This is the fourth installment of a series exploring 15 traits of healthy families, identified by Dolores Curran as vital to family success. Traits nine through 12 will be covered in this column. The four traits we’ll examine this month all have to do with boundaries. In every family, there are physical and relational boundaries. Healthy families are those that; 9) share responsibilities, 10) have a sense of right and wrong, 11) respect the privacy of one another, and 12) admit to and seek help with problems. These traits have to do with boundaries between family members, the boundaries of what is morally acceptable, and the boundary between the family and the larger community.
Parents that value shared responsibility recognize there is a relationship between responsibility and self-esteem. Children raised with responsibilities have a sense they are capable and useful. Small children have a natural inclination to help out. I know their help isn’t always that helpful, but it is very important to give them the opportunity to carry out some responsibility. For instance, when our oldest daughter was three she loved to help by “dusting” and making her bed. Children who are encouraged to take on such small jobs, and praised for attempting them, develop a stronger work ethic when they get older. Remember, though, that developing the trait of responsibility in your child doesn’t necessarily mean orderliness and perfection. Focus on “good enough” rather than perfection when giving your children tasks that foster responsibility.
Responsibility in families is about chores, shared division of labor in the home, and caring for one’s own belongings. It is also about personal responsibility for one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings. In a healthy family, the family expects its members to live with the consequences of their actions (or inaction). For instance, how helpful is it for a parent to take responsibility for their child’s science fair project when that child has procrastinated too long? Such a misguided attempt to help only takes responsibility away from a child and ultimately robs them of feeling capable.
The next trait, having a sense of right and wrong, is highly related to our previous discussion of responsibility. Having a sense of right and wrong means that the parents share a set of core values and clearly transmit these values to their children. Parents help their children live morally by modeling integrity between their values and their behavior, and also by holding the children responsible for their own moral behavior. Take, for instance, the parent who highly values kindness and compassion. They will try to model this behavior in all their interactions with others, knowing their children are watching. Additionally, such a parent would apologize to their child if he or she ever treated their child in a cold or harsh manner. This approach of modeling a value is the most effective way to instill that value in your child.
The third trait for this month, respecting the privacy of one another, is a very important quality for families to possess. Respecting privacy means each person feels they have personal space in which they feel safe. It also means each person is not only allowed privacy, but that privacy is encouraged. This can range from making sure the bathroom door is shut when someone is using it, to allowing your teenager to make his or her bedroom their own domain. As children grow into adolescence, this trait becomes more important and more challenging. Adolescents often want to spend time alone in their room, or decorate their room (and themselves) in ways that the parents would never prefer. This is the natural developmental process of adolescents becoming separate beings from their parents. It must be acknowledged, however, that a parent’s ability to respect their child’s privacy depends on the child’s ability to demonstrate trustworthiness.
Lastly, the healthy family admits to and seeks help with problems. Healthy families see problems and difficulties as a normal part of family life. When problems are seen in this light, a family is less likely to be thrown into a panic and react in extreme ways (i.e., denial, yelling, separating, kicking a child out, etc). Healthy families develop problem-solving techniques to deal with problems when they arise. This could mean that a family seeks the help of a pastor, counselor, tutor, or other type of outside aid in their community. In order to do this, family members must set aside issues of pride and insecurity and remain flexible. Rather than seeing such need for outside help as a weakness, family members see it as a statement of how important they are to each other.