I admit it! I am blessed! I have the world’s best mother-in-love (that’s what I call her) in the world. For the last 30 years, she has welcomed me into her family, encouraged me, prayed for me, supported me and physically cared for me over a period of time that I was very ill. Through her Godly example, as well as my own mother, I have gleaned some of the wisest lessons in life about how to be a great mother-in-law.
However, knowing what to do and actually doing them are two different things – just ask my own newly married kids. Now that I am actually a mother-in-law myself, I realize I still have a lot of learning and growing to do. I am often surprised at how very different it feels to be on the other end of this special relationship – especially since my husband and I have counseled so many young couples on how to deal with their in-laws. Ironic, isn't it? As much as I desire to follow in the footsteps of my own mother-in-law and bless my own children, there are several times I have failed…miserably. Perhaps you have, too.
So, I recently surveyed several of my very wise friends - those with married kids, as well as those who are the married kids - and below are their suggestions that I believe can help you and me become the mothers-in-LOVE we always hoped we would be.
Frequently express your delight in your child’s choice of a mate! Tell them how glad you are that they are part of your family now. If you find yourself in a situation where you don’t feel that way, remember they are married; now you must accept it and support them however you can. Research also shows that if you purposefully think positive thoughts and act on them, your feelings will eventually follow.
Give advice only when you’re asked for it. And when you are asked, offer suggestions and insights without judgment; this is especially true for mothers-in-law. Your daughter-in-law may tend to interpret your advice giving as meddling, criticizing and communicating that she doesn’t measure up. So affirm, affirm, affirm, and bite your tongue.
Parents obey your children. When it comes to the grandkids, unless it is a life and death or safety issue, follow the parents’ wishes for how they want their children to be raised. Don’t sneak your grandkids candy if their parents say no candy. Don’t criticize your kids’ decisions or child-rearing methods. Follow the schedule they give you. You may not agree with the method they choose or why they choose it, but it’s not your child. If you want to still see your grandkids and spend time alone with them, respect the parents wishes.
Be quick to seek forgiveness when you mess up and to extend it when they do. “I am sorry. Please forgive me,” are powerful words! None of us are perfect, and we all do or say things we shouldn’t. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Be quick to acknowledge your own shortcomings and ask for forgiveness. Then never do it again!
Be willing to sacrifice your own comfort (within reason) to bless and encourage your kids, particularly when they are in the throes of raising their own children. If possible, offer to babysit for an evening/weekend on a regular basis so they can have some much-needed time alone. Surprise them with a gift certificate to a marriage conference. Encourage everything you see them do that promotes a God-honoring marriage and family. But keep it reasonable. Don’t offer help to the point it compromises your own wellbeing – emotionally, financially or otherwise.
Be flexible when it comes to celebrating special days and holidays. Express how much you value seeing them and spending time with them. Don’t complain if it’s not what you hoped for. Just tell them the front door is open and the porch light is on for them. They will be much more likely to want to visit if they do not feel forced or coerced.
Ask permission to come for a visit. Don’t just show up on their doorstep or “inform” them when you’re coming and for how long. Respect their boundaries and independence as adults. Call or write first to ask them if it would be convenient to visit them for the specified days/times. If not, ask when it would be more convenient. Then, plan to stay at a hotel unless they invite you to stay with them. Remember, company is like fish – both start to stink after three or four days!
Express your confidence and respect for them in their abilities to parent well and make wise decisions as adults. Telling them that they are doing a great job will always go far. Your support, approval and encouragement as a parent are still important to them.
Don’t play favorites. Don’t take sides. Treat your in-law kids the same as your own children, especially on special days and holidays. They are your kids, too. This includes your grandchildren. Spend your time and money equally among them as much as possible. Post pictures or updates on them equally. And never, ever speak negatively of any of them to another one or any one else.
Build a friendship with them. You’re sill the parent, but you can enjoy spending time with them more than ever. One friend said she strives to “woo” her daughters-in-law – I love that! Invite them to lunch. Find a common interest or activity to bond over. Go out on double dates now and then. A 26-year longitudinal study* found that when a husband reported having a close relationship with his wife’s parents, the couple’s risk of divorce decreased by 20 percent.
Respect the other set of parents and their time with your kids. It is not easy sharing kids, but it is necessary – so make the best of it! Never speak ill of the other parents. Tell them thank you for raising them.
Never say I told you so...even though you might want to sometimes. Remember, you were young once, too, and your parents probably rolled their eyes at some of your decisions!
Ask them how you can be a better in-law to them. Yes, this is really humbling! But take advantage of their unique perspective on your life and be willing to grow as a mother-in-law.
Above all, pray for them and your relationship regularly. Satan would love to tear your relationship and your family apart. This battle is best fought and won on your knees. Ask them how you can pray for them and then do it! They will appreciate your thoughtfulness and your powerful intercession on their behalf.
*Early Family Ties and Marital Stability Over 16 Years: The Context of Race and Gender, Teri L. Orbuch, Jose A, Bauermeister, Edna Borwn, and Brandyn-Dior McKinley. Family Relations Journal, Volume 62, Issue 2, April 2013, Pages 255–268.
Alisa Grace ('92) serves as a consultant to the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships where she also co-teaches a class on Christian perspectives on marriage and relationships. While she speaks regularly on topics such as dating relationships, marriage and love, she also loves mentoring younger women and newly married couples, speaking at retreats and providing premarital counseling.