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The Three-Gen Challenge

I grew up on one of those farms where three generations reside in two homes on the same site. We lived in the "little" house, and Mom's parents lived in the "big" house. My grandparents' house was practically a second home to the four kids in my family. In fact, my sister and I practiced on Grandma's piano because my family didn't own one.
This housing arrangement wasn't uncommon in our farm neighborhood. At least five other farms within a few miles of ours had a similar setup.

On other farms, the widowed grandma lived under the same roof with her children and grandchildren.
Times have changed, and two homes on the same farm site aren't quite as common. One of our neighbors invited his mom to move in, and she lived there for a quarter century, through the birth of her four grandchildren, including a set of twins. Other neighbors finished off a portion of their house into an apartment for Grandma.
It's interesting to see this trend on the rise today in urban areas. The number of grandparents living with their grandchildren has been increasing for the past generation. According to the Pew Research Center, about one in 10 kids live with a grandparent.

The dual drivers of this trend have been the weak economy, as well as culture. Hispanic and Asian families are twice as likely to live with multiple generations. In about one third of these families living under one roof, the grandparents are the surrogate parents; I've seen that in my neighborhood, too.

Builders also are constructing multiple-generation housing, designed to accommodate families who are in the market for an intergenerational living arrangement.

However, three generations living in close proximity and working together in a farm business poses unique challenges that transcend how to split the bill for Internet service.

With many women on farms working outside the home, the older generation has provided invaluable child care and shuttled grandkids ever-increasing distances to after-school activities and events. Although grandparents are happy to help, most say they're not looking to return to full-time child rearing.

Add to this the reality that different generations are unlikely to see eye-to-eye regarding child-rearing rules, safe farm chores, or healthy food choices.

Setting ground rules about privacy and boundaries is a major priority. Many issues that arise stem from a "home farm" mentality.

When the older generation moves off the home farm or multiple siblings farm together, there's a tendency for extended family members to regard the home place as their home away from home.

They commonly enter the family's house to get a drink of water, use the bathroom, or return a borrowed item. They drive one another's vehicles, when needed.

This may not seem unusual if you grew up on a farm, but it can raise the hackles of daughters-in-law or sisters-in-law who didn't.

Years ago, when I was writing many stories about stress and was often invited to speak about this topic, many young women told me horror stories about how their mothers-in-law would drop by their empty home on an errand and end up rearranging the furniture or tidying up their kitchens.

Work/life balance looms as a huge potential conflict when families live in close proximity and their comings and goings are in plain view.

Generational differences also figure into the mix. Research indicates that millennials (ages 28 and under) aren't as willing to sacrifice family time for work.

The accelerated pace of today's cultural and technological changes may exacerbate intergenerational conflicts. However, it also allows the younger generation to take the lead in this challenging arena.

Here are five broad discussion categories to help you avoid the backfires of three-gen family dynamics:

1. Family time/meal time

2. Personal finances.

3. Holiday and vacation time.

4. Grandchildren: babysitting basics, discipline, nap time,
gift giving, dos and don'ts of seat belt use, and farm safety.

5. Mutual respect for each generation and the need to value one another's strengths.

For more on this topic, read Farming's In-Law Factor – How to Have More Harmony and Less Conflict on Family Farms by Elaine Froese, a family coach in Boissevain, Manitoba, and Megan McKenzie, conflict resolution specialist.

One of the top fringe benefits of multiple generations living and working together hasn't changed: The kids get to know their grandparents as people. That's a rare privilege in a world where most families are scattered. I wouldn't trade that for anything.

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