Traits of a healthy family
Dolores Curran’s Trains of a Health Family (Winston Press, Minneapolis, 1983) discusses the conclusions she reached after over 500 professionals working with families completed her 56-question survey.
Mrs. Curran’s research began with the premise that many traits would appear time and time again as important to healthy families. Her book focuses on the “top 15″ traits. The complete lists, in order of importance, appear in a box on this page.
No one family is presumed to embody all the traits; indeed, there is no such thing as the perfect family. However, individuals can identify some of the traits already present, and become aware of the areas in which they can strengthen, their own families.
Some of the traits can be naturally grouped and discussed together, while many of the traits seem to stand-alone. All 15 are tightly interwoven in the final analysis as they are seen as the backbone of the family.
You must talk
1. The health family communicates and listens
2. The health family affirms and supports each other
In a healthy family, the spouses complement each other and work together for the good of the whole. A strong primary relationship between parents gives the children a sense of security and enables them to develop strong self-images and to reach out to others. Parents and children serve as mutual support systems; it is not just the parents who give, and the children who receive, support.
Mr. Curran quotes Dr. Urie Bronfenbrennerm who defines the family as “a group, which possesses and implements an irrational commitment to the well-being of others, ” Currans goes on to say:
Irrational is an important word here. It means that although we nay not understand or agree with a particular stand taken by one of our children or siblings, we’ll defend that person’s rights to take that stand and may even do the dishes for that person when he or she for time. Irrational means that although we may not want Mom to go back to school or work, we celebrate her A’s and fold the laundry without being asked. And it means that even though we may be disappointed when Dad’s work takes him out of town and away from us, we pretend it’s okay so he won’t feel guilty.
This kind of “irrational commitment” is based on the love between the parents, and it makes the family the basic unit, or building block, or society. Parent’s hand on this commitment to their children, who in turn pass it to their children.
When my eldest daughter was about 4, I got angry over some minor misdemeanour. She sobbed that I didn’t love her any more and I explained that always love her but I don’t always approve of her behavior. She replied, “I get it, Mum, you always love me, but you don’t always like me.” I heard her not long ago explaining this to her young sister.
3. The healthy family teaches respect to others
Strong families teach respect for each individual in the family and respect for those outside the family. I think pro-lifers have an advantage when it comes to “scoring” this trait. When we teach respect for the individual from the moment of conception, we affirm the inherent dignity and worth of every human being.
Healthy families teach respect for all individuals. This can be rather difficult to practice, for those of us who are distressed by growing tolerance of abortion, homosexuality and humanistic attitudes. Teaching respect for individuals those principles and lifestyles are different does not mean that we teach approval of the ideology: we must also teach approval why our moral values are different. We teach our children that abortion is wrong; we teach our children that women crisis pregnancies need help to have the baby and not resort to have no right to condemn those who have taken such a step. We condemn the sin, and we love sinners.
4. The healthy family develops a sense of trust
The key to this trait is the mutual trust developed between husband and wife. The sense of trust is passed down to the children and begins with the “bonding” which grows between mother and child from conception on.
The small baby who is fed, bathed, cuddled and rocked to sleep develops a sense of security and learns to trust. As the child grows, his sense of trust is developed by consistent loving care from a committed, long-term “primary care giver.” (This is a very convoluted way of saying “mother.” However, I do not wish to enter the day-care controversy here, nor to offend those mothers who work outside the home and rely and baby-sitting arrangements. Curran’s book contains an interesting discussion of mother-child bonding and the child’s need of parental care.)
The sense of trust, developed in children from infancy on, helps both parents and children to reach correct decisions later on. Curran says, “Parents need to have confidence in their own authority as parents, and children need to be able to trust parents to act in their best interest.”
This is not a one-way street with parents dictating and the children following orders. Rather the health family will hold a family conference on matters important to the whole family so that the pros and cons of a course of action can be fully aired and understood.
Of course, parental authority will often be absolute. But the children who have been consulted and have understood the reason for the decision, the children who have grown with a deep sense of trust in their parents, will usually realize that such decisions were made with the best interest of the whole family in mind.
5. The healthy family has a sense of play and humor.
6. The healthy family exhibits a sense of shared responsibility
Helping children learn at an early age to be responsible for their possessions and for their actions, is preparing them for their responsibilities in adult life.
Young children should not be asked to assume too great responsibilities. A 2-year -old cannot tidy up a playroom littered with toys; he can, however, put away one to two toys. Success or perfection in completing a task is not as important as trying to do job.
In the healthy family as each member is aware that they are a part of a whole, all accept responsibility for family happiness and harmony.
7. The healthy family teaches a sense of right and wrong
Values are personal. They may differ from culture and family to family, but the healthy family operates from a clear set of values that emanates from a moral core. This core and its resultant values permits the family to teach a sense of right and wrong.
The family in trouble is often one without a set of moral values. If the parents are too confused, or disinclined, to distinguish between right and wrong, then the children cannot learn. Children have to be taught to be responsible for their own moral behavior and it is the parent’s task to teach. Parent’s, who ignore immoral behavior on the part of the child, teach the child to take the ignorance or lack of criticism as (tacit) approval.
8. The healthy family exhibits a strong sense of family in which rituals and tradition abound
Family rituals and traditions are a link between the past and the future. The healthy family honors its old people and welcomes its babies. Most children love the sense of security, which surrounds the traditions, and rituals each family brings to special occasions such as birthdays, Easter and Christmas. Memories of the red-letter days of childhood are built up over the years, treasured and brought out again as newly-wed couples build their own family life with their children.
