Old Family Scripts

Q: On the topic of adult children, I find it quite interesting to observe a different aspect of sibling rivalry. When two sets of married children visit at the same time, they end up comparing their respective children’s behavior and responses to each other. Although they jokingly “explain” the behavior of their offspring, what they are really doing is defending their own children. I’m not here to judge them or their parenting abilities; I just don’t know what their problem is.

I find it a lot easier for our married children and their families to visit us separately, but they want the cousins to get to know each other. If I ever bring up this issue, they take it personally and are annoyed with me.

Which brings me to a more difficult topic — listening to my adult children complain about their siblings. When one complains about another and I don’t seem 100-percent sympathetic to what he or she is saying, I’ll get a strong response: “Well, I’m not surprised. You always: a) liked her better; b) had more rachmanus towards her because she has a hard time making friends; c) respect her more, because you think she’s frummer than I am; d) like her husband better than my husband … And the list goes on.

If I defend my position, it only becomes a debate. If I just nod my head and listen, they say that if they wanted a nodding head, they would just record themselves speaking. I’ve tried to stress the idea that I don’t want to hear lashon hara, but then they say: “So you became so frum, all of a sudden?” Or they claim they are asking me because it’s for a to’eles (a need to learn from my opinion). When I try to be dan l’chaf zechus and give the other person the benefit of the doubt, they only get angrier and start their spiel (see above).

Do you have any ideas on how to handle squabbling children in their 40s?

A: The main difficulty of communicating with older children is that you are no longer living with them in the same household. When you live with someone on a daily basis, you have the ability to better clarify your words, explain what you are attempting to achieve and generally smooth out “bumps” in relationships. Through humor and sharing daily experiences and responsibilities, a certain amount of unity (usually) exists, and the majority of verbal encounters can be rectified when necessary.

When familial encounters are sporadic or time-limited, words can be viewed under a magnifying glass and taken out of context. Old family scripts are dug up, and roles we thought were discarded return to the foreground. Thus, your children’s defensiveness towards and about their siblings is often due to repetitive patterns they recall from childhood.

Before anyone falls into the trap of old family scripts, you can make a general announcement. “Your father and I feel blessed to have the zechus to bring up such wonderful children and einiklach. To us you are all beautiful flowers in a garden. We have no weeds, just flowers that are growing! Thank you for giving us this chance to all be together.”

This way, if one begins to discredit another, you can return to this speech. “Is that not a rose that I’m seeing?” In this way, by entering the world of concepts, you avoid personalizing your comments. You can also use humor — as long as it is not perceived as demeaning in any way.

Daas Torah should be consulted regarding halachos of lashon hara when your children complain about their siblings. Remember that each child has different emotional needs, requiring different responses.