Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a magic formula for family happiness? And if we followed that recipe precisely, added all the right ingredients at the right time, our relationships would be a love feast sustaining us through thick and thin.
The truth is, there is no one way, one path, to a happy family. It is a complicated, sometimes messy business that asks more of us than we always feel willing to give. Happiness rules can change from family to family, and from culture to culture, but there are certain collective tenets that invite depth and meaning to our relationships. The following ideas are only a few of many that can help to foster a sense of wellbeing in families.
1. Deposit the qualities into your relationships that you wish to withdraw. Think of the person as a bank account. For example, you wish your child were more patient and loving, your partner more appreciative. Bite your tongue, and plant patience. Tell your partner you noticed the effort to help even though she or he was tired. Sometimes we become the very qualities we are upset with and the family account bottoms out.
2. Show up on time. It is a strong and vital message that says you will do what you say you will.
3. Be affectionate. Scratch backs, say ‘I love you’ every day. Lounge together, hug daily. If affection does not come naturally, practice it in tiny doses of touch. It is never too late to learn how to hug and kiss those we love.
4. Help decrease sibling rivalry by opting out of most conflicts. Many studies show that the more a parent interferes between siblings, the less close and more discord there is in the relationship. Sometimes it helps for a parent to mediate solutions by sitting the siblings down and asking them to define the problem, repeat the other’s viewpoint, then brainstorm solutions; this means the kids, and not the parent, are the major investors in the answer and its outcome. Always step in when a conflict gets abusive or violent.
5. Appreciate each other. Sometimes it is the little things that can make or break our level of coping: showing gratitude for help, noticing the effort someone is making, or drawing attention to the hidden kindnesses in a day elevates our sense of feeling loved. It’s important to feel loved, because the bottom-line is, you can’t give what you don’t have.
6. Build resiliency in your relationships. Accept life’s bumps, betrayals and skinned knees as part of the larger picture of a meaningful life. Do not fix all problems. Your assumption that a family member will deal just fine with an issue will often make it so, building self-confidence and perseverance.
7. Communicate. Listen first and foremost, with eye contact and open body language. Do not interrupt. Ask questions. Share your own perspective. Be vulnerable. Some of my most effective parenting happened when I told my teenagers that I was scared, and for me it always comes out as anger. Communication is one of the cornerstones of healthy relationships, even if it is a lurchy, uneven, process.
8. Accept the differences in one another. There is a powerful quote by Maya Angelou that sums it up: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Acceptance is the present tense of love. It tells us we are precious as we are, not for what we could become.
9. Tend to your own life. As parents we often set aside our own needs for our children, yet adults need to belly laugh, stay up late, eat good food with friends and indulge their own passions and interests too. This creates a home climate that encourages health and vitality at its very roots.
10. Pay attention. You can’t push rewind on childhood. The dishes can wait, turn off the cell phone, limit computer and TV time and step into the present where each moment is full and fleeting. The truth is, we don’t march into adulthood with grateful childhood memories of clean houses and absent fathers.