A great mother-in-law?? Okay, most days, I’d settle for just being a good one or even simply not messing up a relationship too badly. I’ve been a mother-in-law for 17 years now. We have five kids—three daughters and two sons. All of them are married, so I have both sons- and daughters-in-law. And the things I’ve learned over the years have come mostly from the mistakes I’ve made.

When our daughter Allison was a newlywed, she was about to drive overnight alone on a trip. “We don’t want you to do that. It’s too dangerous,” we said.  After further discussion, she came to us and said, “This is not really your decision. You have to let me and Will decide what to do.” As hard as it was, she was right.

Since I’ve been in the school of “in-lawing” for quite some time now, I thought I’d share with you five things I have learned from my own life, as well as from friends, which I hope will help you as you attend this “school” with me.

1. Our priorities change when our child gets married.

When our child marries, the priority relationship is no longer our relationship with that child but their relationship with each other. The most important thing now is to cultivate their marriage. So when our newlywed daughter calls and says, “Mom, I am going to buy a couch. What kind should I get?” our answer needs to be, “What does your husband think?” We have to step back from being the primary counselor to pushing them toward each other. God’s Word describes marriage this way: to leave, to cleave, and to become one flesh. Many marriages run into trouble because either the husband or the wife does not leave emotionally. We in-law parents can contribute to this problem by continuing to be too involved in our kids’ lives. It’s time to relinquish them to each other.

If possible, encourage your newlywed kids to live away from both sets of parents during their first two years of marriage. Geographical distance will promote the emotional leaving and will encourage the needed cleaving.

2. Be patient in building the relationship.

We want our families to be close. We want to have a deep friendship with our new son- or daughter-in-law. But sometimes, we expect this to happen too quickly, and we can suffocate the new family member. If our expectation for an instant, close-knit family is too high, we will be disappointed. It’s important to remember that anything that is new is awkward. It is often hard for a new daughter-in-law to embrace her new family instantly. Give the new member some time to adjust. The first two years are likely to be a time of slowly grafting him or her into the family.

3. Focus on common interests.

We have to work patiently at building a relationship with new in-laws. Find out their interests and study the things that interest them. If they are “into” natural foods, study nutrition. If they are in business, try to learn about their particular field. Do things with them that they like.  If they like fishing, go fishing. If they are readers, read what they read. Be interested in their lives. Get to know their friends. However, remember there is a delicate balance between overwhelming them and ignoring them.

4. Ask your own child how you can love his or her spouse well.

Usually we want to love our in-law child, but often we don’t know how to go about it. His or her love language may be completely different from ours.* Ask your own child, “How can I love your spouse well this year? What can I do that would communicate love to him or her? Is there anything that I am doing that is offensive to him or her?”

Do not speak negatively about your child’s spouse to your child. This puts your child in an awkward position, and if he has to choose who to support, he must choose his wife. Remember their marriage is the priority relationship. This does not mean that you can’t discuss things, but it must be done very carefully.

It’s helpful if we don’t distinguish between our child and our in-law child. I have five children, but since they are all married, I now have 10. Mentally, emotionally, and in every other way, I try to think of them equally and treat them in the same way. It’s always a process.

5. Be quick to ask forgiveness and to grant grace.

We are going to blow it as in-laws a lot. It’s important to say, “I shouldn’t have said what I did (or done what I did), and I need to ask you to forgive me. Will you forgive me?” I’ve had to do this many times to all of my kids and my husband, but I’ve never felt like doing it. Often I’d rather say, “But you should have or you shouldn’t have …”

We go asking for forgiveness not because we feel like it but because we are commanded to. Feelings take time to heal, and trust can take time to be restored; but this process cannot begin apart from going to another and asking for forgiveness. We must assume the best, remember our kids are young, and strive to grant extra grace. And we have to recognize that God is much more patient with us than we are with ourselves. We never obtain a final degree in the school of parenting. We will always be learning!