What Makes A Family Tick? Part VI

Happy Family with LifelineThis is the sixth 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.

The Four Foundation Stones

Hierarchy

Every family has a management structure or chain-of-command. When the hierarchy is clearly defined with the parents at the top and in charge, the family has the best chance for success.

The “executives” of the family are expected to make the rules and decisions and establish order and consistency so that everyone can grow and develop in a safe and loving home. And they must operate as a team. Dad may be the “authority “ on some subjects, and Mom the “go-to” person for other things but what counts is that everyone knows they are a unit, or subsystem unto themselves.

An invisible boundary separates them from the other subsystem, which is made up of the kids. Even though the kids will constantly try to infiltrate the top tier, this boundary must be kept intact and respected if you want to get good results. So you don’t share your adult worries and concerns with your kids. You don’t get them involved in taking sides with you against your spouse. You allow them to stay free and innocent of the inner workings of the management team. You let them be kids and you figure out how to take care of business with your adult partner, or if you are a single parent, on your own or with help from another adult you can trust.

A hierarchy that is steadfast and dependable allows kids to grasp the nature of the pecking order and their place in it. Once they learn to respect and work with the authority figures in their own family, they can take those skills into the bigger systems they must function in, like school and the workplace. If those skills aren’t developed, the child will have issues with peers and bosses alike.

Of course in a family, the top dogs are performing all these duties with the added ingredients of love, warmth and respect. Effective parents must learn how to show their kids they mean business in a kind, firm way without creating a harsh or fearful environment. As children get older they will challenge mom or dad for more autonomy and control. And little by little, parents must allow them to take it on. That’s the only way they a child will become independent, which is the ultimate goal of parenting.

If the hierarchy is not clear, who’s in charge may change from day to day. Sometimes the parent may be on the job and other days not so much. Some days the child may feel compelled to move into the top spot because something needs to be done and the parent isn’t doing it.

If this becomes the norm, kids end up losing rather than gaining confidence because they have to make decisions or perform duties without going through a proper apprenticeship first. They may feel out of their league. And even if things work out okay, the child may believe that his success was just a matter of luck and that he could never pull it off again.

Regardless of any particular outcome though, the idea that you might have to stand in for the master of ceremonies at the last minute creates an atmosphere of apprehension and anxiety for anyone, especially a child.

Consider Mary, a young intensive-care nursery nurse, who came to me pregnant and overwhelmed. She had been raised by a severely alcoholic mother and never knew her dad. The hierarchy in her family was not clear. Roles were reversed and Mary was often left with the responsibility of caring for her siblings. She had been moved to the top position in the hierarchy and given the role of parent, a role she was completely unprepared for. She did the best she could but she had no safety net and always felt like one wrong step would send her and everyone else flying.

Even though she was a well educated adult, when she became pregnant she was terrified of taking on the responsibility of bringing up a baby. She had no blueprint for what a normal family should look like and no good role model to emulate. And she also had a lot of bad memories. She was afraid that she would repeat the same mistakes her mother had made. Luckily, Mary faced her fears, got help in learning the role of mother and went on to raise her child competently and with confidence.

Sometimes a child must move up to the executive level to help out a parent who is ill or working long hours to support the family. But even then, the child must know that he or she will not be carrying that burden of responsibility indefinitely or without clear guidelines and support.

The kids work out their own hierarchy, too, and learn a lot about how to get along with friends, and later colleagues and spouses, by interacting with their siblings. It is the perfect place to learn all sorts of very useful life skills like sharing, cooperating, loyalty, accountability, the art of negotiation and how to challenge authority.

Children need space from their parents in order to do this though. That boundary we were talking about allows this to happen. If mom or dad is too involved in their kids’ business, it makes it very difficult for them to practice and perfect these skills. Every set of brothers and sisters known to man has kept secrets from their parents and all parents have kept secrets from their kids. This is as it should be.

One of the most famous threats between siblings is, “I’m going to tell,” which in family therapy speak means, “You are crossing a line and I’m going to disregard the boundary and get you in trouble with the boss.” That’s not to say that the parents should stand idly by while World War III rages on in the family room. They must set limits and expectations around acceptable ways for their kids to argue and work things out but then give them a chance to practice on their own.

When my kids were growing up we made it a habit to have dinner together and spend that time talking about the day and what was happening in everyone’s life. But a pattern developed in which my seven-year-old, always a big talker, was gabbing away for the entire meal. At one point I explained that it wasn’t polite for him to be the only one talking and that we had to let other people share their thoughts and ideas, too. I turned to my daughter, then four, and asked what she would like to talk about. She looked me in the eye and said, “I would like to give my time to Ben,” the older brother whom she adored and utterly respected.

I had to gently but firmly tell her that she couldn’t—that I was making an executive decision and wanted her brother to work on listening more and talking less. Besides, we were all interested in what she had to say. We laugh about it now but it really brought home how respectful this little girl was of the hierarchy within her sibling subsystem.

Next Week, Part VII: The Four Foundation Stones, Rules

 

 

 

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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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