What Makes A Family Tick? Part VIII

Happy Family with LifelineThis is the eighth and final installment 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

The Parental Role

We ask a lot of parents. We expect them to give their children, at a minimum, a good, loving home, an education, clothing and enough to eat. We also expect them to teach their children to be caring, independent, responsible, civilized members of society. And they must keep them safe, off drugs, and out of jail, too. Then if they’re not too busy, they can also help them figure out what they want to be when they grow up and help them get there.

Already sounds impossible. But it’s so much more than that and believe me, as any parent will tell you, it’s not as easy as it looks. We come into the job unprepared and there’s no owner’s manual. We have to learn as we go and never get a day off. No one prepares us for the depth of love we will feel for our children or the impossible decisions we will have to make on their behalf for decades to come.

One of the most important tasks of a parent is to continually educate himself on what his child is capable of at any given time. Having this information helps them set realistic goals and expectations for their child. Many parents struggle with this part of the job. Some tend to underparent and typically expect their kids to handle way more than they are capable of. Others over parent and don’t give their kids the chance to learn on their own through supervised trial and error. But kids are neither mini-adults nor idiots. They need freedom and limits, attention and space. It’s a tightrope and we have to be careful not to lean too far to one side or the other.

Successful bosses use their power and authority to create an environment where employees know what is expected of them and who to go to for counsel and advice when they need help. They don’t micro-manage and they are quick to express appreciation for hard work and cooperation.

And if they want to maintain their authority, they don’t hang out by the water cooler gossiping about other employees. They don’t pour their hearts out to their subordinates about all their problems at work or at home. They don’t go bar hopping with the guys after work. In other words, they respect the hierarchy and the boundaries. They maintain their role and build respect by being fair, steady, competent and available. The same goes for successful parents.

Parents also have the job of civilizing their kids. They have to teach them how to wait, how to deal with not getting their way, how to handle disappointment and respect authority. This is why we can’t give them everything they want even if it’s easier and why we can’t step in and fix things all the time. We need to think long and hard about who and what we are unleashing into the world. Teachers are leaving the field in droves, for example, because of the high level of rudeness and uncooperative behavior in children (and their parents!) from nursery school through high school.

It’s also the parent’s job to teach their kids to take responsibility for their own actions, to be accountable. But this is a skill that gradually evolves. Kids don’t get to be in charge because they aren’t developmentally capable of  making good decisions all of the time. No matter how great they are, there’s a reason why they are not at the top of the totem pole. When it comes to making big decisions, or always behaving responsibly, age and experience count. We know this but sometimes they seem so smart and competent that we forget.

Annie, the daughter of a friend, was recently in a very serious car accident. She and a few friends were driving to a football game after school. It was daylight, no one had been drinking, and all of them had their licenses and knew where they were going. But they started fooling around, laughing and getting a little rambunctious—typical behavior for 16-year-olds. Then, one of them took it a little too far and began throwing M&M’s. The driver got distracted and plowed into another car carrying a mother and her two small children.

Both cars were totaled and the police said it was a miracle that no one was killed. These kids were normally very responsible but forgot, for just a second, what they were doing. This is not too surprising since teenagers’ brains are not fully developed and they have trouble measuring risk. This kind of immaturity, due exclusively to age and development, interfered with their ability to remember, for those few critical moments, how dangerous it was to play around in a car going 55 m.p.h.


There is an innate creativity involved in the art of parenting. It calls on us to use everything we have to craft a healthy, wholesome life for our children and ourselves and we each approach it in our own way. Putting a functional structure in place does nothing to undermine that. It simply provides a way for the creativity to happen, and happen successfully.

Just as a pastry chef must learn which ingredients go together to create the perfect cake, he must also learn which ingredients could ruin it. If he wants to do his job right, he will keep them out of his cakes and his kitchen!

Likewise for parents. Every family starts off with the best of intentions. They all want to succeed. But if they don’t understand their role, or what elements combine to make a family tick, they may end up behaving in ways that hurt rather than help their chances. Not because they are stupid or unmotivated, but because they don’t know what they are shooting for.

The key to raising a successful family comes from being totally present with what’s going on and feeling secure about what you’re doing. That sense of confidence comes through to your children and makes them feel secure, too. Once you understand your role—what it is and why it’s so important—then you can play with your own personal, creative expression of it.

There is ample room in every family for warmth, playfulness, spontaneity and fun. But without a good, functioning structure—a clear hierarchy, intact boundaries, clarity regarding roles, and family rules that help to support the health and happiness of all it’s members—family life may end up being more about chaos than creativity.


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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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