“Pushing back” is one of the ways members of the next generation assert their independence and differentiate themselves from parents and other, older family members, and even the family system as a whole. Pushing back can be subtle, such as frequent polite disagreement, or it can be glaring, such as disregarding specific, important requests from parents.

A natural part of growing up, resisting the control and authority of parents and other senior family members and caretakers is common in one form or another. What is essential for the senior generation is to be clear about rules and structure, and the reasons for them. It is unrealistic any family will avoid the pushback. Also, it is not desired because it is a healthy developmental process to navigate. When the senior generation clearly lays out guidelines, structure and expectations for family life (and family business life), when pushback occurs, there is a context for discussion and greater likelihood of learning and growth for all involved.

Pushback can be harmful when it creates danger and harms family trust and relationships. It can also be developmentally powerful, when handled with a sense of open-mindedness, curiosity and flexibility, creating stronger bonds and greater respect between generations. In each pushback experience, it is important to understand the need of the rising gen family member and to assess the type of response required.

If the pushback is dangerously transgressive, it may need firm discipline, limit-setting and discussion to understand the dynamics more deeply and hopefully come to resolution. While resolution is usually not immediate, healthy seeds can be planted. If mild, conversation may lead to understanding and behavior change on the part of the child, parents, or both. In either case, there is the hope and intention of learning and growth.

Sometimes my family provides examples of the concepts I share with family clients. My older son, Jeremy, had a pushback moment a couple of years ago that demonstrates the importance for the senior generation (my wife, Monica, and me) of keeping calm and asking curious questions.

We have a philosophy that our kids have “skin in the game” – that they contribute financially toward the expenses in their lives. In middle school we bought them their first flip-phones when they started taking the bus to school. A couple of years later when they begged for smartphones, we asked them to pay for the phone and $30/month for data. There was significant pushback – none of their friends had to jump through these hoops (many years later, in college, they expressed gratitude for how prepared they were financially compared to their peers who were mostly struggling around financial management in their lives. Rarely does gratitude for parental setting of expectations come in the moment!) Even during college, in addition to paying toward tuition and cell phones, they paid toward car insurance and some of their daily living expenses. This required some work during the summers and/or while taking classes full-time.

Jeremy graduated from college a couple of years ago and got his first job in engineering. He decided to move home for 2 years to save all he could to buy a starter place rather than rent.

When he told us his plan to move home, we welcomed him and discussed paying some amount of rent now that college was done and he was working. To his credit, he calmly approached us and asked the reason for the rent. We gave the
“skin in the game” response he heard before.

He pushed back.

He asked if we needed it financially. We told him we did not (and he knew that). He asked us questions about the years of “skin in the game” parenting and the purpose of it. We shared what had already been discussed over the years, that we wanted both our kids to understand money, saving and spending, how to manage money and budget, and how to be responsible with finances. He asked us if we thought he learned what we had hoped, and we unhesitatingly affirmed this was the case. Then he posited that there did not seem to be logic to charging him rent, our skin in the game purpose had already been served, and he’d be able to save for his first home more quickly if he did not need to pay us rent and requested that we reconsider.

He pushed back and we pulled back. He was thoughtful, calm and polite and made a lot of sense. It was a really nice moment for all of us. He had learned the lessons we had hoped, and we were able to humbly reverse course.

The enterprising families I work with have the added challenge of very significant financial wealth and these dynamics of “push back” are often magnified. I find the same strategies of “skin in the game” and developmentally appropriate financial responsibility, are equally powerful for these families when parents are thoughtful about the purpose, present the ideas as a team and balance firmness with curiosity and flexibility. These strategies may be even more necessary for families with financial wealth because without them there is high risk of entitlement and the resources to unwittingly fuel it.

As I write this, Jeremy’s offer on his first home was accepted and we could not be prouder of him. While he appreciated our willingness to let him make his case and our flexibility, we appreciate what he taught us by pushing back.