Pass the Cranberries and Set the Boundaries

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

"Please pass the turkey, dear."

"OK, Grandma. Do you want the white meat or the dark meat?"

"What I really want is for those kids of yours to get off their darn phones at the table, but I'll settle for the dark meat."

Ah, Thanksgiving. It's America's annual day to get together to eat turkey, watch football and nitpick the heck out of each other. It can be especially troublesome for parents whose relatives disapprove of how they raise their children.

You'd like your relatives to understand that you do things differently. You'd like them to respect that you're in charge of your family. And then you'd like them to put their Jell-O salad in the kitchen and leave you alone.

But that doesn't always happen, of course, and soon you're arguing about everything from school choices to whether cranberry sauce is better from a can. (If a food jiggles, it can't be better.)

So how do you set boundaries with well-meaning relatives who criticize your parenting every chance they get? And how do you do it in a firm but gentle way?

• First, consider whether you should listen to them. (You never know, they might have a point.) But if you've heard it all before, skip this step.

• As with many things, try the attention principle. Attention increases behavior (I say for the 100th time). So when Aunt Ginny tells you that your kid's hair is too long, simply thank her for caring, ignore what she said and ask her to stir the noodles.

• If that doesn't work, be more direct in setting boundaries while offering your rationale (optional). "I respect that you just let us fight it out as kids, Dad, but we're raising our children to use their words rather than hitting each other with turkey legs. Now, how about grabbing those pies and putting them on the table?"

• When that doesn't work, keep building boundaries but stop explaining yourself. "We just don't see eye to eye on this. Now, please jam this thermometer in the turkey."

• And if they're still pushing you? Just say, "Thanks for your input, but I'm not talking about this anymore." And then stop talking about it. Walk away if you have to, but stop engaging on that topic.

Some of you probably already do this. Some of you think you never could. And the rest of you are gleefully considering the possibilities.

So this is where I caution you: Holidays are not about fighting, or winning arguments, or trying to establish dominance. Holidays are about being together, loving each other and eating pie (probably not in that order).

It's imperative for your children that you're in charge of your family system, but it still pays to be respectful while establishing necessary boundaries. It's about teaching well-meaning loved ones to respect your role as the parent, not about beating them down.

Unless, of course, they take the last piece of pie.

-Carl Grody, LISW-S, is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.