The healthy family has a balance of interaction between members.
Faith is vital
9. The healthy family has a shared religious core
Faith helps the individual to be motivated by more than self-interest
Secular society and the behavioral sciences simply haven’t been able to help today’s families find a deep enough meaning to life to teach right from wrong, to develop trust, to teach respect for others, to foster a strong sense of family is to value service to others.
Faith sustains the individual during times of crisis, giving the certainty that difficulties can be overcome and the strength to work towards a better day. The strongest marriages result from developing and using the spiritual resources inherent in the marital relationship and family life.
10. The healthy family respects the privacy of one another
A delicate balance exists between family members as they work together to satisfy the needs of the family as a whole and to preserve the right of each individual to grow strong on his own identity. Parents ideally hope to produce children who are emotionally strong and independent.
Parental authority has to be absolute with young children. But as the children grow there is room for family discussion, shared decision-making, and a gradual transfer of authority.
The adolescent years are often a time of turmoil and trauma for all: continual conflicts arise over the latest fashion fad, choices of music, or choices of friends. These years are a challenge. Parents who have taught their children a sense of trust, given them security, instilled in them moral principles and a sense of responsibility, have to learn to let go and allow the children to find the right path.
Parents who have a religious faith (and a sense of humor) to rely on will have the equipment to weather the inevitable storms.
Actions speak louder than words
11. The healthy family values service to others
Parents who take an active part in voluntary community service to others show their children that a concern for others is important. A concrete example, of the parents helping someone in unfortunate circumstances, can be of more value than lengthy lectures on how to respect the rights of others.
Again, a delicate balance is involved. The parent who becomes immersed in volunteer work may end up sacrificing the family. No one can do everything and it is important one’s responsibility to the family. Easy to say, and very hard to do.
12. The health family values table time and conversation
Many would say these are obvious, but how often have you heard (or said) - “You never listen to a word I say!” “Mmm; what was that you said, dear?” Good communication in a family depends on more than surface conversations; you have to listen to all of the non-verbal “talking.” The child who wants a new bicycle or a Cabbage Patch doll may (or may not) actually want more than the toy itself.
The parent, who buys the bicycle to end the constant requests, is buying the child off. The parent who buys the bike and then makes the effort to go on excursions with the child will spend more time with the child and they both will enjoy the present. The parent who can’t afford a new bike should take the time to explain the problem. Perhaps a compromise can be reached and an old bike can be cleaned up and repainted and they can go for rides together.
Meal time together is important. In our family, we try to have all present for the evening meal. We discuss what we ach did during the day, what’s planned for the next day, and so on. Though busy families have trouble finding time to be together, busy families have trouble finding the time to be together, busy families, as least as much as others, need that time.
Television can be a killer if family conversation and life. Many mothers use the TV to keep the children quiet while they get on with some work – turn it off. A clean house is not as important as the children. Families watching TV together are not together; each watcher is in a separate world, and it is not enough to say, “Well, we talk during the ads. “Turn of the TV and get out a few games and spend the evening together. Or go out for a walk together instead of staring at the screen.
13. The healthy family shares leisure time
Curran comments “lack of time… might be the most pervasive enemy the family has.” Time spent together is crucial as the family, which is seldom gether fast, lose touch with the needs of the individuals.
The February 1984 edition of Readers Digest ran a quiz entitled “How Well do you Know Your Child?” The list of 30 questions included such as, “What us your child’s biggest fear? Proudest accomplishment? Favorite possession? Nickname in school? Best Friend?” The comments on the parent’s score underline the importance of listening. For those who score below 14, the comment is, “There is a need to improve communication. Start talking more. Listen more.”
14. The healthy family admits to and seeks help with problems
Dolores Curran quotes the Chinese proverb, Nobody’s family can hang out the sign, ‘Nothing the matter here.’
Every family has problems, some major and some minor. The healthy family develops techniques to deal with its difficulties. The #1 trait is the key here. Communication is vital: between husband and wife, to identify a marital problem; between husband and wife, to isolate the cause if a child to find the roots of a child problem.
Perhaps a family conference will solve a problem, which affects the whole family. Perhaps a child’s problems can be solved by a quiet chat. Minor problems are more easily solved than major crises; families who spend time together – who are in tune with one another – will be able to solve small problems quickly and easily.
The healthy family with major problem is not ashamed or embarrassed to “go outside” to get help. It may well be that an older relative, or a good friend or neighbor, has been in a similar situation and can offer practical advice and support. By this means, the family expands as, in effect, new supporting members are added.
There are support groups and professionals available for almost every family problem: abused children, battered wives, single parents, children with learning disabilities, attempted suicides, alcohol and drug addictions, and so on. The trick is to recognize the problem early and the take reach an appropriate source for help.
While this article is lengthy, it cannot even begin to cover all of the areas approached by Dolores Curran in Traits of a healthy Family. She practices what she has written about, and she writes with ease and polish. She approaches her subject both with compassion, for those seeking to improve the quality of their family life, and with a sense of humor, which avoids a heavy-handed approach.
A sensible and sensitive public policy is vital if our society is to support and to encourage healthy families, the coming Liberal leadership convention and the subsequent general election provide an ideal opportunity for those of us who are concerned with the welfare of the family to suggest changes.