Six Steps to Family Bliss? Not.

Perfect-Family

Like a lot of people these days, I get much of my news – important global events and inane personal updates – via Facebook.

Ditto for entertainment. Sometimes unintentional entertainment.

This past week, a mom I know sent me a very helpful item about how to have a happy family. It was useful because I have been laughing up my sleeve ever since I got it. This wasn’t how she intended me to take it.

The article, which ran in The Week this past September offers advice from uber-negotiator Bruce Feller (visual: Harvard Law School logo) for those of us looking to build happy families. (Just checking: is anyone out there looking to create an unhappy family?)

Fire up your PowerPoint flow charts and Excel spread sheets! Here are the Six Steps to Family Bliss.

  1. Have a Family Mission Statement. (“You have goals at work. You have personal goals. Why wouldn’t you have goals as a family?”)
  2. Share Your Family History. (“The number one predictor of a child’s emotional well-being is knowing their family history.”)
  3. Hold Weekly Family Meetings. (“Sit down and say, Okay, these are our ten central family values.'”)
  4. Fight Right. (“Go to the balcony. Expand the pie before you divide the pie. Build the golden bridge of the future.”)
  5. Have a 10 Minute Family Dinner Together. (“Children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, and develop eating disorders. [Plus it’s a good opportunity to] teach your kid a new word every day.”)
  6. Just Try. (If you are total loser and don’t know how to Power Point or make flash cards, these two words of guidance are ones anyone can remember!)

I am so sorry to get all snarky here – but after nearly 20 years of actually raising kids, who I would say are largely happy and well adjusted, I’m a bit cynical about the elitist wisdom of applying business and negotiating skills to the muck of daily parenting.

Here are my responses. I’d love to hear yours as well.

  1. My Family Mission Statement: In my family, we will avoid torturing small children with the alcoholism, rampant perfectionism, and untreated mental illnesses that plagued my biological family for generations (many of whom actually did go to Harvard Law School – lotta good it did us). Goals: my three children will grow up without getting arrested on felony charges, becoming pathological liars, driving while intoxicated, experiencing unwanted pregnancy, spewing snobbery, flunking out of high school, or becoming elitist know-it-all advice givers.
  1. Share Your Family History. Really? Will it increase my kids’ “emotional well-being” to learn about the time my drunken mother called me The Washington Whore in front of the 8th grade girls soccer team? How about my friend whose mentally disturbed parents abandoned her as an infant to be raised in a cult? Or the one whose husband beat her almost daily and taunted her with his repeated infidelity? And my kids’ friends who are adopted or foster children…Are they just SOL here because they may never know their family history? I am not saying we should hide our dirty laundry from our children. But claiming that coming from a “good family” is a predictor of lifelong success is self-defeating and goes against everything I’ve seen in life.
  1. Hold Weekly Family Meetings. We tried this. The kids all laughed as if we were idiots. They were right. They get enough formal sitting-and-listening in school. We mastered talking the old-fashioned way. You know, on a daily basis when we see each other? None of us is so important that we have to schedule a weekly appointment to communicate. Sheesh!
  1. Fight Right. Not sure about you, but I think all fighting is good. It is communication, plain and simple. If you go too far, say you are sorry and do better next time. Self-importantly telling my kids to go to the balcony or expand a pie or build a golden bridge to the future will not carry much weight while the kids howl that I do not understand teenagers and can never possibly understand what it is like to be a 13-year-old girl (although I was one myself). Plus, I think it would be dangerous – I can imagine one of them hurling a frying pan at me if I said something so condescending in the heat of their big moment.
  1. The Family Dinner. Now, eating is good and important. I like to feed my kids well. But getting all five family members to eat at the same time daily has proven A) usually impossible and B) a recipe for lots of Fighting Not Right. We eat together once or twice a week. And that seems to be plenty. If we waited to assemble everyone nightly, that would lead to near-starvation and massive doses of frustration and resentment. So far, the 1-2 times a week program has not resulted in suicide, heroin overdoses, or teen pregnancies. And one final question, Bruce: do swear words count as the daily new vocabulary? Because if they do, I get an A+.
  1. Just Try. What does this even mean? Aren’t all of us parents – and all of our kids – already trying every day of our lives? We love each other. We try to communicate and support each other and get through life as best we can.

Conclusion: Every normal home is dysfunctional in some ways. My observation, which I did not learn while at Harvard or during my pursuit of an MBA, is simple: families that shoot for perfection usually end up as People Magazine headlines. No amount of goal-setting or Mission Statement creation is going to do anything except make everyone feel defective, ashamed, ridiculous, or really, really badly about our own wonderful and somewhat crazy families.

Isn’t the most important part of being part of a community belonging to each other? Feeling as good about your imperfections and eccentricities and weird coping mechanisms as possible? That’s my idea of a happy home. No Family Mission Statement can capture that – nor should it. Let’s keep the PowerPoints for corporations and professional organizations, and leave real life families in peace.

 

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