The Role of the Matriarch in Strengthening Family Bonds

hands of a grandmother and child

I think I’ve been set up…

As the wealth creator, my husband Bill was piling up the family fortune. I was supposed to be making sure the human side of things was smooth sailing. But money is the easy part…

Money doesn’t talk back. It is never bitter or resentful. It doesn’t have a bad attitude. In fact, it has no attitude at all. And it’s always at room temperature. It doesn’t take drugs, get drunk, hang around with loose women, stay up all night gambling… Have I forgotten anything?

Bill and Will dedicated their new book on family wealth, Family Fortunes, to Anne Bonner, Bill’s mother. She is a dear little wisp of a lady. She would never poison anyone, even Livia herself. But she would defend her children like a tigress.

The only difference between this paragon and me? She didn’t have two pennies to rub together when Bill and his brothers and sisters were growing up. No wonder she did such a great job.

At the Global Partners’ Reunion in France this month, we learned that wealthy families are more subject to personal problems than the less well off. The “one percent,” it seems, gets the lion’s share of everything – even suicide and alcoholism. Why? Because of the high expectations placed on children in successful families. They have higher-than- usual levels of anxiety about their performance, what kinds of people they are, whether they are truly successful.

And the vast choice children of wealthy families have about what to do in life contributes to existential doubt – which is very stressful.

Brave, Self-Reliant and Imaginative

Bill and I didn’t worry too much about raising children to live with wealth because, at first, we didn’t have it. Instead, we focused on building a family culture. We wanted our children to be brave, self-reliant and imaginative.

So we took them to France to live. The challenge of living in France brought our family together in a way that might not have been possible in the US. It helped us create bonds of shared experience. We also developed shared values and shared memories. We share a common experience that wove us together as a family. In France, something very important happened to us as a family. We became our own support system.

Of course, financial wealth is important. We believe – as you do too, I’m sure – that wealth represents two things: opportunity and freedom. Precious things. More precious than houses, cars, sailboats and cellphones. As a family, we like that 19th-century idea of living a life in the pursuit of truth and beauty. Collecting butterflies. Exploring dark continents. Being an inventor, a poet, a philanthropist.

As the Bonner family matriarch – officially in charge of family and feelings – here is the fruit of my experience and reflection. For a family to survive as a useful unit, it has to be three things: strong, cohesive and flexible.

For a family to be strong, it has to share a common culture and common values.

To be cohesive, it has to share things – places, memories, time together. A common narrative, if you prefer.

It also has to be flexible, because rigid structures break under pressure. A strong family culture still has to be able to allow its individual members to exercise free will. And I mean that in the Augustinian sense, not in the libertine do- whatever-you-want sense. Free will in the sense of freedom to choose the good, or the pursuit of a happiness that is based on the realization of your particular talents and virtues.

But above all, a family has to be a place where feelings matter. It has to be a place that you and your children, spouses and grandchildren associate with happiness. Otherwise, there are just too many internal and external pressures pulling a family apart.

There are dangers too. I call them the “Three Ds”:

1. Division – Jealousy, sibling rivalry, divorce – we all know examples in our families or around us.

2. Dissatisfaction – Hurt feelings that go on for a lifetime, disappointments that sour relations between siblings or toward parents.

3. Distance – Whether it be geographical or emotional. For a matriarch, it can be her own career interests, charitable work… or the endless opportunities for “self-improvement.”

Bringing the Family Together

Counterbalancing the “Three Ds” that pull us apart are the “Three Cs” that keep us united:

1. Common values – Especially the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

2. Connection – That sharing of places, memories – time so important for creating a family culture. It’s nice that we now have Skype, email and the phone to help us bridge geographical distance. But we do have to use them!

3. Communication – What transmits those shared histories, shared ambitions, shared perceptions that bind together a family in a shared culture.

Communication is the most important of the three. You have to be able to communicate with your heirs if you want them to understand and follow your plan to keep the family wealth together – to accept and even help develop the institutions and structures that we’ve discussed here.

You have to be able to communicate your values and family culture to potential spouses and actual spouses. This is something we have had experience with. It is not always obvious. Nor does it follow a formula.

You also have to be able to communicate with yourself. Maybe you and your spouse have been so busy creating wealth and building a family that you have not had time to look inside yourselves. Now is the time to understand your own priorities, so that your message will be clear and easy to understand.

But in my experience, there are three even more essential qualities that make possible the kind of solid families we want to build, the kind of families that can work together to hold onto and grow wealth over many generations. You might call these the matriarchal qualities. These are love, clarity and kindness.

Love is the easy one because it is totally natural. And that’s lucky, because it is the basis for all enduring relationships, from a couple to an extended family.

Clarity requires us to think. It is what you need in order to determine your values and goals and to turn them into words so you can impart them to your children, grandchildren, in-laws.

Finally, there is kindness. Love is not always gentle.

Clarity can be harsh – sometimes it has to be. But a word or a touch of kindness can do so much to take away the sting.

With these qualities present, you will have a family – one that is capable of holding itself together in a common purpose. As matriarchs, it’s our role to pass down not just the material capital, but also the emotional and intellectual capital that endures over generations in so many successful families.

[Ed. Note. If you enjoyed this essay, we encourage to sign-up for Bill Bonner’s Diary of a Rogue Economist where Bill, Elizabeth’s husband, shares his insights on the market, economy and how to create lasting wealth, every day, absolutely free. Simply click here now to sign-up.]
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  • Rose

    An excellent article. I wanted to mark it with 10 stars but there are only 5 available. Thank you for all the ideas you put in especially the 3 D’s and the 3 C’s and the all-pervading compassion and love.

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Thank you Rose!

  • Elze

    Craig, i really enjoyed reading that. Looking forward to reading more of her contributions.

    • Craig Ballantyne

      Thank you Elze, she doesn’t write much, so hopefully we can encourage her to do more!