For the Wandervogel vision to be realized in West Texas, we will be bringing into our community young people from many different backgrounds. They will have diverse talents, skills, and personalities. To prepare for this eventuality, the basic question must be answered: How best to integrate these unique individuals into a healthy and productive community which functions successfully for the benefit of everyone concerned? For this answer I turned to research by various experts and organizations about what characterizes healthy and successful families.
When we speak of families here in the U.S., we tend to mean “nuclear” families—one or more children and a mom and (usually/sometimes) a dad. As a young American teaching in East Africa, I was initially confused when my students spoke of their “brothers,” ”sisters,” “cousins,” “aunts” and “uncles” when referring to people in their villages—people whom we would call “neighbors” and “friends.” I subsequently realized these students came from a tradition in which a family model encompasses the whole village and locality.
Families, it is often said, are the foundational building-blocks of society, and there is a very good reason for this. They’re powerful. Unlike any other social group, families can provide the close emotional support needed to produce able, self-confident, and well-adjusted people—both young people and adults. When they work the way they’re supposed to, families promote the physical, emotional, spiritual, and social welfare of the individual family members. Because of the intimacy they provide, healthy families are uniquely equipped to help members deal with the many changes and unexpected crises which are part of the normal course of life.
In my travels I have visited the homes of families who are so healthy and nurturing, you can literally feel it in the air as numinous energy—a “buzz.” The best I can explain this phenomenon is that my friends created sanctuary-like environments which resonate with love—“sacred spaces” for family life.
A family’s primary functions are thus (1) to create a healthy environment in which family members can successfully grow and develop, and (2) provide a platform for effectively mobilizing talents and resources to assure the family’s happiness, prosperity, and survival.
Characteristics of Healthy Families
Research identifies several key characteristics which distinguish healthy and successful families. These characteristics are interrelated, and can be grouped into three categories related to cohesion, communication, and change.
Families that do well in each of these areas have fewer problems and are able to deal more effectively with life issues as they arise. Families having difficulty in these areas tend to have more problems which remain unresolved, and the problems can even escalate in severity.
Healthy families are able to balance individualism and togetherness in ways that result in emotional bonding, positive individual and group identity, moral integrity, cohesive strength and resilience. Through this category of attributes, family members are also able to exercise leadership and command.
Caring. Members of healthy families are invested in one another’s welfare. They are unselfish with one another and cover one another’s backs. Yet the most powerful thing is that they genuinely care about one another as shown by the interest, empathy, and affection that are shared.
“Affective Responsiveness” is what sociologists call the family’s ability to respond emotionally to other family members in an appropriate manner. Families need to be able to share and experience feelings such as love, tenderness, joy, fear, and anger. Families that are unable to respond, for example, with sadness or tenderness, may be restricted or even distorted emotionally.
“Affective Involvement” is how well the family as a whole shows interest in and values the activities and interests of individual family members. However, both over-involvement and under-involvement are patterns of behavior that can pose problems for families.
Respect and Responsibility. Healthy families encourage mutual respect and admiration. They believe each family member is individually important and has the opportunity to influence (or even lead) within the family. Healthy families emphasize personal responsibility, and encourage family members to embrace the consequences of their actions and decisions and deal with them positively and creatively.
The atmosphere within healthy families is shaped by a belief in helping one another, acknowledging human needs for reassurance and support, viewing mistakes as human, and having a positive vision of the future. Healthy families have a generally positive view of humanity and life in general. They focus on individual and family strengths, not shortcomings. When members make mistakes, they refrain from jumping to conclusions and precipitously blaming or criticizing. They employ various philosophies, religious and otherwise, to help family members find transcendental meaning in the inevitable setbacks and losses in life, as well as finding creative solutions.
Healthy families respect personal boundaries, whether physical (including sexual) or abstract (including property). They provide the absolute assurance of personal safety and security to their family members, and actualize such a culture within the family’s realm.
Families that express respect, caring and support, create high expectations for family members, and support their children’s participation in school and other activities are more likely to be happy and successful.
