Read an Excerpt
Wonderful Ways to be a Family
By Judy Ford
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1998 Judy Ford
All rights reserved.
Help One Another
A harmonious family is possible. It should be your goal, because it provides the best opportunity for everyone to grow.
Provide a Safe Haven
The very first thing that you can do for your family is to provide a safe place to be together—a resting spot, a peaceful sanctuary, a home. It doesn't matter if your safe haven is a mansion with a private bathroom for every person or a small apartment with one tiny bath. The only absolute requirement is that your home be safe. A place where, at the beginning and end of each day, family members gather to relax, put their feet up, and let their hair down, knowing that they're surrounded by people who care and in whom they can trust.
Your home is your collective retreat from the world where each of you can restore your soul and renew your energy so that everyone— young or old—has the vigor, spunk, and eagerness to face another day.
Your home should be clean, but not necessarily neat. Active families are doing things, and wherever there are kids and pets, artists and geniuses, at work and at play, there's bound to be clutter and dust balls. Organization and neatness are handy but a comfortable home full of positive energy will serve your family best. Especially for many women, it's easy to get so caught up in cleaning that we lose all sense of fun. A safe haven wraps you in contentment. It's filled with light and color, not designed as a showplace to impress, but arranged for enjoyment and activity.
For a home to be safe you must create an atmosphere free from tension, worry, put-downs, and hostilities. It must be free from anger, depression, ridicule, emotional blackmail, and physical threats. That doesn't mean it will be conflict free, but with an attitude of acceptance, conflicts can be resolved in a spirit of cooperation. Each person knows that they matter, that they can speak up, and that their point of view will be heard. They look happy. They have smiling eyes and relaxed bodies. In a safe home every person is important and knows it.
A safe haven is filled with books, music, crayons, and paper. There are toys in the corner and backpacks piled on the floor. A safe haven is filled with movement and motion. There's laughter, dancing, and horsing around. Skates, bikes, scooters, balls, bats, teddy bears, and dolls are appropriate trimmings.
In a safe haven, each person contributes to personalizing the space. Especially when kids have a say in designing their rooms, choosing the colors, arranging their furniture, and choosing the pictures, they have a personal investment in keeping it comfortable. Mementos of family outings, children's drawings, a baby bonnet, and a bulletin board all add to the decor.
Take an inventory of your home environment. What impression does it make? Is it cozy, lively, and safe? Or do you feel apprehensive in it? Can you put your feet up? Or are your standards so unrealistic that you're always doing household chores? Remind yourself that you can have your home as neat as you like when your nest is empty, but for your own sanity and for the well-being of your family, for now creative clutter is best. It doesn't matter if you have lush carpets or garage-sale furnishings; it doesn't matter if you have fine china or mix-and-match plasticware; what does matter is that it feels good to walk through your front door!
Commit Yourself Completely
To be part of a loving family takes commitment—an enormous commitment, because you have no idea of what you're committing to or what might be asked of you in the future. In the beginning, the pledge seems easy and it comes naturally; after all, you love the other person, and you both want to be a family. But when family life gets a little rocky, as it surely will, you'll might question the wisdom of your original intention. You'll stand at a crossroads where you have to choose once again between venturing on your own or staying connected.
To be a member of a loving, lively family calls for your devotion, dedication, loyalty, and staunch determination. It's a commitment of heart and soul, not for the sake of the other family members alone, but for your own sake as well.
If it's a loving family you desire, you can't take an inactive role, you can't assume a passive attitude, you can't adopt a do-nothing posture. On the contrary, you'll put your family first, not because you have to, but because your commitment is all consuming and you find joy in doing so. The reward is an attachment so freeing that even when you're separated, you're still connected just the same.
The commitment I'm asking you to make is not a spoken one, not a public formal pledge. We all know that such commitments are easily broken. This commitment is much more subtle, unspoken, implied yet present just the same. It's a heart commitment made a thousand times over and stronger than a legal contract. At the end of a busy work day when you feel like putting your feet up and reading a book, for example, your commitment to your family means you put aside your desire for solitude and cook dinner.
