What Makes A Family Tick? Part III

Happy Family with LifelineThis is the third of a multi-part series that examines the workings of a healthy family. It’s meant to be a sort of how-to guide that can help you create the family you always dreamed of!

Family Blueprints

Some people were lucky enough to grow up in families where the structure was sound and the rules of operation were clear and made sense.

They received a lot of first hand experience in how to share power, talk about a problem, cooperate, discipline a child, deal with stress, negotiate an important decision, or lay down the law without being tyrannical. And they will probably incorporate a lot of those customs, or ways of doing business, into their own families once they become adults.

But for all the others who experienced a less than ideal family life growing up, creating a strong, resilient family structure can be tougher. The set of instructions they received may be intrinsically flawed and they might not even realize how. As the old poem goes, “Children learn what they live,” and we all learned a lot about how to be in a family based on the one we grew up in. Much of it happened through osmosis though, so we might not know what we know and are shocked when the same old family problems that plagued us in our youth show up again in the new family we are trying to build.

Since most people eventually have children, it seems that a basic course or two on child and family development should be offered in every high school, right? I mean after all, we’re primates, so when it comes to raising children, we have to learn everything. We are just as clueless as a gorilla or a chimpanzee when it comes to child rearing. New gorilla parents get shown the ropes by older gorillas. They get a lot of hands-on training from the pros. Without the guidance and attention of many gorilla aunties, a new mother might leave her baby up a tree or never get the hang of nursing. We are no different. But rarely in our culture does anyone in the know explain how to grow a healthy family. So good or bad, we are left with the model we grew up with.

When I was working as a family therapist, I used to think about that all the time. It seemed so odd to me that the only people who got to learn the basics about how “normal” families develop and operate were the ones in treatment, who were burned out and on the brink of disaster. Even then though, with so much stacked against them, it was amazing how often they were able to make structural changes that led to great improvement for one and all.

Imagine for a moment trying to run a retail company if you didn’t have a structure or a plan—if you didn’t know who was in charge, what to order or how much to charge, when the store should be open or what the competition was up to. It wouldn’t matter how enthusiastic you were or whether running a company was something you had always wanted to do. If you didn’t have a basic, sound understanding of what a business like this needed in order to succeed, chances are you’d be filing for bankruptcy before most of your neighbors even knew you had a store.

When you make the decision to raise children, you are in a sense traveling down that same path. You are opening up a “family” business. So you need to know how to set up shop. You need a business plan. You need to understand the basic concepts that must be present and in good working order if you even want a shot at creating and maintaining the happy family we all dream about. Don’t get me wrong though—there is no magic formula here. Obviously all families will run into problems and difficulties—mild or severe—throughout their lifespan. But the ones with a strong, healthy structure tend to fall less often and recover more quickly when they do.

Next Week, Part IV: We Are Family

Parts I and II can be found in the MamaToMama Blog.

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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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