Shared Identity & Values. What does a family really stand for and believe? How do the family’s members see the family and themselves in relation to the larger world? What is the family’s “mission?”
In the most successful families, explicit core values inform a clear sense of family/group identity which is carried into the world by individual family members. These values are inculcated and reinforced in a wide variety of ways including parental example, family stories, and traditions.
Some families express their values through participation in outside social structures such as church and school communities, clubs, sports teams, etc. Many express their values through work or professions including a family business, trade, etc. And others do it through philanthropy, volunteerism, public service, etc.
Resiliency. Through teaching and practical support, healthy families provide their members the building block skills needed to survive and succeed in the world. Academics measure the sum of these building blocks as “resiliency.” The teaching and development of resiliency may be rightly interpreted as embodying the family’s primary “goals.”
The key attributes contributing to resiliency are social competence, problem-solving skills, autonomy, and a sense of purpose and future. Children whose families inculcate these attributes have a better chance of becoming autonomous, resilient adults. Families that teach their members survival skills are themselves more likely to remain cohesive and effective over time.
“Family Time.” Healthy, successful families regularly make time to do things together. They prepare and eat meals together, do chores together, celebrate events and milestones together, have fun together. At a practical level, these family activities provide a venue for regular communication and feedback, and for the conferring of recognition and rewards for family members’ efforts and accomplishments. Even as the children enter adolescence and in the teen years become more attached to their peers, successful families are, through their permeability and inclusiveness, able to maintain their role as the young people’s primary social structure and identity base.
Loyalty. Successful families teach that blood is thicker than water. They provide unconditional love and embody a “sacred compact” of loyalty among family members: Remain loyal to the family and its members, and in return be assured of the family’s support for you. Family members cover one another’s backs.
The healthiest and most successful families are masters of change. They establish a balance between stability and transition. They help family members adjust and adapt to changing circumstances so family members can exercise greater control and free choice in their personal situations.
Managing change involves dealing with basic, developmental, and crisis tasks. Basic tasks are concerned with the provision of food, money, shelter and other necessities of life. Developmental tasks deal with facilitating and supporting individual and family stages of growth. Individual developmental stages include infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and aging. Family developmental stages are marked by milestones in the family life cycle including the marriage and the early years before children; childbearing years; the family with school age children; the family with teenagers; the family as a “launching center”; the middle years; and the aging family. Crisis tasks are family hardship events including illness, job loss, accidents, relocation, and death.
Families that are able to cope with and adapt to stressful life events and transitions are better able to maintain a healthy family environment. Successful families do this by cultivating the following attributes:
Creative Problem-Solving. I have previously written that one of the characteristics of healthy families is that they have a generally positive outlook on the future. When confronted with the usual setbacks and problems life throws at us, a positive orientation can result in creative problem-solving. The solution to almost any problem is present within the factors which define the problem itself. When confronted with a pile of pony manure, do you focus on the dung or look for the pony? A positive attitude is a prerequisite for finding and exploiting the solutions and opportunities hidden within any problem.
Creative problem-solving is thus understood as a family’s ability to resolve problems on a level that maintains effective family functioning. Without creativity, a problem may threaten the family’s ability to function if it cannot be resolved.
Organization and negotiating skills. There is much to be done in running a family household, and everyone benefits when things that need to get done can be taken care of without undue stress and friction, chaos, and conflict. A necessary aspect of family life is coordinating tasks, negotiating differences, and being able to reach closure effectively.
Negotiating skills include the ability to listen and make choices in what family members feel is a fair process. In healthy families, this process does not get overly bogged down. There is room for discussion, and parents exercise leadership without being overly controlling. There tends to be a spirit of camaraderie and trust built up over the years so family organization is relatively easy.
People are able to relate intimately—and the family can operate most effectively—when they feel they have equal power. As children grow, they approach more equal control in the family, but certainly their feelings and thoughts should have some potential power in influencing decisions even when they are very young. For couples, equal power in decision making is essential or intimacy suffers. Attention to equal consideration will lead to joint decisions promoting intimacy because those decisions are made in consideration of others.
