How do you keep the peace at joint family gatherings?

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Sorry About My Dad, greeting card made by Etsy seller StrangerDays
Sorry About My Dad, greeting card made by Etsy seller StrangerDays
My partner and I recently had a baby and this has meant MUCH more family time… including joint family time.

Our families are pretty different — liberal vs republican, generational differences, religious vs atheist — and once the drinks start flowing, it’s hard to manage the interactions. The whole thing makes me super anxious, and I don’t even want to have a birthday party for our kid because it will mean bringing the families together.

How do you manage different families? How do you keep the peace and still enjoy yourself at joint gatherings?

Thank you! -MJ

We’ve talked about how to handle difficult family members during the holidays. But that’s a one-to-two times a year thing. How do you manage difficult family relationships during every single child-focused joint family event?

Comments on How do you keep the peace at joint family gatherings?

  1. I wonder if any of the following would help:

    Invite some friends as well as family. I think people tend to behave better “in public” than they do with family.

    If there are particular people causing the problem, either don’t invite them, or try and schedule it when you know they’re busy, or ask one or two sensible members of your family to keep an eye on them. If it won’t make the problem worse, you could always discuss your concerns with them beforehand.

    And finally, if you suspect alcohol is the cause of the problem, don’t feel obliged to provide it. There’s some great soft drink alternatives out there, and it’s not unheard of for a first birthday party to be dry!

  2. We find super early Saturday mornings at a park or kiddy play equipment location away from home are best. Our young spawn are less volatile in the AM, naps can be a great excuse to leave early, less opportunity for people to get drunk, express their controversial opinions or feel they can invite themselves back to your home. All you need to do is provide cake and a place they can escape to buy a take away coffee. Best of all it gives neutral territory for all parties. Throw in a few helium balloons and some amusing friends and you’ve got yourself a shindig 🙂

    I use to freak out for months prior to each event on who would say what or who could make it or if suchnsuch would make a scene… in the end – screw em. Its not for or about them and I realised the only person all that stress was hurting was myself.
    Each time gets easier and easier, without the pressure of a forced formal occasion.
    Before you know it you’ll be home chillin in your panties, vodka in hand and it’ll have barely rolled into midday 🙂

  3. There is no shame in having separate gatherings. My husband’s parents are divorced and, although they are amicable, they prefer not to have joint family time if they can avoid it. So we celebrate twice, my kids enjoy lots of mini celebrations far more than big parties. It’s less overwhelming for them and there’s no underlying tension.

    Your families should be sick of the arguing by now (I hope) and might welcome the chance to develop new patterns. If you do get push back stay strong by reminding yourself that it will not be long before regular family bickering starts to affect your child.

    Good luck!

  4. A child’s birthday should be about the child, not about the adults. Sure, it will be hard at a 1st or 2nd birthday, but after than, invite the kid’s friends, not your families. Then, if they want to have a little party with cake, you can have them at the separate families’ houses. You can explain to them that the “big” party is for the kid not for them. Besides, and I can a sure you, most kids will enjoy getting cake several days in a row, and will enjoy being with the different family members in small groups rather than the sensory overload of a party.

    I have seen this so many times, the different grandparents/aunts/uncles/whatever vying for the child’s attention when all they want to do is play with their friends.

    • This times 200! Drunken adults do not belong at a child’s party. Nor does political debate, since the kids can’t vote. Keep an eye on the central reason for the event: To make a child feel happy and appreciated. Anything that doesn’t serve that purpose, throw out the window.

  5. Completely agree with the off-site and no-alcohol recommendations. I would also suggest having an activity for everyone – at a first birthday party, this could be looking through photos of baby’s first year, or frost-your-own cupcakes, or a craft project for older kids that requires (or at least allows) adult participation. Giving people something to do reduces the opportunity for, say, political discussions.

    I think big first birthday parties are a lot of pressure on the parents and no fun for the kid. For our daughter’s first birthday, we sponsored a Friday night dinner at our synagogue’s monthly family service and invited friends and family to join us. In public, no free-flowing alcohol (just a sip for kiddush) and clear boundaries on time. We also served cupcakes instead of a birthday cake. For her second, we had two other families over for dinner. We didn’t start actual parties until she turned four.

    In general, aside from birthday parties, keep the visits or events short even if that means seeing family more often. Naps and bedtime give you an ironclad reason to leave or ask others to leave. Make sure you and your partner are on the same page about how to respond to conflict if (when) it does arise. Captain Awkward has some great scripts for this.

  6. I always advocate one-on-one time rather than group events when you’re concerned about people behaving poorly. Try to have multiple small and low-key get-togethers rather than one big birthday party and see if that helps. If you have to have one big party, there are some great tips in other comments.

    On a more long-term thought process, maybe try to get people interacting more with family members they would normally fight with. If Uncle Mike only sees cousin Sally as a liberal vegan eco-freak and she only sees him as gun-toting, Bible-banging caveman, see if you can organize ways for them to communicate about other things. When we get to know individuals, we often stop seeing stereotypes and see them as people, right? So maybe your Secret Santa drawing comes with the rule that you have to talk to your recipient at least once a month throughout the whole year. Or maybe you do small gatherings so that people can actually talk about themselves rather than their political opinions. Or maybe you host events with a “swear jar” and the swear words are actually the words they argue over: gun, vegan, Bible, etc. Try to get them bonding over DDR or something else that distracts them. It’ll definitely take a lot of time to create relationships based on something other than controversy, but family has years, right?

  7. I have friends and family all over the map in politics, religion, subculture, you name it. They all know that they are welcome to express their opinions around me, but only under strict guidelines. No namecalling, no cussing out the other person (“Hell yes!” is not the same as “Go to hell!”) no jabs below the belt, no irrelevant slurs (a person’s hairdo has no relevance to that person’s position on world affairs) no bigotry (defined as sweeping statements that “all X-people are Y”) no rudeness, and no gaslighting. I don’t print it on an invitation or anything, assuming that most adults should know this, but I corner offenders and pull them aside to remind them that what they’re doing violates the rules of my house, and if they repeat the offense I will ask them to leave. Sometimes you have to be firm. Some of them may be your elders, but bottom line, it’s your house.

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