Family is supposed to be the heart of American life. However, the American family as we know it is under siege and is being attacked from every quarter. The traditional family, in which many of us were raised, no longer exists.
Family today takes many different forms. The key is that family in whatever form is our lifeline, our center of support, our safe haven and our oasis in the desert that gives us hope and encouragement when we are sinking in the quicksand of despair and discouragement.
For many young people growing up today, the traditional family of yester year does not exist. However, different family systems have emerged. Although their structure is different, for many the dynamic is more life giving and supportive than our traditional model.
Family life, no matter what form it takes, demands time and effort on everyone's part. Parents need to accept that no matter what their issues and struggles, raising and parenting children is a full time job.
The American family is being undermined because parents are not raising their children. Childcare and television in many instances have more of an influence on our children than we do.
All in the name of providing our children with experiences and opportunities that we did not have, we sold out on some very basic moments of connections.
Sports, the performing arts and hobbies are all wonderful activities as long as they don't impair family life. When family life is shaped around extra curricular activities, genuine family life is being impaired.
Parents need to spend time with their children and not constantly at a distance. It is great to watch your son play and/or practice football, but not at the expense of never really talking or sharing a family meal together.
It is so easy to get sidetracked because we all have very busy lives. Most activities are positive experiences, but therein lies the danger. These positive experiences should not take the place of healthy interpersonal connections with your children. We need to laugh, cry and scream together.
Today it is so easy to become anonymous strangers who raise teenagers that we don't even know. The present generation is faced with so many choices and so many issues. Our input is important.
It is further challenging because after we give input, our son or daughter might choose to ignore or even reject it. However, at least we have planted a seed. It may not bear fruit in the immediate future, but I have seen it blossom down the road when it really matters.
There is no one blueprint for a healthy family. Every family system is different, as are every member of every family. However, there are some common elements that are critical to a life giving family system.
Probably, the most important element is communication. It is not a one sided communication or a communication by which we as parents talk down to our children. To be effective we must work hard at talking with our children, which also demands that we listen.
Too often we talk a lot, but that talking is directed at the person, not with the person. As parents, we are not good at the listening part. If we are good listeners, we have to work at stretching our understanding and empathy, even when we don't want to.
Genuine parental listening forces you at times to step out of the box and look at some very tough and delicate issues in non-punitive, non-judgmental ways. Shame and blame have to be eradicated from our working vocabulary. That is not to say that our children should not be held accountable for the choices that they make.
Accountability is an important part of integrity. That is a work in process that takes a lifetime to fully perfect. However, it doesn't excuse us from being attentive and working on it.
If our communication is open, fluid and honest, our children will feel support and encouragement. They may not always like it, but that is also part of life. We will not always be thrilled with their response, but that should not shut any doors or impair the on-going dialogue.
As parents, we should not be afraid to say what we think. Nor should our kids be afraid to respond, especially if that response is a clear rejection of our input. Those connections, if embraced with openness and honesty, will empower family growth and strengthen closeness. However, even on a good day, it is hard.
We should not shrink from the challenge of establishing standards and expectations from our children, even if they resist. It is our responsibility to lead by example.
Our children need us and we need our children. Age is not a factor. As a parent, you will be a parent when your son or daughter is sixteen, twenty, fifty or seventy. We never stop being parents and they never stop being our children. Roles will change and hopefully as they age, more of a friendship will develop, but that parent-child dynamic will remain forever.
JR is thirty-seven. He is the only child of a single parent. He is well educated and a very successful professional. His early childhood was very tumultuous. He barely knew his mother. As he got older, she showed less interest in knowing him. He was devastated and for a time he was very bitter and resentful.
His Dad took parenting very seriously. He allowed his son the space to become his own person. However, he insisted that his son be home for the family meal and that they have regular conversations about everything. As a teenager, JR resisted, but his Dad insisted. Even though he was very busy with his career and raising a son, he always made time for JR.
As JR got older, he looked forward to those family connections. He would regularly make reference to the fact that those conversations were life giving for him and his Dad would say the same, even though they rarely agreed on anything. JR is a staunch republican and his Dad is a socialist. Their mutual respect is heartwarming.
After graduate school, JR left home to be on his own. He told his Dad that he wanted to have dinner together at least once a week, that was seventeen years ago. To this day, every Thursday is father and son night. They meet for a meal and more importantly, for that on-going conversation. That has strengthened the heart of their family.