I was recently taken to task by a reader who took exception to my suggestion: that a sullen teen be paid to watch younger children for a while on Thanksgiving. That would give the adults some time to talk without interruption. In the reader’s opinion, teens should participate in the family willingly and freely and shouldn’t have to be paid to pitch in.
She’s right, of course. But I was trying to get people with dysfunctional families through a day. She’s talking about an attitude of cooperation and family-ness that takes years to develop. It simply doesn’t happen on the occasional holiday because we think it should.
Creating a positive, cooperative, warm and friendly family is a worthy goal. It’s what I wish for every adult and child. It is in such an atmosphere that parents can relax and children can thrive. When everyone in a family feels secure in their belonging and generally happy, everyone can be at their best. So how do we make it happen?
Most of us know the ingredients. Most of us manage to mix them into family life most of the time. But it never hurts to be reminded. And if yours is one of those dysfunctional families that weathers instead of enjoys the holidays, perhaps you want to get started now on cooking up a better kind of family. By next year, you may not have to bribe the kids to behave.
Here’s the recipe:
Put secure and committed parents in a bowl.
Parents in two-parent families who trust and care deeply about each other are the foundation. The same is true for single parents who have trust and confidence in themselves.
Add a sweet baby or more.
All babies start out sweet and innocent and ready to learn. Oh, some are a little more tender; some need more attention than others; some are quiet and still while others are loud from the start. Once kids are added, we have the makings of a family.
Stir in liberal amounts of love.
You can’t add too much. Love is an action as well as a feeling. Loving families tell each other so. Little gestures of intimacy and affection are stirred in each day. Love is constant and kind. Love is the bond that transcends the individual and pulls the family into a unit.
Add at least four family dinner times a week.
Studies have repeatedly shown that kids who grow up in families who eat together and share information about their day, listen to each other and celebrate each other, are kids who are the most secure and successful in life.
Fold in interested conversation.
Loving family members talk, really talk, to each other. They listen attentively. They ask interested questions. They are genuinely interested in knowing more. They willingly put down their devices to interact with the people in front of them at least as much as with their Facebook friends.
Strain out as much arguing, fighting and criticizing as you can.
There is no rule that fighting, bickering, bullying and competition need to be part of family life. If someone starts a fight, there is no rule that others have to join in. If the adults are respectful of each other’s differences and know how to make compromises, even when they don’t really want to, the kids will too. Knowing how to navigate disagreements is a life skill the kids will bring to their own families.
Play with the dough.
Loving families know how to play. They can be silly with each other. They joke and tell stories and tickle and happily roughhouse on the floor. They go on walks, play catch, and play in the snow. They know that money isn’t required to enjoy each other and life.
Handle with care.
Loving family members are gentle with each other’s feelings. Their home is emotionally safe.
Add role modeling and gentle instruction as required. Kids need consistency and reasonable limits; encouragement when they are doing right and gentle correction when they’ve made mistakes. The adults know that the how of teaching is as important as the what.
Sprinkle with some charity and random acts of kindness.
Self-esteem comes from doing good for others. Functional families encourage generosity. Kids who grow up knowing how to share what they have grow to be worthy citizens in the world.
Let rise to the occasion.
Kids need practice if they are to carry on respectful conversation and know what fork to use the next time a holiday dinner comes around. Every now and then, declare dinner time as a pretend hosting of royalty. Set the table especially nicely and get everyone in on the game. How would they behave if the queen — and the relatives — suddenly showed up?
Bake in a home that has been made warm with positivity and love.
Warm families instinctively know what research has shown. When positive comments and experiences outweigh the negative by a ratio of at least 3:1, everyone flourishes. Parents who want their kids to be resilient and positive adults — and who also want to feel good about themselves — do their best to emphasize the positive.
Celebrate the result.