the benefits exponentially. Grandparents are always wanting more time with their precious grandkids, while the parents often need a breather from them. Learn to be relaxed, give grace, and enjoy the company around you.
PAC: Although our adult children may parent their children differently than we would (assuming there are no abuses), we must respect their choices. This is even more important when living together. The grandparents’ role is to support the parents’ choices. If you see things that concern you, take it to the Lord. Give advice gently, and if at all possible, wait until you are asked for it. New parents are often insecure about their parenting skills. Encourage wherever possible and offer your suggestions with tact and gentleness.
While multi-generational living arrangements are common in most of the world, the “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” western mindset stigmatizes this choice, adding to the challenge. Is 3-G living for everyone? Probably not, but consider it prayerfully. The benefits may outweigh the complications for your family.
Relationships are important to God. Keep your focus on him. Ask the Lord for wisdom in working around preferences, privacy, and personality challenges. Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” That means relationships temper us and enrich our lives. Christians actively living the golden rule, a lifestyle of forgiveness and love (looking to the interests of the others), have a solid foundation for a happy, extended family life.
Vicki Edwards is a freelance writer living near Des Moines, Iowa. Her daughter, Autumn Jones, contributed the young adult perspective.
One Big Happy Family
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Together Again: A Creative Guide to Successful Multigenerational Living
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Extreme Grandparenting: The Ride of Your Life!
by Tim Kimmel and Darcy Kimmel
(Focus on the Family, 2007)
When Your Parent Moves In: Every Adult Child’s Guide to Living with an Aging Parent
by David Horgan
(Adams Media, 2009)
Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children: Six Steps to Hope and Healing for Struggling Parents
by Allison Bottke
(Harvest House Publishers, 2008)