WHY HAPPY FAMILIES ARE DIFFERENT
The couple in my office looked bewildered. Well-educated, they had raised their children according to the most “progressive” thinking. Emphasizing feelings rather than behavior, the parents allowed the kids to express themselves openly and loudly, offered them an equal voice in family decisions and gave them freedom to pick their clothes, friends and TV shows. They sprang to their children’s defense when the kids collided with school authorities, and absolved them of household chores.
Sitting with the couple were the results of all that dedicated effort – a sullen, arrogant 15-year-old boy and a totally self-absorbed 13-year-old girl. The four of them were the opposite of the strong, loving family the parents believed their attitudes were helping to build.
I had heard this take at the Center for Families and Children many times. Not all the parents I’d dealt with had pursued the feel-good approach, of course. Others had followed an earlier model of child-rearing, in which parents cracked the whip and made all the decisions for their kids. They had their own set of problems with rebellious children.
Then I thought of the strong families I knew – the truly happy, resilient families who always seemed able to weather the ups and downs of life with equanimity. How did these families thrive when others flopped?
In part, they did it by not following set philosophies, feel-good or authoritarian. Indeed, their family-building tactics often flew right in the face of conventional wisdom. Here I have tried to define what makes these families work.
Children know their place. A happy family is not a democracy in which everyone has an equal voice, or where kids operate with total freedom. Parents wield a benign authority, listening to their children’s ideas and taking account of their feelings, but reserving the right to make final decisions. Moreover, kids feel comfortable knowing who’s in charge.
One day my teen-age daughter Erika told her mother she wanted to drop piano lessons, saying she was tired of practicing. Her mother listened, then made a parental decision. She told Erika to stick it out for three months. Then if she still wanted to quit, she could. That was six years ago. Last September Erika went off to college – to study music.
Parents talk kid language. We often forget that children are not miniature adults. They speak differently, think differently, react differently.
One day a friend and his son were preparing lunch. “Is there any soup?” the boy asked. “I don’t see any”, the father said. “But is there any soup” the boy repeated. After three repetitions, the father got the message. To the more literal-minded child, “I don’t see any” meant that the soup was simply out of sight, and his father should move a few cans until he could see it.
Of course, some kids act like hairsplitting lawyers. “You told me not to throw the ball in the living room”, a boy may say. “You never told me not to throw it in the dining room.” But he knows full well that the spirit of the order was “Don’t throw the ball indoors.” Young kids live in the here and now. They don’t see the consequences of their actions the way their parents do. That’s why what the parent says may be dodged by the child or at least take a while to be absorbed.
Some of my colleagues estimate, not wholly jokingly, that a young child must be reminded 2000 times before a given lesson sinks in. That can be annoying. But parents in strong families recognize that constant repetition is at the heart of learning. And it is more important to make directions and the reasons for them clear than it is to convince a child of their justice.
They’re not always happy. Strong families recognize that the sun may not shine every day. Thus, when Mum gets sick, Dad is transferred or a greater tragedy occurs, family ties prepare them to withstand the deluge.
One of my neighbors was laid off from his job at a telecommunications firm. He went right home to his wife and their two college-age children to map strategy. Together, they decided to launch a family business. They refinanced their home, the son and daughter increased their college loans, the wife switched from a part-time job to a full-time job, and the husband enrolled in a training course for the new business. The firing was viewed as a family challenge.
They don’t believe in “quality time”. Instead of reserving a special time to “be with the children”, as popular advice suggests, parents make it clear that they’re always available. And if that means parents must sometimes set aside other pressing chores, so be it. Once I was summoned from a university conference by a call from my older daughter, then about four. We had just moved to a home in the country with a stream on the property. Alarmed, I hurried to the phone. “The salmon are running!” Mariska told me. She wanted someone to share her excitement. Such special moments simply can’t be scheduled.
They value tradition. Happy families observe their own time-honored rituals. These are an important source of strength for those who share them. Grace before meals is such a tradition. So is a “quiet hour” after dinner. A family I know declared Friday “Pizza Night”, when kids were free to bring friends to share dinner and soft drinks.
Many treasured rituals revolve around holidays. In my family, with its Eastern European background, we always decorated eggs for Easter. It was a time-consuming process, and when my daughters reached their teens I suggested abandoning it. The girls wouldn’t hear of it. The tradition had come down from their grandparents, and they were determined to keep it alive.
They make mistakes. No one succeeds 100 percent of the time. In happy families, that fact is admitted, and it doesn’t immobilize or traumatize them. Kids are allowed to make choices, including poor ones. Parents may review how a decision might have been made differently, but then the case is closed. Kids aren’t reminded of past mistakes.
Many parents are fearful that their slightest misstep will damage their kids irreparably. Not so with parents in strong families. They know they aren’t perfect, and they’re not afraid to admit it. “I’m sorry I lost my cool” goes a long way toward preserving family unity.
They fight. Of course happy families argue. But they don’t resort to name-calling or dredging up the past. And they have a method for straightening out relationships when things have gone sour.
