The summer season is entering its final stretch now. Families will be trying to squeeze a few more valuable vacations in before school starts. Sometimes August feels like “the calm before the storm” because the new school year often hits like a strong wind that scatters the children and blows apart the parents’ schedules. I want to encourage you to take what time is left this summer to shore up your family relationships and overall functioning. Now is the best time to change and improve things in your family, before the frenetic pace of school begins. Rather than worry about what’s going wrong in your family, its better to focus on what you want to go right. The best way to do this is to understand what healthy families do, and emulate these traits in your own family. As Thoreau said, “…you only hit what you aim at, so aim high.”
Dolores Curran, author of “Traits of a Healthy Family,” surveyed professionals in education, ministry, health care, and family counseling, asking them to identify what they observed in families they deemed as “healthy.” Based on this survey, 15 traits were identified as components in healthy families. There is no single family that embodies all of these traits, so don’t feel pressure to master them all. This issue will look at the first two in Curran’s list; communication, and valuing family time and conversation. The other 13 traits will be covered in later columns.
Healthy families communicate and listen. Communication is a two-way interaction; someone is giving a message and someone else is receiving it. Good communication occurs when both people feel heard and understood. When someone is talking to you, it is important to let them know what you heard. It’s easy to fall into the habit of “listening” while you are doing something else, but this gives the nonverbal message you aren’t really listening. Just think back to the last time you talked to your child while he was playing a video game. Did you feel heard? Probably not, unless he stopped the game and looked at you while you talked. Families with healthy communication are responsive listeners. They look at people who are talking to them and let them know what they heard.
The second trait is valuing family time and conversation. This is simply putting a priority on spending time together. One good example of family time is “table time.” In many homes, the family dinner table has become a place for piles of laundry and odds and ends, rather than a place for the family to eat together. To make “table time” happen, you have to make the dinner table a place to eat and sit together on a regular basis. Try to eat a meal together as a family as often as you can; breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Everybody eats, so why not make an effort to eat together? This is a great time to share your lives with each other. Make mealtimes a time to discuss family plans, or each person’s highlights and struggles of the day. Try to keep conversation lighthearted, avoiding “hot button” issues. It can be a challenge to coordinate everyone’s schedules to eat together, but the payoff is worth it.
To make both of these traits work, I suggest you turn the TV off. Recognize and avoid harsh criticisms and put downs. Encourage individual feelings and independent thinking. Be aware of your nonverbal messages (tone of voice, facial expressions). Be consistent in practicing these traits, and I guarantee you will see great results. Try them out, and your family will be able to resist the forces that often pull families apart.