Since few of us can predict the future, you're making this commitment without an inkling of what challenges you'll face, what burdens you'll bear, what victories you'll share. Yet in the darkness of not knowing, your commitment automatically arises, and you say to yourself, "This is my family; forever."
Your commitment arises from love. It contains a depth and totality of focus. Love first and commitment follows. If love disappears, your commitment is shaky.
To be part of a loving family and stay committed, you must keep love alive, fresh, ever flowing. Your behavior is the public affirmation of your pledge. How you treat your family matters; your attitude, each and every day, counts. Your commitment shines through your actions. If your loved ones let you down, don't snarl at them, accuse them, intentionally hurt them, turn your back, or walk away. Always treat them lovingly; put their best interest in the forefront of your mind. When you do, your reward is an indestructible bond that holds you together. Loving one another has that quality of commitment and continuity in it. If you want your family to be committed to you, be loving toward them.
Create a Team Identity
One of the unspoken tasks of a family is to assure each other that "we're a special, unique, one-of-a-kind, better-than-your-average" family. Creating family identity bolsters family esteem, which gives each person a lasting sense of belonging, pride, and wholeness. Jean explains how this phenomenon worked in her family:
"From an early age, I remember my mother saying, 'We're not like the average family,' and it was true. I see now that we may have been somewhat dysfunctional, but at the time, by the way my mother said it, as well as what I felt, I took it to mean we were special. Special as in, 'a cut above,' 'grade A,' 'prime.' I got this message from both my parents. My father was mostly absent and my mother was gifted in the art of denial, but as a child I believed I was blessed by my lot in life."
In the olden days, families proudly displayed a coat of arms or an emblem of their ancestry. When a couple marries, wedding rings are the outward symbol of the lifelong pledge they're making. You might consider choosing a symbol or designing a family logo to represent your commitment to one another. My daughter Amanda drew a picture of us when she was five years old. I liked it so much that I transferred it onto stationery and homemade greeting cards. Even though she's nineteen years old now, I still use it on note cards as a representation of our relationship. A client of mine made her son a quilt composed of family memories. She incorporated fish because fishing is their favorite pastime, two dogs that looked just like their pets, and other significant designs. She liked it so much she made one for herself. When other family members saw the quilts, they hinted so much that she made them quilts of their own. It's become a family tradition and each relative displays theirs proudly. The quilts increase their connection. Your family might wear baseball hats or t-shirts printed with a family crest you've chosen. You might find a lucky charm and hang it over your front door, paste it on the refrigerator door, or paint one over the fireplace.
To create a distinct family identity, you must talk about what it means to be a family and how special you are to each other, and reinforce it by sensitive displays of love, affection, and tender care. Ask yourselves: What does it mean to be part of our family? Think about a family motto. What would yours be? Talk about your family's purpose. What are your goals? What do you want to emphasize in your family? What you think about your family has far-reaching consequences. If you say out loud, "We're a family that likes each other," soon it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Choose a Cooperative Parenting Style
There's great joy in cooperative parenting. Achieving it requires getting along with your partner, communicating about the nitty-gritty of daily life, and being cognizant of each other's weaknesses so that you can call on one another's strengths. Since you're not automatically going to think, feel, or act the same way, cooperative parenting involves appreciating your differences so that you can fully enjoy your togetherness and parent constructively. By combining your styles and maximizing your strengths, you'll get double the pleasure—the pleasure of happy children and the pleasure of working in unison with your sweetheart.
In my "Parenting with Love and Laughter" workshops, parents talk about what they like and dislike about parenting. You're not expected to like everything, you're not expected to always agree, nor are you expected to do it all well, but by combining your temperaments and natural inclinations, you make the job easier and get more enjoyment out of it.
The dynamics between parents have a lot to do with the child's behavior, so if you're cooperating well with each other, they'll reflect that back to you. By separating the tasks you enjoy and are good at from the ones you don't like or have to clench your teeth to get through, you can rely on one another to pick up the slack. "Lou likes to read bedtime stories and I don't," says Leah. "He's good at serving soup, nursing aches and pains, coaching Little League, and grocery shopping. I'm good at helping with homework, making our home cozy, negotiating, listening, wiping runny noses, and making suggestions."
