Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Don't Give Away The Farm With Strings Attached

September 4, 2006

Have you ever had someone be too good to you? Johnny-on-the-spot? Remember Jeannie's line in the old TV sitcom, "I Dream of Jeannie?" "Your wish is my command."

Parents too good to children. That would sure make life easier. Or would it? I've seen situations where parents have been too good to their adult children. They wouldn't like to admit it, but there is a price tag. The price tag is appreciation and gratitude. If they aren't treated just right, then they feel like martyrs.

I knew this farm family once in a distant state. The names are disguised. The father, Bob, retired early from a manufacturing job. He took on himself the goal of helping his son, Jeff, with his farming. Bob had managed his money well and didn't need an income from farming.

Bob deeded over the land and then he would go to Jeff's farm every day to help. Bob loved farming. It was what he always wanted to do. Bob's goal and greatest desire was to help his son in every way he could.

Bob could let go of the big decisions - what to plant, how to market, when to buy equipment, etc. Jeff was a sharp and able farmer who could keep an off-farm job going because of his father’s help.

Personality clash. Both were strong-minded, opinionated men who had definite ideas on how to do things. They would clash. Jeff would clam up and be resentful. Jeff would ignore his father and give him looks bordering on contempt.

Bob was a big talker, full of ideas on the right and wrong way to do things. He came across as critical and bossy. He wasn't a good listener. He didn't watch his tongue and would throw a fit sometimes when there was a problem.

Bob wanted appreciation and respect and he wasn't getting either. His "help" had a price tag - not financial but emotional. He also felt free to give his unvarnished opinion whenever he felt like it. It came across as control even though he didn't mean it that way. He was really looking for conversation and to start a dialogue about farming. Instead he was getting brushed off.

Each night Bob and Jeff went to their own homes to lick their wounds and go over the clashes of the day. In the winter they would make amends but the cycle of clashing would start again in the spring and usually reach a crescendo during harvest.

Side taking. The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law got along fine. The relationship with the grandchildren was special. However, with the repeated tensions on the farm, both women were forced to side with their husband. Strain developed between the families. Life in both families turned miserable.

Though Jeff’s track record in farming was exceptional, he felt his Dad was undercutting his feeling of pride and accomplishment. He wanted to pay his own way, face the consequences of his decisions and feel more in

charge of the farm. In the big picture he really was, but his daily clashes with Dad over small things hurt. He didn't hear many comments of approval.

In subtle ways, Bob's constant presence, his need to be keep busy and to be involved would disrupt Jeff's schedule. Sometimes Bob would go ahead and do things his way anyway before they reached a consensus.

Does this story get to a happy ending? Yes!

Bob had to focus in on his own life and retirement goals. He had to back off in how often he went to the farm, to go only when invited and to do what Jeff wanted done. Bob had to learn how to listen and control his temper. By doing less, going less often and only when needed, he was welcome on the place. Bob was treated well instead of as a pain in the behind.

Jeff learned to speak up to his father, involve him in discussions about the farm and give him common courtesy, respect and thanks. He learned that problems could be solved by communications. He had to change too.

Moral of story. Setting aside the issues of poor communication, what is the moral of this story? Parents need to be careful about doing too much for their adult children. The "help" they give isn't always wanted, especially if it comes with a price tag of emotional control. Yet for all the help they provide, they expect thanks, attention and appreciation. Anybody would.

That is what is precisely so hard to give. How do you appreciate something that is given to you before the need is felt? How do you thank someone for robbing you of your space and freedom to make mistakes and enjoy success on your own terms? If you are angry, what can you withhold that will hurt the most? Attention and appreciation.

Parents, if you have been successful, don't take over your children's responsibility to fend for themselves. Tend to your own life and goals, not theirs. Don't be too quick to give unless asked. Be careful that your gift is not too much. Don't give away the farm and then expect to be thanked. The arrangements can be fair and generous but not so one-sided that it is your life instead