One approach we’ve found helpful is what we call the “volcano technique”. Each family member has the right to erupt like Vesuvius when he or she has a gripe. They can spout hot lava for five minutes, describing whatever has made them angry – but not personally attacking another family member. Others are obliged to listen and then get their chance to respond. By that time, the steam has usually gone out of the volcano as well as the listeners.
Sometimes, though, a disagreement is more basic, about the household budget or attitudes toward child-rearing. Yet families can remain strong if they acknowledge such differences and try to accommodate them.
In one family I know, the husband is a workaholic. His wife doesn’t like it, and occasionally she explodes. But she also recognizes that his work habits are their only major difference. He understands her frustration and tries to make up for it by reserving an occasional weekend for family activities and by taking work-free vacations. The conflict has not gone away, but both have learned to deal with it in ways that don’t undercut the relationship.
They compete. Unrestrained sibling rivalry can be dangerous. Yet when competition is channeled, it teaches kids how to win and lose.
Ski champions Phil and Steve Mahre are examples of the outcome of family competition. Each twin pushed the other until both won Olympic medals. All the while, they assisted each other, too, passing along tips that would help the other achieve his best. Recently I saw a photo of the two, now 37 and retired from competitive skiing. They were facing each other across a chessboard, still competing.
The children work. In a strong family, everyone works – including the kids. Chores needn’t be strenuous or time-consuming, but they should be regular. When my daughters were young, we were inveterate campers. Their task was to clear the dishes after meals. They didn’t relish the job at first, but eventually it gave them a feeling of contributing to the fun. As they grew older, they made the transition to clearing the dishes at home too.
They laugh at one another. An acquaintance and his wife stopped at a dress shop while traveling with their friends Gerry and Jan. While the two women inspected fashions, the med stood off to the side, waiting. “Gerry’s wearing his shopping face,” she said smiling. Gerry ruefully grinned back. The dour expression he wore while Jan was shopping was obviously a longstanding, yet affectionate, family joke.
A sense of humor is a trademark of the happy family. They can laugh at one another’s quirks and foibles, but the humor is never malicious. Children aren’t allowed to mock each other, and they don’t hit each other’s weak points. Humor unites them.
When parents sadly tell me that they have followed all the rules without success, I remind them of a quotation from the general semanticist Alfred Korzybski: “The map is not the territory”. A map shows you the routes to your destination, but it doesn’t reveal the surprises you may encounter – potholes, detours, rainstorms.
In the same way, we often carry a “map” of a model family in our heads. But, like the highway that’s unexpectedly closed for repairs, family life often doesn’t match what we expect. Strong families know they can’t anticipate all the twists in the road. Their secret includes flexibility, rooted in love and understanding.
Notes on the text:
absolve [əbˈzɒlv] – to say publicly that someone is not responsible for something;
to absolve smb from/ of smth.
dedicated – made for or used for only one particular purpose.
a feel-good approach – is an approach whose main purpose is to make you feel happy and cheerful.
equanimity – composure, self-possession.
to dredge up (informal) – to start talking again about something that happened long time ago.
to have a gripe (informal) – to complain about something.
I. Study the text and find synonyms to the following adjectives. Consult the dictionary for their definition:
bouncy, laborious, confirmed, sullen, malevolent, benevolent, unruly.
II. Find the sentences which include the following word combinations. Give their contextual Russian equivalents, make a list of adjectives, used to describe and characterize the families that flop and thrive.
to spring to children’s defense
to collide with authorities
to absolve of chores
to weather the ups and downs of life with equanimity
to flow right in the face of conventional wisdom
to wield a benign authority
to be in charge
to stick it out for…
to act like hair-splitting lawyers
to withstand the deluge
to dredge up the past
to have a gripe
III. Quote from the text to prove that:
- Kids should know who’s in charge.
- Constant repetition is at the heart of learning.
- Strong families should view all problems as a family challenge.
- Parents should be always available.
- Happy families weather the ups and downs of life with equanimity.
- Children shouldn’t be absolved of household chores.
IV. Challenge or support the following:
- Like the highway that’s unexpectedly closed for repairs, family often doesn’t match what we expect.
- A sense of humor is a trademark of the happy family.
- Happy families thrive only because they follow set philosophies, feel-good or authoritarian.
- Kids should be allowed to make choices, including poor ones.
- Child-rearing (family-building) tactics can be compared to the map, which shows you the routes to your destination, but it doesn’t reveal the surprises you may encounter.
V. Answer the question: “Why are happy families different?” Discuss the question with your groupmates.
VI. Divide the article into logical parts. Give the gist of each part.
VII. Recommended vocabulary list:
words: feel-good, resilient, benign, hair-splitting, sibling, strenuous, inveterate, to dredge up.
word combinations: to spring to defense; to absolve of chores; dedicated effort; to weather the ups and downs; to withstand the deluge; to have a gripe.
John E. Obedzinski is a behavioral pediatrician at the Center For Families and Children in Corte Madera, Ca, and a clinical assistant professor of behavioral pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.