Meet the Parents: Navigating the Holiday Dinner without the Stress
With holidays approaching, my son-in-law reminisced about the first time he came for a holiday meal. He and my daughter had only been dating for awhile. They each weren’t sure if they had met “The One” but were serious enough to be meeting each other’s families.
“So, what was it like?” I asked. “Well, she warned me that your house is a free-for-all,” he said. That’s code for chaos. He comes from a small and quiet family, the polar opposite of our large and boisterous clan.
He can laugh now. But I’m sure it wasn’t easy for a shy 20-year-old guy to try to survive both the siblings’ banter and the potential father-in-law’s once-over. Me? I was banging pots, shouting orders, and trying to get a meal together for 14. Someone hanging around looking useless? That looks like potential help to me! Apparently I handed him a tray of flatware and told him to get busy setting the table! Good thing he’d been warned.
I asked him what made that visit okay. Now that he looks back, what would advice would he give to all parties to make the day go well? We talked and came up with a little list for both sides.
For the Boyfriend Guest
Do your homework. My son-in-law figured that he wouldn’t go into a job interview unprepared, so why would he do anything less for what he thought might be an important turning point in his life? He asked my daughter to tell him about her brothers and sister. What were their interests? What could they talk about? He also asked for a rundown on her parents. What was likely to offend and what would impress?
Bring a little gift. Thoughtfulness is more important than expense. My husband loves fine beer. A bottle of a fine craft beer immediately won my daughter’s boyfriend points with her dad.
Be willing to help. When I thrust that tray of flatware at him, he immediately said “sure” and went to work. When he wasn’t sure what went where, he called my daughter in for coaching. (He did a fine job.) Do at least offer to help clear the table and ask if there is anything else you can do.
Ask the right questions and be interested in the answers.
Talk to people. I watched him that day go from sibling to sibling to have a little chat. When I asked him why it went well, he told me that he had learned in a journalism class how to ask open-ended questions. “Huh?” I asked. “How does that work?”
“If I had asked the brother who likes rap music if he likes Jay-Z, he would have just said yes or no and that would have been the end of it. Instead, I asked him to explain the difference between East and West Coast rap and then we had a conversation. All I had to do was listen and look interested.”
Ah. The secret of a good conversation: Ask the right questions and be interested in the answers. As I thought about it, that’s exactly what he did. After he left, each of the kids commented on what a great talk they’d had with him.
Avoid conversational landmines. My daughter had warned him. We’re a mixed marriage: Republican and Democrat. Any political conversation gets heated pretty fast. Best not to take sides and get into the fray. Be Switzerland and wait for the subject to change. Good advice.
Use good manners. How people behave at a dinner table says more about them than maybe you realize. If you’re not sure what to do, take the lead from the mom. Say please and thank you, even if other people don’t. If you don’t like something that is served, just take a little without comment and focus on what you do like. Compliment the chef.
Give them some slack. If you aren’t sure you like these people, remind yourself that they did raise the daughter you love. They must have done something right. Look for it.
Relax, but not too much. It’s fine to take a breather now and then, but you are on trial. If you want your relationship with the girlfriend and her family to last, you can’t afford to drink too much, to be critical of anyone or to put your feet on the coffee table.
For the Hosts
There are always two sides to these events. Yes, the boyfriend needs to impress but so do you. You may be thinking about whether he’s a good match for your daughter. But he’s wondering if yours is a club he wants to join. So –
Do your homework. Ask your daughter in advance of the event to tell you about him. What does he like to do? If he’s in school, what is he studying? What excites him? What does she know about how holidays go at his home? Is there anything you can do to make him feel comfortable?
Give him a role. In general, people are more comfortable in an uncomfortable situation if they have something to do. Ask him to help set the table, to mash the potatoes, or to please help out by playing a game with the 8-year-old or by talking to grandma (do give him a topic). One more thing: If you give him a job like setting the table, either provide a little coaching or accept that he might do it a little differently from what you expect.
Talk to him. Ask him some open-ended questions. (See above.) Then listen, really listen. Nothing makes a person feel more valued than being listened to attentively.
Avoid conversational landmines. This is not the time to ask him about his politics (unless you know you’re all on the same page). It’s not okay to grill him about his plans for the future or to ask him if he’s going to marry your daughter. He may not yet know the answers to either question. Stay with just getting to know him.
Use your manners. Treat this fellow like an honored guest. He may end up part of the family. You want to start things off right.
Give him some slack. If you aren’t at all sure you like him, remind yourself that your daughter loves him so there must be something to love. Look for it.
Relax, but not too much. Yes, this is your home and your holiday. But it’s also an important event to your daughter. She’s brought this guy home to meet you. There is probably meaning in that.
Getting Off on the Right Foot
Generally, relationships go pretty much the way they start. It’s difficult to undo a poor first impression or to reverse a serious initial disagreement. When people feel insulted, judged negatively, or like they can’t possibly fit in, they don’t really want to go back for more. On the other hand, when that first impression is generally positive and everyone comes through a first meeting unscathed and interested in each other, the relationship is set on a positive trajectory.
If your holiday meal is a “meet the parents” situation, take it seriously. It could be the start of a lifelong relationship. I’m pleased to report that 14 years later my son-in-law and I both look back on that first awkward meeting with warmth and laughter. We all passed the test and became family.
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2016). Meet the Parents: Navigating the Holiday Dinner without the Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 19, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/meet-the-parents-navigating-holiday-dinner-without-stress/