To me, the phrase ‘happy families’ brings to mind a cheesy board game, matching sweaters and cups of hot chocolate. Too-cute kids gaze adoringly at their wise and capable parents who deal with everything calmly and most certainly never raise their voices. If you suspect this is what I want to help you achieve, please let me reassure you! What I want to write about is families like my own, and the ones that I coach. Families with flaws, quirks, and issues – in other words, inhabitants of the real world. When parents come to see a Family Coach, one of the most common goals they voice is for everyone to be happier. But it’s incredible how difficult such a simple sounding goal can be to achieve. When things are going right, however, I think the following seven elements are usually in place.
1. Everything in its place
A hierarchy of power, with the parents at the top, sometimes seems like a terribly old-fashioned idea. But, in a happy family everyone knows exactly where they stand and they’re comfortable with it. These days most people prefer that the children have some say over family matters, are listened to, and their feelings are truly heard. I couldn’t agree more. The problem with this philosophy is that parents sometimes lose their footing as they scramble to make sure the kids are getting the respect they deserve.
Parents have got to be willing to wear their authority, a kind but a firm authority, from time to time. When we get too focused on the goal of short-term happiness (e.g. giving in, backing down or withholding reasonable discipline), then the issue of who is really in charge will be repeatedly tested – even more so if you have one or more determined or argumentative child in your brood. The great thing about everyone knowing their place is that we can relax. We don’t need to apologise for taking charge, we don’t need the continual wrestle for control that can seriously compromise a family’s happiness.
2. A put-down free zone
A common argument in the debate around teasing and bullying is that we don’t want our children to grow up thinking everyone has to be nice to them, all the time. Of course we don’t want our kids to be so defenceless that they crumble at the first insult. This might be why a fair amount of name-calling and unkind behaviour is allowed to go on in families, mostly between siblings but also between parents and children. Parents could be forgiven for thinking that family is a safe place for a bit of ribbing and learning to cope with jibes. I think that up to a certain point this is true. Recent research conducted in New Zealand however, indicates that the teasing that hurts the most comes from the ones we’re closest to – our family.
Families who are unhappy have often let this one slip away on them without even realising. Often in the face of bigger interpersonal issues, words such as ‘stupid’ or ‘idiot’ can fly under the radar. You don’t like hearing it, but you let it go because it’s the least of your worries. But how we talk to one another, is one of the biggest determinants of a close and loving family feeling, and it is so worth the effort to make your family a put-down free zone. It takes vigilance and consistency. Sometimes it will feel as though you’re making a big deal about something that might not matter much, but creating a family environment where people feel safe from emotional harm really does matter.
3. We invest in fun and adventure
When everyone is too busy, or too focused on simply getting through the day, it seems that one of the first things we drop is the family sense of humour. It’s such a shame that we tend to treat fun, laughter, and adventure as luxuries which we’d get around to if only we could. The truth is that all of these things keep body, soul and spirit healthy, bring family members closer together and help them feel better about each other, themselves, and life in general.
If you haven’t had a good laugh together lately, ask yourself why, and what you can do about it. There might be a game or movie that always sees everyone dissolve into fits of giggles. If there is, then do it regularly! The irony of course is that you need this stuff most when you feel like it least. But trust me, when the kids are getting up your nose and they’re the last people in the world you feel like spending time with – do something fun together. Go somewhere you’ve never been, even in your own neighbourhood. Try hard to see and point out the humour in the silly, mundane, or annoying parts of life. This won’t always be the easy option, of course, it’s usually much easier to stay serious and grumpy. That’s why you have to decide to make an investment in the happiness bank of your family.
4. We can adjust
People in happy families, as a general rule, know the importance of flexibility. It’s really heartbreaking to meet with parents who might be absolutely desperate to have things at home be different, and yet they can’t or won’t admit they could look at the problem from another angle or adjust their own behaviour. There is hope for the control freaks among us, if only we can get comfortable with the fact that we won’t always have the right answer first time. We also have to be willing to adjust an expectation we had of our child, partner, or ourselves. It’s amazing how far our disappointment can take us when we feel a family member is not behaving or coping at the level we expect them to. In the face of repeated evidence to the contrary, we’ll complain to anyone who’ll listen – “He knows how to do this!” or, “She knew better than to behave like that!” A flexible thinker stops and re-assesses, and also gives the people they love the benefit of the doubt. “If you knew how, you’d be doing it already, so how can I help you learn this?”
5. We take an interest in one another
I think all families probably struggle to connect at times due to the pressures of time, work, and activity overload. On top of that, as children get older, their personalities will take them in very different directions. They might prefer different kinds of jokes, books, movies, or one will play every sport going while the other might want to draw all day. If we’re constantly in different spheres, perhaps with mum and dad tag-teaming to make sure everyone gets where they need to go, then where is the sense of family?
Happy families build in an atmosphere of mutual support for everyone by making a deliberate choice to be actively interested in each other. Saturday morning soccer might bore you rigid but you need to be there at least some of the time. And if you can’t be there, ask questions afterwards that show your child a curiosity for their world. Your little introvert might seem so happy in the corner immersed in their books, but if you went over and asked what they were reading, and which character was their favourite, and if you could borrow it to have a read yourself, they’ll be (quietly) over the moon. At the very least, family mealtimes can be used to reconnect, ask questions, and catch up on everything you’ve missed. By taking an interest in your child’s world, you teach them to take an interest in yours, building a sense of mutual care and concern that keeps both kids and parents happy.
6. Mistakes are okay
In a happy family, people are allowed to make mistakes. I think this is one that is easy to get right on paper. We say all the right things, but what is the emotional atmosphere like when someone gets it wrong? Body language and facial expression will say so much more than the words. There is a fine balance to be struck between having high expectations and encouraging children to do their best, and a level of perfectionism that attracts shame and guilt when expected standards aren’t met. The most powerful way to send a healthy message is in how we treat ourselves and our partners when we stuff up. Is forgiveness and acceptance of human error regularly practised?
It seems to me that children will often struggle to move forward and change their behaviour when they feel their parents’ disappointment laying heavy over them. It’s not just children who need to know they’re ‘okay’ before they can begin to act differently, we all feel safer, happier, and more secure when we know that we’re accepted just as we are, warts and all.
7. We appreciate now
Have you ever heard the suggestion that we should basically live in bikinis because we will never be as young or in such good shape as we are right now? Well, I’m not sure about that, but if you haven’t looked through some family photo albums recently, do it soon, because there’s no better reminder that your children will never be as young again as they are right now. We toil so hard to work, clean, improve our homes, and prepare for the future – that magical time when everything will finally be as we’ve been planning for it to be. We’ll have the free time to see people, do things, and have all that elusive fun we’ve been preparing for.
If we don’t fully appreciate that we are actually in what are potentially the best moments of our lives right now, then we will always be one step behind the full happiness that family life has to offer. Some people call it living in the moment. I don’t recommend doing it constantly or you’d wander from room to room experiencing everything so intensely that you’d never get out of your pyjamas. But do make sure that every day you stop at least once and abandon yourself to the enjoyment of dancing, playing a game, even having a simple conversation with your children, and with your partner. Because of course, these are the moments that create your family’s happiness, but if we don’t notice it happening, then we miss it.
Maybe one or more of these steps has reminded you of something you’d like to work on. I hope so because going over them has made me want to work harder at all seven! Do remember we’re real people though. No family (that I’ve met anyway) is happy all of the time, and they shouldn’t worry if they’re not. We do the best we can. And that’s often good enough for a happy family.