How She Builds Family Relationships
Tolstoy famously began his book Anna Karenina with the line, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He clearly hasn't met my family. Or yours.
Every family, happy or unhappy, has its own culture, traditions, and inside jokes. Some revolve around sports, some love to play music together, some can quote lines from any movie.
It was really fun and enlightening this month to get a glimpse into the family cultures of many of my readers, and to find out what they do to strengthen their families. This article is a collection of some of the things—both little and big—that these smart mothers are doing in their own families to help everyone get along, strengthen relationships, and just have fun together.
What I don't want this post to do is make you feel bad for all the things you're NOT doing. I hope you'll find one or two simple things that will be easy to implement in your own family, and maybe one or two of the bigger ideas will inspire you to come up with your own big ideas.
Talk to Each Other
This seems obvious—you can't really have much of a relationship if you're not speaking to each other. But I was surprised to see how many families have rituals that center around conversation at specific times of the day or week:
- At dinner time, Van's family plays "Glad, mad, and sad." They go around the table and ask everyone to talk about one thing that made them glad, one thing that made them mad and/or one thing that made them sad—parents included. It gives them each a chance to talk about their day and to talk about being thankful for the things that made them glad. They also coach each other through the situations that made them mad or sad.
Each morning, Jennifer asks her kids to say three things they’re thankful for and then to go one step further and name who is responsible for each thing. This helps them acknowledge all the great people in their lives. (Jennifer blogs at raisethegood.com.)
Once a week, on their designated family night, Amanda's family members take turns giving each of their other family members one compliment. Often these are simple, like when her son called her a "good cake eater." But Amanda has noticed that the longer they do this, the better her kids get at paying heartfelt compliments.
Joy came up with a fun way to get dinner conversation going. She gives each family member three poker chips. The goal is to get rid of your chips, by asking someone at the table a question (not "yes or no"). You can read more about the game on her fabulous blog: joysfunstuff.com.
Many families also hold family councils on a weekly, monthly, or as-needed basis, to discuss plans and goals and to address issues they're having. In his book, "Secrets of Happy Families," Bruce Feiler identifies family meetings as one of the key strategies for building family relationships. He suggests that each family member answers the following three questions in a weekly meeting:
"1. What worked well in our family this week?
2. What went wrong in our family this week?
3. What will we work on this coming week?"
Sara's family holds family council every week. They take turns bringing up anything they think needs to be addressed as a family. She makes sure everyone feels like their voice is heard. They start positive and then discuss things they're struggling with as a family.
For ideas about different types of family councils and how to run them, check out this great article by M. Russell Ballard.
Schedule Family Time
Spending time with your family—all at the same time—sounds great, but can be really hard to do in real life, with schedules that send family members in all different directions. One way to do this is to follow family members to their different activities, attending sporting events, musical performances, or other activities they are involved in. Jana and Joyce have made this a priority in their homes, even when it would be much easier not to bring little ones or when the older ones aren't too excited about going to another soccer game.
Sometimes the only way to make family time happen is to actually schedule it into your calendar like an appointment. Many families try to gather everyone together at least once a day for a meal together, a family prayer, or family scripture study.
Some also designate one night a week as family night, and try to keep their schedules free that night. They play games together, do fun activities, have a treat, and take time for some religious instruction. Tamsin goes on a Sunday walk with her family each week, rain, shine, or Minnesota. And Katie’s family started having an “hour of power” on Sundays, during which they all read scriptures, write letters, work on goals they’ve set, or do other quiet activities.
Each year, close to her wedding anniversary, Lisa makes a family timeline. She puts a long line of masking tape across the carpet, with papers for different years at intervals. They place pictures, scrapbook pages, and other mementos along the tape to designate the important events in their family: their wedding (the creation of our family), graduations, moves, births and baptisms of children, anything that has importance. They talk about these events and what they meant to they family. She and her husband tell stories about how they met and about their wedding day. They usually end up looking through all the scrapbooks, talking, laughing, and reminiscing.
When I was a young mom, I used to wear out the knees on all my jeans from crawling around on the floor playing with my kids. Sadly, my jeans last a lot longer now that my two little people have turned into five. I just have a lot more work to do these days. But talking to moms who still make it a priority to get down and play with their little kids has inspired me to set aside a few minutes each day for a rollicking game of hide and seek or some good-old-fashioned ball rolling with my toddler.
