The Awesome Power of 4 Tiny Family Traditions

A Family doesn’t need to be perfect; it just needs to be united

No room in your family’s hectic schedule for “quality time”? These mini rituals make it easier to carve out special bonding moments.

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The Stories That Bind Us

In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future. -- Alex Haley

I hit the breaking point as a parent a few years ago. It was the week of my extended family’s annual gathering in August, and we were struggling with assorted crises. My parents were aging; my wife and I were straining under the chaos of young children; my sister was bracing to prepare her preteens for bullying, sex and cyberstalking.

Sure enough, one night all the tensions boiled over. At dinner, I noticed my nephew texting under the table. I knew I shouldn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help myself and asked him to stop.

Ka-boom! My sister snapped at me to not discipline her child. My dad pointed out that my girls were the ones balancing spoons on their noses. My mom said none of the grandchildren had manners. Within minutes, everyone had fled to separate corners.

Later, my dad called me to his bedside. There was a palpable sense of fear I couldn’t remember hearing before.

“Our family’s falling apart,” he said.

“No it’s not,” I said instinctively. “It’s stronger than ever.”But lying in bed afterward, I began to wonder: Was he right? What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?

It turns out to be an astonishingly good time to ask that question. The last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively.

Myth-shattering research has reshaped our understanding of dinnertime, discipline and difficult conversations. Trendsetting programs from Silicon Valley and the military have introduced techniques for making teams function better.

The only problem: most of that knowledge remains ghettoized in these subcultures, hidden from the parents who need it most. I spent the last few years trying to uncover that information, meeting families, scholars and experts ranging from peace negotiators to online game designers to Warren Buffett’s bankers.

After a while, a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.

I first heard this idea from Marshall Duke, a colorful psychologist at Emory University. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Duke was asked to help explore myth and ritual in American families.

“There was a lot of research at the time into the dissipation of the family,” he told me at his home in suburban Atlanta. “But we were more interested in what families could do to counteract those forces.”

Around that time, Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students.

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said.

Her husband was intrigued, and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush, set out to test her hypothesis. They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.

And then something unexpected happened. Two months later was Sept. 11. As citizens, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush were horrified like everyone else, but as psychologists, they knew they had been given a rare opportunity: though the families they studied had not been directly affected by the events, all the children had experienced the same national trauma at the same time. The researchers went back and reassessed the children.

“Once again,” Dr. Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?

“The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said.

Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative, he explained, and those narratives take one of three shapes.

First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. …”

Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Leaders in other fields have found similar results. Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making, the building of a narrative that explains what the group is about.

Jim Collins, a management expert and author of “Good to Great,” told me that successful human enterprises of any kind, from companies to countries, go out of their way to capture their core identity. In Mr. Collins’s terms, they “preserve core, while stimulating progress.” The same applies to families, he said.

Mr. Collins recommended that families create a mission statement similar to the ones companies and other organizations use to identify their core values.

The military has also found that teaching recruits about the history of their service increases their camaraderie and ability to bond more closely with their unit.

Cmdr. David G. Smith is the chairman of the department of leadership, ethics and law at the Naval Academy and an expert in unit cohesion, the Pentagon’s term for group morale. Until recently, the military taught unit cohesion by “dehumanizing” individuals, Commander Smith said. Think of the bullying drill sergeants in “Full Metal Jacket” or “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

But these days the military spends more time building up identity through communal activities. At the Naval Academy, Commander Smith advises graduating seniors to take incoming freshmen (or plebes) on history-building exercises, like going to the cemetery to pay tribute to the first naval aviator or visiting the original B-1 aircraft on display on campus.

Dr. Duke recommended that parents pursue similar activities with their children. Any number of occasions work to convey this sense of history: holidays, vacations, big family get-togethers, even a ride to the mall. The hokier the family’s tradition, he said, the more likely it is to be passed down. He mentioned his family’s custom of hiding frozen turkeys and canned pumpkin in the bushes during Thanksgiving so grandchildren would have to “hunt for their supper,” like the Pilgrims.

“These traditions become part of your family,” Dr. Duke said.

Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively. But talking doesn’t mean simply “talking through problems,” as important as that is. Talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.

The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.

Today’s article was written by Bruce Feiler and is shared from the following website: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html

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Not The House (and what comes with it) But The Home

I am now an empty nester – one of those women who carry photos of her children and grandchildren to bore others with because she is no longer overwhelmed with noisy, energetic (and sometimes cranky) children underfoot.

I cannot claim to be new to the experience of being an empty nester – mainly because I believe that every time a child leaves home an empty nester experience occurs. Yet, all of those empty nester experiences and observations of my children as adults have taught me some invaluable lessons:

