Building a healthy family

For many people, the words “home” and “family” have two meanings—one, the home and family that they have and the other, the home and family that they see as ideal. Frequently it is the discrepancy between those two concepts that causes people to feel dissatisfied. Parents and children may feel that something is missing from their family life that would make it better.

We know that love is basic to the happiness of families, but there are other elements that are necessary for people to feel safe, secure, and valued. These are: respect, trust, graciousness, generosity, tolerance, and forgiveness. These are not the only aspects of family life that are desirable, but together they make for safety and security in the family.

Respect must exist between spouses and among all family members. It is important to remember that each individual is precious even when we are angry with him or her. Anything that degrades or debases another family member must be avoided. That includes shaming children in front of others and name-calling or making fun of family members.

Trust is important not only between spouses who must share the tasks of family life and be able to trust that the other will fulfill his or her responsibilities, but it is also important that parents and children be able to trust each other. That means that lies and threats cannot be used to control children. Consequences of a child’s dangerous or unacceptable action should be clear and the child should be warned. If the child persists, then the consequences must follow. Children must be able to trust the people who care for them and that includes their being able to count on clear limits. In turn, children should be trusted by their parents. Children who are trusted from an early age become trustworthy adults.

Graciousness is a concept not often mentioned when discussing family life, but in fact, it is a very important one. There are many tasks family members must perform. It is possible to moan and groan about them, but if they are tasks which must be performed, then doing them with grace and a pleasant manner makes them not just tasks, but gifts which one gives to other family members. A change in attitudes toward tasks can make them seem more pleasant and can change the atmosphere of the home. Children too should be taught that it takes less energy to do a task with a smile that to fuss and complain about it.

Generosity has to do with not keeping a tally of who has done more for whom. If one expects to give only 50%, then one is always keeping a tally and since we each see the world only from our own eyes, it always seems as if we are doing more. Marriage is a 100-100 proposition. Each partner must believe that all of the responsibility for the happiness of the couple is on him or her. Then there will be only giving and not counting up and feeling used. The more family members give to each other, the more they will receive from others. This is because we all have an ingrained sense of fairness and we enjoy reciprocating love.

Tolerance for one’s spouse and children is a difficult thing to cultivate. We all like to think that everyone is like us– that we all work the same way. This simply is not so. It is clear that different people have different talents and interests, but the differences also extend to how we see and experience the world. Some people like to be with others. They enjoy going out and doing things with groups of people. Other people are more comfortable at home reading a book or listening to music. Some people like to plan and decide things well in advance. Others like to leave decisions to the last minute of to collect a lot of information before deciding. In a family, there are always such differences. In order for people to live together happily, they must appreciate their differences and learn that they bring strength to the family. Each child also has a unique way of seeing and living in the world. Parents must learn to treat each child as an individual in order to help the child develop in his or her own way.

Forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult of the elements to cultivate. There is a hard-wired need for fairness. If someone wrongs us, we feel it’s only fair to get something from that person to make up for what he or she has done. Maybe we feel that we should be able to hurt the person. Maybe we think we should embarrass him or her, or give the silent treatment, punishing him or her. All of those tactics are counter-productive in family life. In a family, the aim is to make sure that everyone is working together to achieve a healthy, normal, happy, productive, meaningful life. “Getting back” at someone sabotages that effort. It hurts both people and divides families. Forgiveness lets the relationship continue to develop and allows people to get closer and feel more loving and supportive of each other. People who are punished in retribution are able to justify their behavior. Most people, when forgiven, feel fortunate and are more likely to avoid making the same mistake.

Creating a family that is loving and kind is hard work. Sometimes it requires acting in ways that feel unnatural, but like an athlete, we need to keep our minds on the goal and not lose sight of it.

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