Lori is a master at orchestrating family activities that are fun for all ages (her kids range from 7 to 16). Some favorites: American Ninja Warrior competition in the backyard, semi-annual lipsync battles, nerf wars, laser tag, etc. Read more about the fun things they do in her profile.
A few other fun (and easy) family activities from contributors:
- Timed obstacle courses at the park
- Dodgeball with rolled up socks
- Flashlight tag (See joysfunstuff.com)
- Park hopping (See joysfunstuff.com)
- Hide and seek in the dark
- Family movie night (Jennifer Brimhall, who blogs at raisethegood.com has put together a great list of family movies, which she'll send you if you subscribe to her newsletter.)
- Paper airplane flying contests
- Water balloon toss with towels (two-person teams hold towels by corners and toss balloon back and forth between teams)
- Family olympics
- Bike rides
- Family sports tournaments
For Nichole Searle, the best family activities involve adventure. Close to home in Colorado, the Searle family makes skiing trips a priority. They also love going hiking and rock climbing together. They even installed a rock climbing wall in their living room so they can have adventure right at home.
But big adventures are Nichole's real specialty. Every few years, the family chooses a big trip and then works together to make it happen, saving money and finding deals. They try to go somewhere unfamiliar to everyone, and centered around a peak experience—a big adventure that challenges the family. Most recently, that meant diving with sharks in the Bahamas.
Working together as a family can be every bit as important as playing together. Many moms I talked to attribute some of their best family memories to times they worked hard together on a project, such as landscaping or painting a room, and experienced the satisfaction of completing it.
For many families, most of their work together happens on Saturday mornings, putting the house back together after another busy week. Instead of dividing and conquering Saturday chores, Jana makes a master list of the jobs that need to get done, and the whole family works through the jobs together until they're done.
The Searle family is as adventurous with work as they are with play. A few years ago, they decided to work together to finish their basement. It took them a year to complete, but they did all the major work themselves. One son loved the experience so much he is now studying construction management in college.
The Slade family combined hard work with service one year when they decided to build a tiny house together and give it away to a family in need for Christmas. You can watch their inspiring video about it below.
Prioritize One-On-One Time
Sometimes I stop and try to think of the last time I've spent time with a one of my children alone and I'm embarrassed that I can't remember. And sadly, it's often the ones that behave the best that get forgotten the most.
Even little bits of one-on-one time means so much to kids. Molly has six kids. She recently set a goal to spend just three minutes with each child three times a day: morning, afternoon and night. The kids have really loved even that little bit of extra individual attention, and Molly has enjoyed it too.
Emily lies down with her kids at bedtime and scratches their backs and talks to them about their day. She picks a few kids each night, trying to identify which ones might need it the most. (She has eight, so they have to take turns.)
Many readers have a weekly or monthly tradition of parent-child date nights—some with both parents, some one-on-one. Sometimes all this means is that the child gets to stay up 30 minutes later than the others to play a game or watch a show with mom and dad. Other times it means that they get to choose an outing like bowling or a movie, or even that they just run errands and grab a bite to eat with one parent.
Reba was looking for a good way for her husband and one of her sons to improve their relationship, so she encouraged them to get scuba certified together. They had such a great time diving and studying together and once they finished, they were able to go on a couple of diving trips together. As a bonus, now they always have a default conversation topic.
On the first Sunday of the month, Lori and her husband set aside the afternoon to meet with each child individually. These meetings usually last 10 minutes, but sometimes up to 30 minutes. They try to make them more of a conversation than a lecture or intervention. The purpose is to check in with their kids and discuss goals, challenges, and what's going on in their lives. To read more about these meetings, click here.
It's no big surprise that the Searle family goes big with one-on-one time as well. When each of her kids turned 10, Nichole and her husband took them on a U.S. history trip to teach them about the country and give them some individual attention. Then, when their kids graduate from high school they get another trip with mom and dad, for a more adventurous trip, such as scuba diving in the Florida Keys.
Discipline with Love (and Creativity)
Shelves of books have been written about how to discipline children, often with conflicting ideas, so I didn't delve into this topic too deeply with the moms I talked to. That will be a topic for another month. But a few great tips came up in our conversations, so I wanted to share them here:
- Rather than saying “no” to her children, Jana tries to redirect them by giving another alternative. For example, instead of constantly telling her babies to stay out of kitchen cupboards, she designated one cupboard as the baby cupboard, and consistently brought the babies to that cupboard to play.