•    Cherish all of the teaching moments with your children – especially the ones that come at inconvenient times. And…make an effort to create as many of them as you can.
•    In order for our teaching moments to be effective they must be backed up with our example.
•    Take time to have fun as a family…and do it often. Laughter and giggles are important!
•    Teach children responsibility and how to work (even when it’s easier to do it yourself).
•    Teach children right from wrong, morality, the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments. They do not automatically absorb it.
•    Dance lessons, music lessons and sports are all wonderful and have their place but they need to have their place and not rule schedules or a family. All too often families lose the connections they should have with each other because they are spending every spare moment effort funding the lessons, traveling to practices/games, and living life on the go.
•    A parent needs to be a parent and not relegate authority over the home to the children. The angriest and most emotionally unhealthy children I have ever seen are from families where those children were allowed control of their families.
•    Daily expressions of love are invaluable to building relationships and a loving family.
•    Skip the expensive toys and electronics and encourage children to play and use their imaginations. (The best toy in the world is an appliance box!)
•    A large fancy house does not have an increased ability to make a happy family.  Many shacks have been better homes to children than mansions have.
•    Children do not learn to be successful by being coddled and indulged. They learn to be successful by learning self discipline and how to work.
•    The most important things parents can do to provide security for their children is to make their marriage a priority. Date nights are important and the courtship that initiated the family should never…ever end.
•    Don’t wait to do things with your children until your children are older. It may seem like lots of activities would be easier if you just wait until they are older but the most critical time to build relationships with them is when they are young (and those activities take the most effort).
•    A house does not make a home.
•    Building a home is not done with walls, mortar or nails. A home is built by two parents who love each other – who are committed to each other and the work and effort it takes to build a family.  A home is built with hugs, teaching, tears, a few scraped knees, kissing boo boos better, discipline, work, trips for ice cream, chores, water fights, attending church together, family dinners and more. And somehow…even when we are so exhausted that lifting a finger seems a monumental task – we must do it all with love.

Building a home out of a house is tough demanding job. The hours are grueling and there is no monetary compensation. However, “the toughest job in the world” has amazing rewards. I feel and experience those rewards every time I walk through the door of my house and sense all of the laughter, love, and memories that have been created and shared there, spend time with my sweetheart (who is still my sweetheart because we have made each other a priority), share in the successes of my children, and gather together with my loving, energetic, and sometimes mischievous family!

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I Am There with You…

You are never alone-791420

I remember so many moments in my life when I felt so alone – many of those moments I was surrounded by large numbers of people. Other than losing a loved one, I’m not sure there is a more difficult experience than feeling lost and alone in a crowd. Those years that I suffered from severe depression had more of those moments than I care to think about. I have always been a person with spiritual inclinations and depression stripped me of my normal ability to feel connected to God. For all of you who are wading through depression or other life altering experiences, please know that God loves you and is aware of you. If you can’t yet feel Him talk to you in your heart – climb a mountain, smell the sweet scent of a flower, hold a newborn baby or do whatever it takes to sense the miraculous. Miracles abound in this world if we will open our hearts to their presence. God’s majesty is ever ready to be found. He is present in your heart – hang on and hang in there until you can feel Him. Ask Him to hold your hand each day until you can feel certain that He is holding your heart as well. As a witness of His divine presence and perfection, I cannot promise that each day from this day forward will be easier for you but I can promise that you are loved by God unlike anything you can relate to in mortality. I also promise that as you open yourself to His presence in your life you will see miracles and you will eventually know in your heart that you are not alone and that you never will be.

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Having a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? …Happy Mother’s Day!

No Good Very Bad Day portrayal-89189I love the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst! Recently while surfing the internet, I came across a quote from the book. When I saw it, I just knew I had to use it for my Mother’s Day Meme!  It may seem odd to you but the book about Alexander reminds me of motherhood. On this day when we celebrate our mothers, I am reminded of many who have mothered children but could not have their own. I also think about children from dysfunctional mothers. I think of children who, through no fault of their own, have had to grow up without mothers. Last, but not least, I think of those days as a mother when I thought that early retirement might be a good idea! I am grateful that God created families with both a mother and a father. Both are important and essential. Children do not come with a manual – I know because I have searched high and low for the manuals to my children and nobody, including me, has ever laid eyes on them. So, either they don’t exist or the security surrounding them makes Fort Knox look like a toothpick sculpture. Not all mothers are wonderful and all children come with their challenges. However, in spite of all of that, there is one truth about moms and motherhood that supersedes all others. God has entrusted the mothers of this world with the welfare of His children. No one else can do the job they do. No other person or force has greater influence on a child and the life they will live. Fathers are amazing and their job is no less important. However, a mother’s influence begins at conception and a child innately looks to the mother to determine if they are loved and it is the interactions (or lack of) with the mother that will mostly determine the child’s self-concept and emotional health. Have you ever noticed that the first parent an adopted child seeks to find is the mother? There is no coincidence in that. It is from our mothers that we each, innately, look to to determine our worth and our value. A mother who abandons a child physically or emotionally creates a child who will eventually have to address his abandonment in order to achieve a healthy sense of self. I remember a conversation with a therapist I once had regarding one of my adopted children and the emotional issues that they dealt with because their birth mother had not properly cared for them. She said, “Who knew that when we were changing the diapers of our babies and they were screaming at us for doing so, that we were communicating to them that we loved them and helping them to know that we would keep them safe.” As the mother to both birth children and adopted children, I understand the worth of mothers. Those days and moments when we want to retire early from motherhood are not for us – they are for our children. I know that it can often seem like the payback moments of motherhood have ditched us for someone else. However, every time you celebrate a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day along with Alexander, know that what you are doing is priceless and that, in your own special way, you are making our world a better, happier, healthier and more loving place to be!  I want to give a heartfelt thanks to every woman who has mothered a child and helped them to feel loved and cherished. To all women who have nurtured and loved children, Happy Mother’s Day!

 

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