Parenting works best when you're open to your partner's approach, when you're able to see family life from his or her perspective, and when you accept feedback without getting defensive. Bouncing parenting issues around is handy, especially when what you're doing isn't getting the results you want. You can say, "Honey, what do you think about letting Susie go to the all-night party?" or "Do you think I was too harsh?" or "How do you suggest I might handle that differently?"
A cooperative parenting style is not for tyrants who flaunt their power or for martyrs who control by dumping guilt. It's about being an empowered, inspiring leader to your children and each other. It's about being loving, realistic, and lighthearted, trusting each other when you've gone off course. "He cautions me when I'm lecturing," says Helena, "and I warn him when his temper is on the verge of being out of control."
Do you emphasize your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What positive attributes do you bring to parenting? What areas do you need to learn more about? Cooperative parenting is seeing normal, everyday difficulties in new light. You can make many decisions in unison, but once in a while you'll need a chairman of the board. That's when you can trade off, depending on who is better at what.
Lead with Integrity
Integrity is pure and simple honesty. Living with integrity means getting to know yourself, inside and out, and communicating in a sincere, tactful manner. It means being willing to be open, and let your children, your spouse, and other family members see who you really are by giving them clear information about you. Leading with integrity means that you're not only willing to answer truthfully, but that your life is based on truth, you've stopped sneaking and hiding, and you're no longer pretending. You're living in the light, standing on a platform of truth. Living truthfully, being authentic, speaking honestly from your heart, is the basis for trust. Dishonesty destroys confidence and creates confusion, while honesty creates a firm foundation on which family life can be built.
Children learn about integrity through watching you lead your life. Do you practice what you preach? Are you genuine, upright, sincere? Are you living a respectable life? Does what you do match up with what you say? Do you know what goes on inside you? Or do you hide behind a mask, pretending you're something you're not? Children learn lessons of honesty and integrity when you share your experience. Admit it, you've been cagey and devious some time in your life too. Shaming or punishing your children may teach them not to tell a lie about breaking the window, but it doesn't help them learn how to apply the "honesty is best" policy in other situations. You want them to understand the concept so that they can apply it to all parts of their lives.
Allow for Upset
In general, it's not safe in our culture to show upset. That's why there's so much interest in it. The media is rampant with stories about people who have gone to extreme measures to be heard: mowing down kids in a school, ramming someone with a car. We're alarmed, yet we watch with interest, wondering how one person could be filled with such rage. How does a person growing up in a family become so disturbed? Perhaps it's because they were upset for years and no one heard. Eventually, like a volcano, unable to keep the steam and lava inside, they blow. But fortunately you don't have to let it go that far. When you face upsets as they come, they won't pile up or cause explosions.
Upset is natural and can be an opportunity to understand yourself and your loved ones better. Even in the best of relationships, feelings fluctuate back and forth—sometimes we're in a love fest; other times we are angry with one another. Strong families know that conflicts and disagreements are part of any relationship. It's how you handle them that matters. Being upset is not bad as long as you face it. Indeed, upset lets you know that something needs fixing or changing. If you're upset there's likely to be a reason for it. When you uncover the source, you're no longer agitated. You're able to take positive steps, make changes, think clearly, and take action.
Sometimes the reason for your upset is obvious—the family pet dies, your in-laws have overstayed their welcome, you watch one of those sentimental commercials and are homesick for your family who lives a thousand miles away. Other times you might be upset but not sure why or what to do about it. If you're not sure, first focus your attention inward. Ask yourself, "What's going on with me right now?" Write your answers in a journal. After you've written about your upsets, you'll be more ready to talk them over. If your upset involves a family member, go to him or her and ask if you can talk about what's bothering you. If it doesn't involve anyone else, you still might want to talk it over anyway because being listened to is often all that's needed.
Excerpted from Wonderful Ways to be a Family by Judy Ford. Copyright © 1998 Judy Ford. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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