Clear rules, limits and boundaries. One of the reasons healthy families are able to cope with and adapt to stressful life events and change is that in such families rules, limits, and boundaries are taught and reinforced consistently from a very early age. Such structure (and the resulting predictability and stability) is essential to developing a family’s internal strengths and its durability as a unit.
Having clear boundaries between family members also means that the responsibilities of adults are clear and separate from the responsibilities of children. Healthy families are able to establish clear, yet flexible, roles that enable them to carry out family functions. Establishing clear roles within a family is directly connected to a family’s ability to deal with normal and unexpected changes.
Deciding work roles inside and outside the home is an important family task. However democratic discussions may be, parents must retain appropriate decision-making relative to the ages of their children. Naturally, as a child grows the task of the family is to prepare the child for making her or his own decisions in life. This is a gradual process which requires consistency over time.
Boundaries between family members, especially with regard to property rights and physical safety, are essential to creating a sense of security for every family member. A child who is beaten, sexually abused, verbally assaulted, blamed and shamed, or otherwise violated will not view the family as a stable platform from which to address the unpredictability and changes of life.
“Boundaries” also refers to the permeability of the nuclear family structure to the larger extended family and outside community. To be flexible and resilient, a family must balance a cohesive sense of family with acceptance of outside persons and resources. Children need to be able to trust in other adults and seek resources outside the family as they mature.
Consistent and loving discipline. Behavior patterns within any successful family must be regulated, learned from, and improved. The parents, or family leaders, must guide and enforce this process consistently with a loving (and not authoritarian) attitude.
Some families have flexible behavior patterns while others may have more rigid patterns. Families with flexible behavior patterns are better able to adjust to and cope with changing circumstances. When errors in judgment are made, especially by children or adolescents, family members seek to help produce change through warmth in relating versus over-controlling.
This does not mean that clear and defined consequences are not invoked. It does mean, however that parents don’t threaten what they’re not willing to follow-up on. Motives or reasons for “mistakes” are evaluated from a variety of different angles, rather than assuming the person to be “bad” or “stupid”, etc. Family members believe in the inherent “goodness” of one another, and do not assume “bad” intent of other members. A learning orientation to life with emotional availability to members helps ease the distress of “growing pains.”
Communication is defined as the way verbal and nonverbal information is exchanged within a family. Families who can express their feelings to one another are more cohesive and better equipped to solve problems as they arise. Clear, direct, and honest communication—and through it, effective family functioning—depends on several factors:
“Safe to be me.” Healthy families create environments in which it is safe for members to honestly talk about feelings, beliefs, and ideas without fear of criticism or reprisal. Healthy families hold honesty as one of their most important core values. Members of healthy families are free to express themselves autonomously, including divergent opinions or viewpoints, if the family interactions support individuality. Discussions can be lively and even heated if it is basically acceptable for family members to have differences. Love and caring are not withdrawn if people think differently about some issue. If ambivalence and uncertainty are accepted, as well as differences, families tend to enjoy an open atmosphere of honesty in relationship.
Warmth, joy and humor. When there is warmth, joy, and humor in relationships, people seek out the comfort of these interactions. Family members’ enjoyment and trust in one another is an important energizing resource. In healthy families there is the feeling that there is always someone to talk to who cares, and with whom you can laugh and have fun.
Humor plays a very important role in family bonding. One aspect of mental health is the ability to laugh at ourselves good naturedly. (This is not the same as laughing at, or making fun of someone at their expense.) Instead, it is a shared experience of humor that lessens the tendency to take ourselves too seriously, and that allows us to regain an overview or larger perspective that has been temporarily lost in the stresses of everyday life.
Active listening. The ability to pay attention and listen to what others are saying is just as important as being able to express one’s self to others. Successful communications depends not only on skillful sending—i.e., speaking, writing, singing, drawing, etc.—but also on skillful receiving—listening, hearing, seeing, empathizing, understanding. Families that communicate at one another are less successful than families that communicate with each other