Bringing Out the Best in Your Family

When tough situations arise, strong and healthy families can pull together as a team, drawing strength from individual character traits and smart parenting.

Parents in healthy families allow a child to experience the cost of irresponsibility—for example, not providing an excuse when a major homework paper is not turned in on time.

Jane Riggs of Phoenix, Ariz., is a single parent who is fiercely proud of her five children. “They are 11 to 14—a boy and four girls [including a set of twins]. I have kept them involved in all kinds of activities—choir, band, sports, chores at home,” she explains. “They attend church with my father every Sunday. Their grades are good and they have aspirations of attending universities. That will be tough for a single parent like me to afford, but we’ll manage,” she adds.

In the recent past, her 75-year-old father had two femoral bypass surgeries. One became severely infected, resulting in a longer-than-expected hospital stay. When he was released, doctors recommended placing him in a nursing home. His leg had to be flushed every four hours and his IV changed every eight hours. It meant around-the-clock nursing.

“I work 10 to 14 hours a day, but I just couldn’t put Dad in a home, and my kids wouldn’t hear of it either,” Riggs says.

Here is how her family worked together. Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth moved into her grandfather’s house, where the nursing service taught her how to take care of him. Kit, Kate, and Ashley rode their bikes over daily to wash, cook, clean, shop, or do anything else necessary. Michael, the 11-year-old, mowed the lawn; and the younger children took turns visiting with their grandfather so their big sister could get some rest.

“Their entire summer was devoted to taking care of the only man in their life. They skipped going to the movies, swimming with their friends, visiting the mall, attending slumber and birthday parties, and everything else kids do in the summer. I was so proud of my children,” Riggs says.

Strong and healthy families like the Riggses know how to work together for the common good. Often, the test comes when a crisis occurs, and some families pull together while others push apart.

Here are some ways to bring out the best in your family:

Communicate. For her book Traits of a Healthy Family, author Dolores Curran surveyed 551 families. Responding to an extensive questionnaire, those individuals shared their insights on what makes a healthy family.

“Communicating and listening was chosen as the No. 1 trait found in healthy families by my … respondents,” Curran notes. “Communication … is basic to loving relationships. It’s the energy that fuels the caring, giving, sharing, and affirming. Without genuine listening and sharing of ourselves, we can’t know one another. We become a household of roommates who react rather than respond to one another’s needs.”

When children speak, be an active listener—that is, one who puts things together, understanding the feelings behind the words. When your children are truly heard, problems shrink considerably and parental influence soars.

Be involved with your children. Every child needs a strong attachment between parent and child. Playtime, physical contact, and conversation produce an emotional investment with positive results.

Never allow work demands, the shortage of time, or the general stresses and strains of life to keep you from being closely involved with your children; strong and vibrant families emerge when parents take an active interest in their children and their concerns.

Discipline with wisdom and compassion. Discipline should be constructive rather than destructive. Parents know the objective is to correct improper behavior rather than to humiliate a child. The result leaves the family strengthened, not weakened.

In his book, Single Parenting From a Father’s Heart, Steve Horner shares an incident that took place when his son, J. J., was 9. Horner remembers it was New Year’s Day and a fresh snowfall made snowmobiling conditions ideal.

That day, Horner gave children rides and let adults drive his mint 1970 Polaris Charger snowmobile. Late in the afternoon, he spotted his son and a young friend with the snowmobile across a cornfield by some trees. “I was frantic,” Horner recalls. “J. J. isn’t supposed to drive the snowmobile by himself, much less give someone else a ride.”

Horner could see the boys were O.K., but as he approached, J. J., in an attempt not to get bogged down in deep snow, accelerated. Quickly losing control, he smashed into a tree. The chrome bumper and fiberglass engine hood were mangled. On the way home, Horner told his son how disappointed he was and listed the reasons the boy should not have been driving the machine. Once home, J. J. was sent to his room.

“The next morning, I drew up a plan to make this lesson memorable,” Horner adds. “We were going to fix the snowmobile, together.” Over the next few weeks, J. J. and his father faithfully straightened out and rechromed the bumper, then repaired the hood. “I was proud of the way he stuck with the job until it was finished,” Horner says. And his son learned some valuable lessons in obedience, responsibility, and perseverance, thanks to his dad’s wise and compassionate discipline.

Let children suffer consequences and learn from mistakes. In Traits of a Healthy Family, Dolores Curran notes that “competent” parents allow their children and themselves to experience the cost of irresponsibility. For example: “If a library book is lost through carelessness, they insist their children make restitution out of their own allowances. If children offend others because of their behavior, they, not the parents, do the apologizing. If a major homework paper isn’t turned in on time or there is tardiness in getting to school, the students face the consequences in the form of a lower grade or after-school penalty; they don’t expect their parents to come up with an excuse to soften the teacher’s reaction.”

Seek and extend forgiveness. Parents and children are bound to disappoint and hurt one another from time to time. If not dealt with, these small hurts can fester and grow into large resentments, which can destroy mutual trust and respect.

Psychologist James Dobson provides a personal example of the art of seeking and extending forgiveness in his book Solid Answers. “A number of years ago I was burdened with pressing responsibilities that fatigued me and made me irritable. One particular evening I was especially grouchy and short-tempered with my 10-year-old daughter,” he says.

“Through the course of the evening, I blamed Danae for things that were not her fault and upset her needlessly several times. After going to bed, I felt bad about the way I had behaved, and I decided to apologize the next morning … I approached my daughter before she left for school and said: ‘Danae, I’m sure you know that daddies are not perfect human beings. We get tired and irritable just like other people, and there are times when we are not proud of the way we behave. I know I wasn’t fair with you last night. I was terribly grouchy, and I want you to forgive me.” Immediately, his daughter placed her arms around him, saying, “I knew you were going to have to apologize, Daddy, and it’s O.K.; I forgive you.”

It’s in cultivating these and other kinds of bonding traits that the members of a family become a resilient team that provide love, security, safety, friendship, and comfort to each other. Then, when other relationships weaken or when life becomes a battle as it sometimes can, it is one’s family, pulling together, that can become an oasis of hope amidst life’s dilemmas and difficulties.

Victor Parachin, an ordained minister and former newspaper reporter, is the author of nine books, most recently, Healing Grief (Chalice Press, 2001).

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