- When her kids are arguing over something, Molly makes them do a rap battle—and it has to rhyme. By the time they’re done with the battle, they’re usually laughing and the frustration is diffused.
- Amber uses a tactic she learned in a business communications class when talking to her kids about bad behavior. She sandwiches the lecture between positive comments. For example, if two kids are fighting, she sits them down, and first reminds them of a fun memory they have together. She then talks to them about their inappropriate behavior, and then, finally, talks to them about how fun it will be to grow up together as friends.
- When her kids are misbehaving, Jana has them practice the corresponding good behavior. If they whine or yell, she asks them to use a nice voice and then has them practice. If they run when they should walk, they can practice walking. When her children were little, it was so hard to get them to sit in church reverently. So they went into the chapel one day and practiced.
- To help her children take responsibility for their own actions, Julie's first question to them when they fight with each other is, "What part did you play in it?" Once they think this through, they often drop the argument altogether.
- Joy's family was having trouble yelling at each other when they got upset. So they had a family meeting to talk about how to stop yelling, and they all made "No Yelling" signs to put up around the house as a reminder. Read her post and see more of their signs here.
Strengthen Sibling Relationships
Few things wear me down more quickly than when my kids are picking on each other or fighting. For one thing, it's really annoying. But mostly, it makes me so sad to see them fighting with the very people who should be their greatest allies.
To encourage her kids to get along, Lisa challenges herself to catch them helping each other or playing nicely five times during the week and praise them for it. Giving herself a number makes it a more tangible challenge.
When Lori's kids aren't getting along, she thinks of things they would enjoy doing together and then suggests to one of them that they invite their sibling to do that activity. For example, she asks her oldest son to take his younger brother out to do basketball drills. She also asked him to take his sister out to lunch, on her. They were both excited about that and came home talking and laughing.
Joyce’s teenage sons used to have their own rooms. But she realized that they they were missing out on an opportunity to strengthen their relationship. So she moved them in together. Sure, they have their ups and downs, but overall, she has seen their friendship grow. Plus, they will probably be sharing rooms for most of the rest of their lives, between roommates and marriage, so she figures they might as well get used to it!
Enrich Everyday Moments
Some of my favorite tips didn't fit in any of the categories above, so I've gathered them here under this catch-all subheading. But really, these tips are a great reminder that a bit of creativity can can turn normal interactions with your kids into meaningful ones.
- Wendy used to drive her kids 20 minutes each way to school, so she tried to utilize her time in the car. They’d say family prayers, work on homework, spelling, and math facts, and just talk about their day. She ended up looking forward to this time with her kids, instead of dreading the long drive.
- Lisa makes sure her eyes light up when she greets her children. She tries to be enthusiastic and excited to see them at the crossroads—first thing in the morning, when they come home from school, or anytime they come in the door.
- Sarah works hard to create meaningful “takeoffs and landing—times when family members are coming and going from the house. For example, she makes sure her kids know she’s excited to see them when they get home from school, and that she says a real goodbye when her husband leaves for work. Her father, an Air Force pilot gave her this advice when she got married.
- When she was raising her children, Marjean liked to read and tell her children stories that were touching and/or sad so they could learn to feel and process deep emotions together.
- Julianna hired a piano tutor—a 13-year-old pianist who lives nearby—to help her daughter practice once a week (in addition to her regular piano lessons). Anyone who has had to fight a child to get them to practice knows why this tip fits in the category of building relationships!
- Adrianne’s daughters are obsessed with becoming veterinarians. So she encouraged their enthusiasm by helping them turn a corner of their basement into a clinic, complete with a reception desks, check-in forms, business cards, patient forms, a grooming station, and all the requisite medical supplies.
- Cassie keeps a journal with her son. She starts her entry by pointing out something positive she noticed him doing, and ends with a question. It's a great way to get him writing, and a fun way to be able to tell him she’s thankful for him or proud of him. Sometimes, it's a good way to apologize. He likes that it's just between them.
- When one of her kids is down, Joy writes him a love note and leave it for him to find on his pillow or on the counter. It’s a quick, simple way to let her kids know she’s on their team.
I'd love to hear your great ideas about any of the topics above, or any other ways you strengthen your family relationships. Please share your ideas in the comments below!