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How to Be a Good Guest in Your Adult Child's Home

Hold your tongue, honor the house rules, communicate about preferences

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​Imagine that the king invites you for dinner at Buckingham Palace. Would you complain that the mashed potatoes are not as good as yours? Tell an off-color joke? Lecture everyone at the table on appropriate curfews for the kids?​

Probably not. So, this holiday season, practice manners worthy of the palace if you are a guest in your adult child’s home.

​​Or, as Diane Gottsman, founder of The Protocol School of Texas in San Antonio, puts it: Being a guest trumps being a parent. ​​

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“When you are the guest in someone’s home, it’s your responsibility and duty to be a gracious guest. That means making everyone comfortable,” she says.​

Honor the house rules when visiting

Even royal family gatherings are complicated by traditions, emotional baggage and, when adult children host parents, by the role reversal of “my house, my rules.” Meanwhile, ongoing concerns about COVID-19 variants add a whole new layer. But that makes it even more important to make things work, and as adults, we should be up to the challenge, says Gottsman, who has grown adult children and an 8-year-old grandchild. ​​

“We get to choose what kind of relationships we have,” she says. “If we want positive, strong relationships, sometimes we need to know when to bite our tongue. And other times we need to know that we need to be responsible for our body language and our tone of voice.” ​​

But how do you meld the roles of parent and guest? ​​

The first step is to “tame your ego,” says Jane Isay, a longtime book editor and author of four books about family issues, including Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today. Isay, who has four grandchildren, ages 11 to 18, warns that entitlement can be poisonous. “If you think of yourself as somehow entitled to what you think [your children] should do for you, it’s going to be more problematic because they have their own needs and challenges,” she says. ​​

Once children have established their own families and households, their parents need to honor the boundaries of their decisions “in the same way we didn’t want to be told how to cook the brisket by our parents,” she says. “I think it’s really important that we understand today’s culture and don’t apply how we behaved as the sole standard.” ​​

Open communication is key

The first step might be a chat before the holiday so you understand all the rules at your child’s home, says S. Bear Bergman, a writer, storyteller and advice columnist based in Toronto. ​​

He has three children ages 7, 12 and 27, and rules are divided into “doing” rules and “saying” rules. For example, one “doing” rule is turning out the light when you leave the bathroom. In the context of family gatherings, any infractions of “doing” rules tend to be minor or temporarily forgivable. A “saying” rule focuses on how people interact, such as not saying “shut up” to each other or telling ethnic jokes or using homophobic or gender slurs. It’s up to guests to recognize those boundaries, he said. ​​

“It’s important that people are able to assert the culture in their own house regardless of who their guest is,” he says. ​​

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And remember that change is not a total repudiation of tradition, or meant as a personal attack on the way your own generation did things. Sometimes, change is just for the fun of trying something new, he says.​​

“Just because there aren’t sweet potatoes doesn’t mean everybody didn’t love your sweet potatoes. It doesn’t mean that your way was a bad way and secretly nobody liked it for 20 years. It just means we are trying something new now,” he says.​​

Enjoy the idea that your child is proud of their home and wants to show if off, says Phoukham Kelly Bounkeua, a Seattle-area psychotherapist. “They want your approval and your love and acceptance and [make] sure that's what you bring,” she says.​​

If it helps you avoid pointing out things you think are wrong, approach their home as you might a new culture, she says. “Observe as if you're a scientist for the first time, seeing your children with a different eye of acceptance of them as adults and what they're doing with their family.”​​

And if all this is just too hard, or there’s too big a gulf between family members or a dispute over pandemic safety, then this might not be the time to solve it. Stay home. COVID-19 is still a good excuse. ​​

“There are very clearly delineated roles when one person visits another,” Bergman says. “The host’s job is to be welcoming and gracious, and the guest’s job is to be respectful and as little trouble as possible.” ​​

​“If you really have a complaint about how your child is choosing to live their life ... don’t go there,” Bergman says. “Don’t make everyone miserable and don’t stress everyone out by showing up and being a bully about it.” ​

Being a Gracious Guest

Here are eight tips from the experts on how to be a gracious guest in your child’s home.​

1. Talk before the visit about any concerns you have about pandemic rules, food, pets or relationships. And speaking of pets, don’t bring yours unless you ask in advance.​

2. Be a helper but respect how they want things to be done. If they don’t want you loading the dishwasher, then don’t. ​

3. Bask in your child’s competencies and accept that they are trying to create their own household traditions. Give them space to work out the kinks. Be open to new ideas. That said, they may appreciate you passing on something traditional, such as a holiday ornament, they’ve always loved.​

4. Not sure about a food? Ask in a noncritical way that invites explanation: “Oh, I’ve never had this before; tell me about it.” Then, try it. At least a bite. Just as you told your kids to do when they were young.​

5. Seek common ground. Post-dessert chat getting too political? Ask everyone to tell what makes them feel grateful or to tell a story about their favorite gift. ​

6. Dive into group activities — hikes, movies, cooking. Grandkids often love teaching new games, be it UNO! or Animal Crossing. ​

7. Bring a gift that reflects your host family’s interests, not yours. And respect their boundaries on gifts for grandchildren. ​

8. Write a thank-you note. Always. ​​

This story was originally published on December 14, 2020. It has been updated to reflect new information. 

Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human-interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for the Boston Globe Magazine and her local NPR station, among other outlets.

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