Granny Witch and strange company

Where There Is A Family

By Geneviève Hone

There's always advice from Granny Witch

Image: 'A Company of Strangers', drawing by Julien Mercure.

A company of strangers

Hone, small image.

Dear Granny Witch,

What exactly is a family meant to be? I suppose there are probably as many answers as there are people, since everybody’s perception of their family is unique, but something happened recently at our house which led to numerous discussions with my wife. Before these discussions turn into arguments, we thought we should get your opinion on the matter.

This year, Valentine’s Day and Family Day fell on the same weekend, as you would know if you live in one of the Canadian provinces that officially celebrate having a family. I thought that it might be fun to mark these occasions by inviting members of both my close and extended families to visit us for the weekend, including a few relatives we hadn’t seen or talked with for years. It would be nice to get together and strengthen our bonds so to speak. My wife had reservations about the project because my family has a history of difficult relationships with periods of estrangements and even feuds. She reminded me that some of my relatives are masters at carrying grudges and, of course, this makes for difficult reunions. “But what can go wrong?” I argued. “Between Valentine’s Day and Family Day, people will certainly make an effort to act lovingly towards each other.” My wife just answered that, as usual, she would support my project and she designed a lovely invitation card. My wife will let me dig my own graves if this is what I choose to do, but she will also help me climb out of them. I have to give her that.

In retrospect, “What can go wrong?” turned out to be like a multiple choice question where you end up choosing “All of the above”.  A) Aunt Louisa refuses to sit next to cousin Angela. B) Brother George storms out of the house in anger toward nephew Raymond. C) Grandma Bernadette argues with sister Yvonne. D) Uncle Maurice is unhappy with any food we put on the table. Etc! Etc! I tell you, Granny Witch, we had “all the above” and more. At one point, the relatives who at first had seemed happy to meet again, started airing grievances, including some from when they were children. Let me tell you that with that kind of airing, the atmosphere became foul very quickly. I began to feel surrounded by a bunch of strangers with totally different histories and values who were acting like a bunch of squabbling kids. And the language! Granny Witch, you would have been appalled at the level of language they stooped to: insults, judgments, accusations, swearing. After they finally left, I said to my wife: “Officially, they are my family, but they sure don’t feel like it.” She laughingly answered: “Actually, I had quite a bit of fun watching them carry on. Granted, your relatives are a bit batty and quite unpredictable, but they probably think the same of us. So, why don’t we try to enjoy them as they are and hope they do the same with us? But let’s wait a year or two before inviting them back.”

Granny Witch, my wife and I are trying to raise our children to become reasonable adults. We don’t want them to resort to childish behavior when things don’t go their way. We want them to have good relationships with the important people in their lives, family or otherwise. Any ideas on how we can accomplish that?   

Signed: Surrounded by Strangers.

Dear Surrounded,

You are right. There are probably as many definitions of “family” as there are inhabitants of our planet, though I suspect that most people don’t spend much time and energy actually trying to define the word as such. They are probably busy enough trying to live more or less in harmony with the family they have landed in! One way of looking at it is to think of the family as a group of strangers related by blood or by some process of adoption who are assembled to learn how to make contact with all the other strangers they will encounter later in life. In spite of commonalities such as genetics and background, no two people in a family are quite the same so the members of a given family could actually be described as “familiar strangers”! It is generally easier to connect with what is familiar to us. It is more of a challenge to connect with what is unfamiliar. So all of this makes the family a perfect training ground for children to practice reaching out to others in a healthy and creative manner.  

Dear Surrounded, you mention “language” in your question, so I will focus on that particular aspect. Words are a most important tool for human communication, and you were witness to the damage that badly assembled words can inflict. A most important challenge of your role as parent/educator is to help your children systematically pay attention to what they are saying. You do that by systematically paying attention to what they are saying and helping them to move the conversation beyond initial reactions. For example: 

Sam, your thirteen-year old son: “My math teacher is an idiot.”

You: “What has the teacher done or said that warrants such a sweeping diagnosis?”

Sam: “He’s just stupid, end of conversation.”

You: “Your math teacher seems to have said or done something with which you don’t agree.”

Sam: “Well, yeah, how would you feel if your teacher announced that the homework that was due for next Friday had to be handed in today?”

You: “I don’t know how I would feel, but you seem to be pretty upset about it.”

Sam: “You bet I’m upset. And I have every reason to be. I’m trying hard to organize my homework schedule and the teacher messes me up.”

You: “I think I understand how you feel. I imagine that you might want to do something about this situation. If that is the case, do you need help in planning your next move?”

Sam: “No thanks, I’ll sort things out. When he’s not acting like an idiot, my math teacher is usually open to listening to what the students have to say.”

You have used open questions, reflection, empathy, all of which have helped your child move from calling a professor “idiot” to having more awareness of his own feelings. From there, he became able to recognize a positive quality in his teacher and to make plans to solve the problem.

Encourage your children to take the necessary time and space to observe, review, reflect, meditate. Make the words “Let’s wait and see” part of your family vocabulary, or to say this differently, help your children think! Read newspapers with them, especially the editor’s pages and the opinions submitted by the readers. Teach them how to present a good argument. Encourage them to participate in school debates. Search for tools and games designed to help children and adults develop vocabulary and critical reasoning.

Through all of that, your children will hopefully come to understand that life events cannot be sorted into two neat piles: black or white! Most of our thoughts, emotions and actions circulate in a grey universe. But “grey” can be a lovely color, composed of many lights and nuances. Learn to enjoy its many shades!

Dear Surrounded by Strangers, may you continue to live happily and creatively in the company of your favorite strangers!

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