When shit hits the fan (and it will for every family at some point or the other), does everybody in your family put their heads together to find a solution, or do all of you lose your heads and run around like headless chicken?
Twenty years from now, during the holidays, will the kids be making excuses at work so they can spend more time at the family get together, or will they be making excuses to you about work so they can escape the get together?
What makes some families strong and close-knit while others are dysfunctional? How can we make sure our families are in the first category and not the second?
As it turns out, at the core, every strong, close-knit family has the same set of uncompromisable rules that holds them together. Dysfunctional ones on the other hand… well, you know how that goes. To quote Leo Tolstoy –
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Before we can even start looking at these core rules however, we have to first tackle a very important question….
Who is responsible for implementing and enforcing these rules in your family?
It’s a little sad but true — no one seems to pay attention to this question these days.
Rewind about 2-3 years and our family was sliding quickly down the slippery slope of dysfunction.
“My family was a bit dysfunctional when I was a child… so, it goes without saying that my current family is dysfunctional too”, I’d say.
“Both my husband and I are very strong people and very stubborn. Is it any surprise things are sliding”, I’d quip.
“My daughter is so strong willed. She’s got the worst of both my husband and I. We’re so drained that we have absolutely no hopes of ever being the calm peaceful families that ‘others’ are. We’re just doomed to have power struggles all the time”, I’d lament.
In retrospect it all sounds so lame. But the shift from whining and making excuses didn’t happen until it hit me one day – it was my job as the parent to determine how my family turns out.
Not the past. Not the partner. Not the circumstances. And definitely not the kids. You. As a parent, you determine whether your family is strong and close-knit or dysfunctional.
Whether you realize it or not, whether you accept it or not, whether you want it or not – it is your responsibility to lay down the rules that make your family what it is.
It doesn’t matter how busy you are (free up some time!). It doesn’t matter how capable you are (learn and grow!). It doesn’t matter if you signed up for it or not (it is what it is!). It doesn’t matter if you are the mom or the dad (don’t even get me started on this!). If you want a strong, close-knit family, you have to make it happen.
(Take a deep breath. Let it sink in. It’s some pretty heavy stuff.)
Here’s the good news. Once you own this fact and accept it, turning your family into a strong, close-knit one — the kind that legends are made of — is rather straight forward.
Not easy, but straight forward. Not a dash to the finish line, but a slow journey that you will take together and enjoy every moment of it with deep, deep satisfaction.
If you are ready for this journey, here is the first order of business as the newly crowned patriarch/matriarch of your family — implement these 3 uncompromisable rules.
Rule #1: Always Treat Each Other With Respect
Between you and your partner, between you and the kids, between the kids themselves — respect always comes first, and it’s non-negotiable.
Contrary to popular belief, just because you are a family, you won’t automatically love each other all the time. Heck, there will be times when you will outright hate each other’s guts. That’s OK. That’s normal. It’s even natural.
Love is an integral part of the family, and will grow slowly and steadily. But for day-to-day matters, if you rely on love to get your through, you may be asking for trouble.
When one of your kids snatches a toy from the other who really wants it back NOW, don’t expect love to come gushing in to save the moment.
When you tell your child over and over to quit fooling at the dinner table, but in the next second he sends a glass of milk shattering to the floor — I guarantee you, love isn’t what you are feeling at the moment.
When you are rushing your kid to an urgent care facility but your partner won’t pick up the call because of a busy day at work, love isn’t at the top of your mind.
In these situations, you need something far more basic to keep the situation from deteriorating further. An unbendable rule that you must treat each other with respect no matter what, makes it possible to hold your tongue and keep the peace. In the long run nothing is worse than a bunch of hasty words hurled in a moment of anger and frustration.
From this one simple rule, comes a whole bunch of corollaries –
“You don’t have to like each other, but you will not call each other names”
“You don’t have to agree with each other, but hurling insults is not an option”
“When someone makes a mistake, we help them fix it, instead of grinding their nose in it”
“We support each other no matter how angry we are”
“Your behavior right now is not acceptable and is driving me nuts, but I will always love you”
When the only option is to come at each other with respect… you negotiate, you look for solutions, you look for the brighter side and in the worst case, you agree to disagree. It helps create an environment of dignity. It lets kids (and grownups!) cultivate an innate sense of self worth. It builds a culture of cooperation. It makes home a safe place that you always want to come back to.
Rule #2: Talk More About Your Blessings than Your Problems
I am a big believer in being grateful for what you have. It wasn’t always like that, however. I know first hand what a devastating mess your life, and family, can be when you take things for granted and gripe about everything that’s lacking.
There is also research to show that teaching kids to be grateful helps them have better relationships with friends and family, improves their GPA, reduces their materialism, reduces feelings of envy and depression, and in general makes them more happy and satisfied with life.
