Farming families and how to survive them

John Cleese co-authored an excellent book called "Families and How to Survive Them".

It is a brilliant book that looks at family issues, the rackets that go on, and the expectations of families involved. It talks about how family members get bent out of shape and the things that can be done to improve our understanding of one another and feel better about it all. John Cleese puts his usual twist of humour in too, which made the message more balanced.

Now all the issues he traversed are exactly the same for our farming families.

It is farming families that make up the bulk of New Zealand agriculture. It is the families that do the work and provide much of the infrastructure in this country. It is important to realise we are a family-based industry and consequently, there will be a lot of family issues.

So, looking at some of the issues that are alive and well:


This is the big one. Mum and Dad have a family. They expect their son or daughter to fit some particular sort of mould and expectation that they have in their minds. Remember, their perception is their reality.

Let's use the son as an example. He grows up, starts his life as he sees it. It doesn't quite fit the parents' expectations and then trouble starts. He's unmotivated, irresponsible, smokes and drinks too much, wastes money, hangs out with the wrong crowd, with the wrong lady and so on. The son is living at home so you get sick of each other quickly and things start to get grumpy. More than that, dad wants to do it his way, as he has always done. But suddenly there is an offspring who wants to do it differently. This son may have attended University, Lincoln College or Massey and have their own ideas. Remember, it's not an employer/employee relationship either. It's family. The relationship starts to falter. Everybody gets grumpy and things start to fly to bits.

Worse than that, the son stays on under a cloud, withdraws, even gets depressed and it's all downhill from there.


Another realistic example is where dad, and mum for that matter, do not really discuss clearly how they see the future of the offspring and their business.

The child gets the impression (perception is their reality), that they are going to "get" the farm or a share of the farm and so on. They are all farming together. Maybe the son/daughter is sharemilking or working for just wages, only to eventually realise that the parents had no intention of them having any involvement in the farm business or acquiring any equity until they had both departed this earth.

This comes as a massive shock to the children. There is huge ructions and they eventually go off to start their own life and own succession. This is something they needed to action right from the start but they never realised the reality.

A lot of this could have been avoided if the parents were really clear on how they saw the children's involvement in the farm.

Home Bug

I have often observed that the son or daughter who stays home to run the farm, often on a pittance and working long hours, while the rest of the family is swanning around the world, can be penalised later.

What can sometimes happen, because this child is around all the time, is mum and dad get used to having them around and when it comes to dividing up assets they are disadvantaged.

I understand the Courts have favoured the offspring who have remained at home to look after the asset for the rest of the family. So there is help there.


It is important to have meetings and get all these unresolved issues on the table. You will probably need an experienced person outside of the family to act as a chairperson and a facilitator. It will not happen in one meeting and it will take a long time to unravel.

There may well be tears, frustration and resentment. But it is easier sorted out now rather than to just let the pot keep bubbling.

I have facilitated many family meetings with excellent results. And, oddly enough, I enjoy helping people sort out these issues.


So in summary, we need some tools for families to survive. We need structures and very clear communication to avoid unhappiness and resentment. We need to realise that this stuff is not easy and there will be a lot of unhappiness initially.

We also need to realise that we cannot unravel deep-seated problems ourselves and outside help may well be essential. We also need to know that continued stress and unresolved issues may affect our mental health.

Finally, we need also to know that once unravelled we are going to start feeling a lot happier and a lot better and are probably able to form more stable, enduring relationships with our own partner and our families alike.


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