Family building is about planning, and families that plan together are better equipped to function in our often chaotic world.
By Barbara Graham
When builders decide to construct houses, they first design the necessary plans, or blueprints, to guide them through the process. They work with their teams to put together outlines that best meet the needs of everyone, recognizing the pressure of having to complete the process within a given timeline.
The same process happens in corporations where teams of people get together to create a strategic plan so that everyone knows which way to go and how to get there. With blueprints and strategic plans tightly in hand, the home builder and the business builder march forward with a certain degree of safety and comfort, feeling better prepared to meet the challenge of the journey.
These vocations are responsible and often difficult. However, the most difficult and most important job any of us have is that of building a family – and we do it without any plan at all!
What could happen if families were to use the proven strategies of home builders and business builders for family building? How much easier would it be for families to create satisfying family lives and direct their own learning if they had a plan to follow?
In this “hurry, hurry” world of ours, where we are typically over-scheduled, we need to stop for a moment to remember the cost of being under-connected. The results of high stress, low tolerance and little time spent together are now well-documented and well known. The end result is that we all pay for unhealthy families.
Let’s recognize the fact that family organizations outlast all other organizations, and so must be made most worthy and must be made most deserving of our full and conscious attention to building a strong and sustaining human foundation.
It behooves us, then, to do all we can to learn the “tools of the trade” to build as strong a family as we can, to create an environment that shares values, understands expectations, and follows a jointly determined direction.
How much better could family life be if there were a plan for building a family?
Unfortunately, there are relatively few textbooks or learning materials on the subject of family building, for designing and developing a strong family foundation. As humans, we have no built-in knowledge about human development and family living.
So how do we create an environment that helps to generate relationships of resilience, better mental health, and a strong sense of importance? While recognizing that there is never just one right way to do anything, our families are clearly in need of something – perhaps a blueprint – a strategic plan – a family plan, to offer structure to the often-challenging journey.
Steps to Creating a Family Plan
It is said that for learning to be effective, it must be marked with a high degree of self-direction and so with that in mind, let’s create a plan that involves everyone in its creation. The relevant literature and research shows that connected family relationships and a strong family foundation are key to good health and well-being and that there are lasting and immeasurable benefits for all members when authentic connection and communal learning occurs.
So, how do we start a family building plan?
The first step starts with a decision by family members to build a firm foundation that will stand the tests of time. Ideally, it could start at the beginning, when two people join together to become a family, but this decision can be made and implemented at any time within the life of a family. Together, they can design a plan that will:
- Offer a vision of the current home environment
- Identify individual and then common values
- Develop rules for acceptable behavior
- Design a path toward the desired future
It begins with a commitment to set some time for each family member to sit down together to ask some honest questions about what is currently happening within the home environment. Each can make up and list their own questions that can be joined with the others in a simple one-page format – perhaps three to five questions each is enough. Keep the questions simple and straightforward to make it as easy as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask “hard” questions because the idea be- hind this exercise is to open up conversation to uncover both strengths and challenges. Under each question, list the numbers 1 through 9 so that there is a grade assigned to each as an answer. Some of the questions could include subjects like communication styles, perceived expectations, team work and/or many others, and could read as follows:
1. How effective do your feel our family’s communication is?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
2. How well do you think the members of our family understand what is expected of them?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
3. How well do you think each member of this family feels supported, like members of a team?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Once the questions have been written, make copies for each member of the family who is able (old enough) to participate. Then take the phone off the hook, and allow no distractions in your thinking through and grading of the questions. When each person is finished grading, open up discussion for sharing each others’ answers. As there is no right or wrong answer, what becomes evident is the perception of each person regarding the current family environment.
For example, one family member may think that communication is already effective – meaning that he/she feels understood – when another member may not. One family member may feel that the family operates as a “team,” where another may not. The assessment may show that one member feels supported when another does not, and so on. It is always easier to make decisions about change and improvement when each family member is clear on what needs to be changed. So start the conversation….
Being aware of various areas of family life through the eyes of each other brings better insight and deeper understanding. There is also a building sense of unity, knowing that exciting change is possible through choice and combined learning. Remember that it helps everyone to focus on those things that are working well instead of finding only those things that are not. Encouragement goes a lot farther than does criticism!
The next step in this family building process is to take the necessary time to have a discussion about values, or those things of importance to each member of the family. You may wonder what the benefits to this exercise are. Determining and designing common family values can do many things. For example, values can:
In these especially turbulent times, family and relationships are the things that keep us together. And in lifetimes to come, they are the things remembered as traditions and rituals pass from generation to generation.