In the context of a family, it is critical that we build this attitude of gratitude into the very fabric of our lives. Because no matter how simple or content you think you and your family is, you will always be faced with disappointments and setbacks. Insisting on talking more about your blessings rather than your problems, cultivates the habit of looking for the positives and in many cases, you’ll find ways to turn the said problems into blessings!
When you get called into your child’s school within the first month of starting Kindergarten, instead of looking at your kid as a problem child, you and the teachers agree that “she has a lot of leadership skills that she needs to learn to channel properly”.
When your husband won’t join you at social gatherings, instead of making excuses on his behalf (and feeling nasty about it), you learn to honestly and unapologetically say “He’s an introvert and takes his time with people”. And in the process, you start to genuinely appreciate the dignity with which he carries himself in public, and the respect he garners even from total strangers.
(True stories, by the way, in case you were wondering…)
The little corollaries that come out of this simple rule? Well, they are priceless –
“Don’t focus on the few traits in you kids/partner/siblings that drive you nuts, look at the positives instead!”
“Don’t worry that you/your partner/kids are not perfect, focus on how far you’ve come and how far you’ll go.”
“No complaining about the child’s other parent in front of the child.”
Actually make that, “No complaining about the child’s other parent. Period.”
Heck, let’s take it even further — “No complaining. Period.” and stick by it!
Can you imagine what this can do to our marriages? Even research acknowledges that having kids takes a toll on marital satisfaction. This rule is a surefire antidote to at least keeping some of the issues at check!
Rule #3: Our Family is a Democracy — Not a Dictatorship, Not an Anarchy
Discipline is always a sticky situation. If you’re too strict, you suffocate the kids. If you’re too lax, your kids will rule the roost. How can you find the perfect balance?
Research in the field of developmental psychology seems to have the answer. Based on how communicative, nurturing, controlling and demanding parents are, psychologists have classified parenting styles into 4 categories as shown below –
Let’s ignore the negligent style for the moment — whether you are committed to continuous growth and signed upfor weekly notifications of our articles, or you visit the site occasionally, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you are a good parent and don’t need to worry about being negligent.
Among the other styles,
Authoritarian parents are those who set the rules and expect the kids to follow without questioning or they are punished. They don’t feel it is necessary to explain the reasons for the rules and obedience is expected at all costs. The impact of this style of parenting is that children grow up lacking self-esteem and are generally unhappy. They may also be socially awkward. This is the legacy dictatorial style of the olden days that we want to avoid.
Permissive parents on the other hand are very attentive to children, but do not enforce any rules. They indulge the their kids demands and avoid confrontation at all costs. This results in children growing up with low self-control (read, bratty) who often get into trouble with authority and perform poorly in school. This is a classic case of anarchy at home where no one is happy.
Authoritative parents manage the balance well. They take a keen interest in the kids and are highly responsive, while at the same time maintain the parental authority and demand high standards. They have the highest chance of raising happy and successful children, with healthy level of self-esteem and social aptitude. This is the state of democracy in a family where everyone has a say, and is a law-abiding citizen who respects the rights and dignity of the others, and the rule of law prevails.
If you really want to build a strong, close-knit family, as a parent, you have to strive to be an authoritative parent. Instead of constantly nagging the kids, you must strive to develop in them a sense of personal responsibility and intrinsic motivation. Kids on their part must know that they are free to do what they wish, as long as they play within the limits considered acceptable by the family. There should be just and consistent consequences for rule breaking, with the focus being on growth and learning instead of punishment. Discipline should be taken seriously and handled with kindness and responsibility.
As you can see, all the 3 rules are rather straight forward. All that is required is commitment from you as a parent to find ways to consistently implement it in your family so that they become the norm. Like great parents, strong close-knit families are made, and don’t just happen!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Now it’s time to spend a couple of minutes to answer a few questions honestly –
- Where does your family stand right now in terms of how much you support, respect and stand up for each other – in good times and trying situations?
- Suppose you are heading out on a road trip as a family and your car breaks down… will you all end up complaining and depressed, or will you find a way to make the best of the situation?
- What is your parenting style? How about your partner’s? If they are far apart, how can you sync them up, so you can both move towards a kinder, more supportive but firm authoritative style?
As always, there are no right or wrong answers. The intent of these questions is to get you thinking about what you just read in the context of your family and find ways to adapt this to suit your situation. I find writing things down helps me think better and makes me more accountable… so I encourage you to leave a comment below with your answers.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Pick one of the rules that you apply most of the time, but not always, and commit to implementing it in your family this week consistently and without compromise. It takes a while to find a way to match the rule to your family so it is accepted by everyone and is followed without the need to enforce. Your job as a parent is to be there with regular reminders in case someone forgets. Slowly over the course of the next few weeks, try implementing the other rules, tackling the hardest one last, so you can fuel your future attempts by the glow of your past successes.