Insights on Being an In-law

Thu, Mar 17, 2011

Articles, Marriage

By Daryl Hoole, Meridian Magazine, March 14, 2011


An American family on special assignment lived in a small village in Chile, high in the mountains. A native woman brought them fruit and vegetables and fresh eggs each week. They didn’t speak her language, but they were able to communicate enough to understand each other a little. The local woman smiled and laughed with them and when she left she always said the same phrase. The American family memorized the phrase. One day when missionaries came by, the family asked them to translate her words. The missionaries listened and replied, “Oh, you have been highly complimented. She says to you, ‘I shall come again because I like myself when I am with you.’”

“I shall come again because I like myself when I am with you.” This is a key to good relationships in general, and for the purposes of this article it strikes me as specifically applicable to maintaining positive relationships with your married children and their spouses.  Following is a list of desirable character traits that when possessed are more likely to make those around you like themselves and feel loved through your interactions.

Be generous of heart—open your heart and home to them. Give of yourself, your good will, your support, your encouragement, your time, your talents, your means, and your compassion.

Endeavor to be abundance-minded, rather than scarcity-minded. In other words, from your perspective there is time, space, and love enough for everyone. Yours is an inclusive mentality.  No one is left out because you believe “the more the merrier.” This condition is more of an attitude than an actuality, but believing helps make it real. At the least, such an attitude helps others feel comfortable in your presence.

Extend invitations and welcome guests, but don’t require that family members make a given number of visits or telephone calls. Avoid keeping track of how long or how frequent their visits are to prove their love or pay off obligations. Don’t forget that holidays need to be shared with the other side of the family, and furthermore married children should be allowed the time and freedom to develop their own interests and traditions. It is really up to them, rather than you, how they spend their Sundays and holidays

In your eagerness to be generous, be careful not to overdo your good works.  Even though you mean well, you don’t want to spoil your children, making them feel enabled or entitled in negative ways, or cause them to be demanding or lazy. When extending money, gifts, services, and favors ask yourself truthfully, “Will this strengthen or weaken them?” and then act accordingly.

There are those who have a strong desire to support themselves financially and feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable by overly generous parents.  Along this same line, some well-meaning grandparents bestow more toys and gifts on grandchildren than their parents feel is good for them. (In such cases a wiser use of money could be to contribute toward grandchildren’s mission/college funds.)  Talking these matters over with your married children can help you know what to do. I’m reminded of the “Goldilocks Theory;” not too much, not too little, but just right.

It’s important that you be a boundary keeper, that you exercise restraint in your words and actions. For example, when our first son announced his marriage plans, someone quipped that the mother of the groom should wear beige, keep her mouth shut, and be there on time. You can laugh, but don’t miss the point. There is a grain of truth in every joke, and in this situation the truth has application far beyond the wedding celebration. Mothers and mothers-in-law who understand their purpose are to be prized.  When this principle is applied, potential difficulties are avoided.

At a bridal shower I attended for a granddaughter, the groom’s mother gave the bride-to-be the strings she had cut from her kitchen apron, symbolizing that she would let her son go. There would be no more mothering.  No interference. No unsolicited advice.

When you are in someone else’s home, it’s usually best not to take over and be “the master of the house” unless you are asked to do so or you are faced with an emergency.

As a wise in-law, you’ll know when to jump in and help and when to exit graciously.

A woman spoke gratefully of her mother-in-law when she said, “My name and secrets are safe with her.” She could count on her to be loyal and trustworthy.

Another daughter-in-law wrote, “Over the 27 years of my mother in-law’s association (before her death) she never once criticized me for anything, and I never heard, even second-hand, that she had ever found fault with me in any way. Her acceptance of me as I was, made me feel secure in her love and we had a closeness that was dear to both of us; and consequently, I never saw anything in her to find fault with.” Do not be judgmental and critical.

When interacting with your family, never forget that the relationship is nearly always more important than the issue at hand.  Be patient, understanding, merciful and forgiving. Look for the best in them.

Be a duck—that means you let things run off your back. Don’t take offense, don’t take things personally, don’t allow yourself to take guilt trips, and don’t keep score. Learn to “let it go.”

Share happy news, but avoid bringing up information that could create competition or cause divisiveness in the family.  One woman said, “I never learned through my mother-in-law about a new piano, car, or carpet another one of her children had purchased. When she was at our home, she talked about my children and my furniture.”

We can’t cure their illnesses, make their children behave, or pay off their mortgages, but we can think of ways to give them heart and hope. Be a steady source of acceptance and encouragement.

Be a source of comfort and strength. When things go well, help them count the blessings; when things don’t go well, help them find the


Be a good communicator. Don’t leave people wondering and guessing about your preferences and needs such as what time you expect them for dinner. Some issues are even more significant.  For instance, a young woman said, “As a newlywed I didn’t know what to call Mike’s parents so I just resorted to eye contact or a ’hey you’ when I needed to   get their attention. It would have saved me lots of awkwardness and frustration had they early on expressed their preference.”

One mother reports that a newly married son and his wife started dropping in any time, any day and expected a meal. She determined that she could either put up with it and let resentment build or discuss the matter with her son. She chose the latter and explained to him that her home was not a cafeteria, but that dinner invitations would be extended and she would collaborate with his wife on the menu so the wife could contribute toward the dinner. This has proven to be the best policy for everyone concerned.

In the case of a misunderstanding or offense, it’s best to quickly and courageously go to the person involved and tactfully discuss and hopefully resolve the issue. Don’t talk to others about it; that only makes matters worse.

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