1. provide a common standard and language
2. foster strong feelings of personal effectiveness
3. promote high levels of loyalty
4. encourage appropriate behavior
5. reduce levels of stress and tension
6. foster pride
7. facilitate understanding about expectations
8. foster teamwork
9. provide a shared understanding
10. create a sense of positive family identity.
So, how do we determine values? And what are some examples of values? The list could include respect, integrity, timeliness, learning, love, independence (or, interdependence), curiosity, fun, patience, optimism, manners, kindness, spirituality, and so on.
The Values Game
One way to work with and determine common values is with some help from a fun and simple values card game, where separate values are written on pieces of paper, perhaps designed as a deck of cards.
You will also need a large piece of paper or poster board, a marker, and a package of stickers (any kind). Take the phone off the hook, don’t allow any distractions and treat your family to some fun time together!
A: Involve everyone in determining values to include in the deck and have some empty “cards” to write on for those values that get missed in the first listing. To determine values, think of what is important to you. Is it honesty? Is it cleanliness? How about sharing time together? List whatever values come to mind so that there are a number of choices for everyone.
B. Invite each person to take three values cards from the deck and then play the game by trading cards with each other until the values held in hand most closely describe the person holding them.
C. When everyone is as satisfied as possible with their final choices, designate someone to write everyone’s chosen values on a larger paper, preferably a poster board size so that everyone can see the list.
D. Then give each family member two or three stickers to place beside the values most important to them on the larger poster.
E. When each person has marked his or her most important values with stickers, it will be clear which selections are most important to the family as a whole. These chosen values then become the “family values” to use for guidance and support.
Think for a moment about your own family of origin. You may remember values taught to you through word, deed, or action, but regardless of how they were taught, they are remembered. Shared family values become precious beliefs that we carry with us all our lives and act as our guidelines for “normal” behavior.
To relate to other building processes, as the cement in a house foundation provides grounding and stability, and as the strategic plan in a business provides focus and clarity, determining common values can provide all the same and more for a family. Finding meaning together through developing family values is a learning process that enlightens understanding and promotes stronger relationships. Clearly, “building” will have already started and so what’s next?
Another step of the plan includes creating clearly defined rules that confirm your family principles and outline the limits of acceptable behavior. When we know what is expected, there is less confusion and stress for everyone. With the most important family values chosen, rules can be designed that will provide a framework for behavior. For example, if the family chooses “love” as a common value, a ground rule may be that love be expressed each time you leave the home. If “fun” is chosen, it may be that a member of the family is responsible for creating playful moments each day. If “manners” are chosen, it may be that the family designs a chart of appropriate manners to go on the fridge. The combinations and creations of values and ground rules are endless and unique to each family and they are always open to change according to influences and stages of life.
To create a family plan that represents every member, it is essential to include children in the design. Even very young children, whose cognitive development has not yet matured to a stage of logical and concrete events, can be included in this part of the family building process. They can do all sorts of things, from listening to preparing the environment, from which they will derive a sense of purpose within the family unit and a place in the ongoing process of living as a family. By providing an opportunity for everyone to actively engage in the process of designing the family plan, learning takes place, connections are strengthened, and progress is made.
Remember that accountability is part of every action plan. And so it is with family building. Even with the plan in action, it takes monitoring to make sure that everyone is on track. Make it part of your plan to check in together once a week to talk about progress or challenges. Remember that it is always easier to build on those things that are working well than to focus on those things that are not. And remember, too, that all family members need to contribute for the plan to work well.
So, if we design a plan to help build a strong family foundation by looking at what the current situation is, by determining common family values, by designing some rules for behavior and by regularly checking in with each other, can we now begin to imagine the results, or the direction we are going?
Results of Family Building
Family building of this type has many benefits. Many authors suggest that families who plan together and spend extensive quality and quantity of time together will enjoy elements of a more positive, rewarding, nurturing, and sustaining experience. Family members will be more resilient, they will enjoy better mental health, and they will have a stronger sense of their own importance in relationships and in the world. They will enjoy better coping skills, social support networks, and physical well being. In short, they will be better equipped to function in our often chaotic world.
In these especially turbulent times, family and relationships are the things that keep us together. And in lifetimes to come, they are the things remembered as traditions and rituals pass from generation to generation. After all, as families, we’ve got the future to build.
Barbara L. Graham, MA, is a strong believer in the importance of family life and the long lasting effect of family influence. Her consulting practice, Family Dynamics Consulting, focuses on improving the quality of family life. She enjoys a fulfilling family life with her best friend and husband of over 40 years, her two daughters and their husbands, and her three grandchildren. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine.