by Paul Anderson, PhD, Psychologist, in Overland Park, KS
What Does a Well-Functioning American Family Look Like? The 5 Essential Ingredients of Optimal Family Life in a Culturally Diverse Society
Children must be shown and taught what is or is not acceptable in society. We are not born speaking a certain language, eating a certain diet, or interacting with family members in what are thought to be appropriate ways. Humans learn from their elders how to behave and conform to accepted cultural norms. Most of what we learn to do as civilized, law-abiding citizens comes from the modeling we see more than from direct instruction.
However, a person’s family life is configured by circumstances, ethnicity, and other conditions, and the parent figure(s) attempts to have a family that can produce and foster a viable next generation. Short story: parents want their children to grow up to be practical, adaptive, and able to sustain themselves as adults. The degree to which these outcomes occur for the kids is affected by the quality of the emotional and relationship environment kids grow up in.
5 Essential Ingredients for Cultivating Optimal Family Life
Here are the five foundational bones of well-functioning family life. More substance and elaboration can certainly be added, but an understanding of these basic traits will get you headed in the right direction.
1. Parents and adult role models demonstrate how to handle conflict, tolerate diversity and disagreement. Mutual respect of each family member prevents emotional abuse.
- Adults in the family understand and use rules of Fair Fighting.
- Clear, direct non-blaming communications are valued and used regularly. Active listening skills are taught to children. Skills sets for healthy expression of emotion are encouraged.
- Family members value understanding each other and reciprocal validation more than agreement and pushing for everybody to be on the same page.
2. Clear interpersonal boundaries are maintained in the family and outside the family in relationship to the larger communities such as neighborhood, state, and nation.
- A well-functioning or useful boundary clearly defines who is best suited to do what, with whom, when, where, and how. The family understands who the parents/adults are and who the children are and what’s expected of each in relation to other family members.
- Clear boundaries are maintained between the family and others defined as outside the family. The leaders in each family establish boundaries with short- and long-term consequences in mind. Boundaries may change over time to meet family and community needs or values as they change.
- Useful boundaries clarify responsibilities, obligations, and privileges. For example, family members in the role of adult or parent are responsible to raise the kids, pay the bills, and provide protection, not the children. The children are expected to play, go to school, and learn how to be socialized, productive adults. It is not their job to solve adult relationship issues.Kids play, compete, and cooperate more with their siblings than with their parents. Family members in the role of children are expected to obey family adults and house rules.
Given mutual consent, parents have the prerogative to sexualize their relationship with each other as desired and may reproduce. Single parents meet their adult needs with other adults outside the family, not with children.
At the same time, adults and parents in the family have the right/duty to make final decisions about family life. Families are not democracies.
3. Relationships in the family are valued, cultivated, and maintained with regular attention.
- Parents go on dates. Also, on a regular basis, each adult deliberately structures time with each child and cultivates one-on-one interactions.
- Siblings may squabble, but they need to have each other’s backs outside the family (say, at school).
- The family as a group does vacations and other family activities, building a deep and rich family life history and vault of cherished memories they can draw on when times are rough.
4. Children learn that, regardless of what goes on in their parent’s marriage (including divorce or separation), they can count on these four guaranteed facts:
- They are loved for who they are and are not expected to become clones or allies of either parent.
- While growing up, all their needs will be provided for by their parents, including provisioning, protection, and encouragement to pursue their unique destiny.
- Each parent has a relationship with each child that is unencumbered by the other parent in any way. Children are guaranteed minimal triangulation between their parents and are not used as go-betweens.
- Whatever happens in their parent’s marriage affects them to one degree or the other, but the marriage is none of their business: they did not cause it, they cannot control it, and they cannot change it. Proper boundaries dictate the marriage to be off-limits in all ways to the offspring of that marriage. Children don’t take sides with either parent or play the role of a substitute parental partner.
5. If or when relationships in the family are wounded or damaged, the parents/adults can demonstrate how to repair the damage.
- Children learn from what they see that it’s okay to seek emotional and mental health help, say “I’m sorry,” and deal with problems head on rather than with avoidance or denial. Parents model conflict resolution skills.
- Family members avoid blaming, judging, and criticizing each other for problems and troubles. Instead, they look at the part they play in the drama and work to improve that, rather than trying to point out each other’s faults and change them.
- Family members value and seek to enable growth, progress, and maturity in themselves and each other, not perfection.
6. Bonus Tip: What to Do When Your Family Is in a Hot-Mess Moment:
- Parents/adults find healthy ways to get calm and stay calmer than the children.
- As soon as possible, it is the parent/adult’s responsibility to call a family meeting. Everyone in the family must attend; no one is to be left out.
- Openly, directly, and without blaming anyone, the crisis is discussed. Each family member is then asked to identify at least one appropriate thing they can do to restore calm and regular functioning to the family. The family leader(s) may find it useful to review the proper and useful roles and boundaries that apply to each family member.
- Encourage members to remember and thank each person for the good they contribute to making the family a safe and supportive place to live.
- Necessary solutions to identified problems are discussed. Family leaders use their wisdom and maturity to select the best solution(s) to problems at hand.
- A follow-up family meeting may be scheduled to review and evaluate progress and make needed adjustments to solutions.
Aiming for Health in Your Family Life
To be sure, the above portrait of a well-functioning family errs on the side of idealism. However, with effort and persistence, movement towards these traits can happen. Give it your best shot and don’t give up. Conscious and mindful practice is required to gain and maintain clear, effective patterns of family interaction.
A family is an organic entity, living, breathing, and either growing or dying. It must be tended to, fed, protected, and nourished to be kept alive.
It never hurts to ask for a coach when learning new skills and procedures. You may wish to contact Paul W Anderson, PhD, or search for a family therapist near you for help and guidance.
© Copyright 2021 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Paul Anderson, PhD, Psychologist in Overland Park, KS