When we consider our own families, few if any of us would totally identify with the ideal we just described. In fact, it’s more likely that most of us would point out our family’s weaknesses and faults and firmly assert that there’s no way we will ever reach the ideal. Some— perhaps “burned” by their own damaging experience—would even be bitter or cynical in response to this description of the ideal.
But we suggest that you seriously examine your expectations in this area, and as you do, that you consider three things:
First, whatever our family situation, “ideal” does not mean “without challenge.” By its very nature, family life is filled with challenge. After 35 years of struggling with health challenges, economic challenges, and the daily scraped knee bandaging, runny nose wiping, teenage trauma solving, and deadline-meeting problems of daily life, we know even the best of family life has its challenges!
One of the great benefits of family life is the incomparable inter- dependence and strength of character that come as a result of working through the challenges together. In fact, our ability to see the “ideal” as strength to handle the challenge—rather than the absence of challenge—is what gives birth to the thoughts and actions that create the enduring family strength implied in the ideal.
Second, even the ideal family life is a saga of “becoming.” The birth and growth of a child is the perfect metaphor for the birth and growth of a family. There are awkward stages, times of learning to walk and falling down, times of learning to meet needs and interact with others in meaningful ways. There’s no such thing as a “perfect” family. There’s a growing family, a learning family, a becoming family. And the direction in which you’re headed as a family is far more important than wherever you happen to be at any given time because, over time, the direction will make all the difference!
Third, whatever your own experience may have been, can you honestly imagine anything that could have a greater impact on the happiness of the people in your family now and the happiness of future generations than to nurture them in the principles of joyful family living? Even if your own situation is far from the ideal . . . even if you were married to an abusive spouse . . . even if you have children who have gone far astray . . . even if you have a legacy of alcoholism, trouble with your in-laws, or a history of choices you’d rather not have made—still, is there anything that would be of greater benefit to your children than to embrace and teach the principles of the ideal family?
There is no greater legacy you could pass on than to prepare your children to fulfill their own family roles with excellence and joy. And what could be more meaningful than transforming your own negative experiences and heritage of dysfunction from a stumbling block into a stepping-stone, a foundation upon which more solid families of the future can be built?
Consider the alternative: How could it be better for our families to sustain the bitterness, nurture the pain, repeat the mistakes, and pass on a legacy of dysfunction?
My mother grew up in a family that could be considered some what dysfunctional. My grandmother had been orphaned at five and married at fifteen. She was emotionally dependent on the approval of my grandfather—a man who, at the time, was very strict. When people did something he didn’t like, he would cut them off emotionally—sometimes not even speaking to them for years. After giving birth to five children, Grandmom was devastated when Granddad told her he had decided to call it quits.
Although my father grew up in a more stable family, working with his six brothers and sisters on the family farm, he has told me that never once in all his growing up years did he ever hear the words, “I love you.” His first birthday that was ever even acknowledged was his 22nd—and that was because by that time, he was engaged to my mother who loved him and thought it natural that his birthday should be celebrated.
As a child, I wasn’t really aware of all of this. All I knew was the warm and wonderful security of growing up in a home that was filled with love. In my home, there were “I love you’s” everyday and birthday celebrations every year. Dad sang to me, read to me and helped me with homework. Mom spent countless hours teaching me songs and making costumes so that I could perform. My parents often asked for my opinion, included me in almost everything, and lovingly supported me in developing my talents and in any other worthwhile project I wanted to do.
As an adult now with more than three decades of experience in raising my own family, the more I think about it, the more I am amazed. Where did my parents get the vision to create something that was so far removed from their own experience? In the midst of daily living, did they realize how profoundly the choices they made would impact my own efforts to raise a family? Did they have any idea they were creating a heritage of security, love and life learning that would impact generations to come?
Whenever I’ve talked with my parents about it, they’ve been quick to acknowledge the good things about the families in which they were raised. But it is obvious to me that many of their most important life choices were driven more by their own navigational intelligence than by their environment. Deep inside their hearts was an inner compass that acknowledged and taught the principles of the ideal family. And it was their connection to that compass that enabled them—despite their own experience and scripting—to create such a warm and wonderful legacy of love for me.
Regardless of our current circumstances, each of us has the power and freedom through our own proactivity to teach family members what is both “real” and “realistic” regarding the family and to move toward the ideal. To do so is probably the greatest contribution we can make to our own personal happiness, the happiness and well-being of our children, and the strength of the society in which we live.