We’ve talked alot about families and how early childhood experiences can shape adulthood. And I’ve had a number of requests to share some thoughts about healthy families. It’s an interesting dilemma – people don’t come to therapy because their life is wonderful. But when I look at people I see and know, I realized there are some common principles lived by families who are emotionally present for each other and for the children.
Two small points. When I work with parents about their families, I remind them of the old style radio my neighbors had in their living room.
If you’re a Gen X’er or a Gen Y’er, you can find a sample of this radio in the Smithsonian, but they used to be common. The important point of this radio is the big red needle, which you moved to choose a station. It’s hard to see but there are a number of bands on the face of the radio. The needle moved across all of them at the same time, but the choice of the band and the location of the needle determined the programming we listened to.
This is how I see children. They are born with their bandwidth and their station pre-programmed. It’s either AM or FM or another band. All of the parenting in the world can move that dial a little bit either direction of the pre-set selection. But…lousy parenting can force a chld to a different band altogether. So the key is to love our children as they are.
When I first started this series, a reader contacted me and said “Oh my Heavens, I am a hero and I’m trying to make my daughter adopt my world view and expectations…and that’s not who she is.” Mom was trying to change the band of her daughter’s personality.
So after that analogy what are the signs of an emotionally rich family?
1. Healthy families permit and encourage private time. Personal boundaries are respected as long as safety is not questioned. This applies to parents and children.
2. Each person has a personal, private space for themselves. It might just be the lower bunk in a shared bedroom, but there is a space that’s mine. Always.
3. No conversation is off-limits but every conversation must be age appropriate. Kids always know more than we assume or expect, so it’s important to be honest with them. At the same time, communication must be within the constructs of their emotional and mental development.
4. To successfully manage point 3, of course, parents have to be aware of normal, healthy development in children. Do you understand what your children are able to digest? Psychology has lots of information about the emotional, moral, and intellectual abilities of children at each age and stage. Study them.
5. Positive affirmations and support must significantly outnumber the negatives. Children need to know what they’re doing right. Not meaningless praise and pats on the head but the real stuff that they need to accept and own so they can be the best adults they can be.
6. Children need to regularly hear “I love you”, “I’m proud of you”, and “you (or your opinion) matters to me”. When children grow up knowing that they matter, they are free to fully evolve into their potential.
7. Children need us to ‘walk our talk’. If we expect them to tell the truth, then we need to set the example. If we talk the importance of God, or church or matters spiritual, it is important we live to those standards. Little ones are easily confused about these beliefs and they need us to live as we speak.
8. In the same vein, it is important that we take care of ourselves. It makes no sense to talk about healthy living or the importance of exercise or educational success if we aren’t following through ourselves. It is a waste of air time to tell our children what not to do while we’re doing it.
Are you seeing the pattern? Children learn what they live (as the old poem says). So live your best life. You don’t have to be perfect – they only need to know you’re evolving. Tell them you love them often and do your best – it’s all any of us can do.
Does this make sense? Let me know what you think, because I love to hear from you.