Our world today is complicated. Daily we are reminded that life is fragile, and downright unpredictable. We feel incredible stress and anxiety, uncertain of what the future holds for ourselves and those we love. Many of us hunger to know the secrets of caring families — families who make good times better and tough times more endurable. How do we create and sustain families that strive to make life safe and meaningful for each member?
“Strong” is only one word for such families. We can call them functional, if we want to be technical, or opt for more inspiring words such as balanced, happy, successful, or content.
Most families have the capacity to grow stronger. These are the principles strong families live by:
“Our family comes first”
Strong families support each others dreams; they sacrifice to show support. A friend turned down a company trip to the Bahamas so he could attend his son’s championship soccer game. “The beach will always be there but my son won’t always be 14 and team captain.” This “family first” attitude begins with a bond of loyalty between marital partners. But single-parent families can be just as successful in raising strong children if they develop a “family first” attitude.
“We belong together — and apart”
Strong families use the word “we” a lot, but “I” is never forgotten. Family members know they have the freedom to go off on their own, even if the direction is one that “we” have never followed before. The family message is, “We’re behind you, so you can be you.”
“We are a democracy”
While parents are naturally in a leadership role, strong families strive to share decision-making. They resolve difference by respecting other viewpoints and accepting compromise solutions. One family decided to spend money on a son’s music lessons rather than replacing worn carpeting. The compromise was to pitch in and clean the carpet. In another family, everyone but the youngest daughter loved to ski. They rented a vacation condo with plenty of activities for the daughter, and the skiers accepted an hour’s drive to the slopes.
“We treat each other well”
In strong families, positive strokes outnumber negative broadsides by a wide margin. Members regularly express appreciation: “Thanks for fixing the drainpipe.” “You look so nice in that dress.” “The dinner was great.” Criticism is offered gently. After all, strong families figure, if we can be kind to strangers, why not to one another?
“We roll with the punches”
A 25-year study of more than 21,000 families found that the successful ones are adaptable. Recently, I heard about a retired couple whose son, after a business failure, returned to live with them along with his pregnant wife and two children. At the same time, the retired husband’s aged mother moved in. Plans for travel were put on hold, but this family expressed no regrets. Indeed, the wife talks about the joys of having four generations together. She sees a challenge rather than a setback. Strong families are flexible in everyday matters too. They don’t “sweat the small stuff — crabby kids, traffic jams, and bad hair days.” They just breathe deeply and move on.
“We pay attention”
Strong families are good listeners, whether the talk is large or small — about a pending layoff at work or a Little League practice. They make sure they understand, using phrases such as, “I’m not sure I know what you mean. Can you say it another way?” A good rule: Don’t read minds; listen with your heart.
“We cherish family time”
According to a Harris poll, a large majority of men and women aged 20 to 40, value a work schedule with enough time for family. But strong families do more than hope for time; they insist on it. They set work boundaries and prioritize family fun. “At work, I give 100 percent,” a young mother told me. “I won’t even take a phone call that doesn’t relate to the project at hand. But bring work home with me? Forget about it.” She added, “No job lasts forever, but a great family does.”
“We want to improve the world”
In disproportionate numbers, strong families volunteer in local organizations, serve on school boards and town councils, and coach sports teams. They help in individual ways, too, making house repairs for elderly neighbors, shopping for the home-bound, babysitting for frazzled young mothers. “What goes around comes around” is an adage well-known to strong families.
“We have faith”
Religious belief, trust, a sense of connection to the universe — no matter what you call it, there is a spiritual component to strong families. They see their lives imbued with purpose, reflected in the things they do for one another and the community. Small problems provide a chance to grow; large ones are a lesson in courage. A mother whose son died of a brain tumor bravely returned to the hospital where he died in order to set up a research fund. When she saw the parents of children who currently were suffering, she told her son’s doctor: “If any research you do produces any advance, my son’s passing won’t have been totally without purpose.” It takes a certain type of spiritual grace to see beyond one’s own misery to the needs of others. Strong families try to live so they can look outward — and inward — every single day.
Parade Magazine, December 1, 2002.