As an international family, both by virtue of moving around and by virtue of an inter-cultural marriage, I have come to appreciate greatly the reality of having a family culture. No matter where we live and what societal culture we form a part of, there are things we agree with and things that just don’t sync, whether because of religious, political or ideological differences, or simply because we just don’t connect with certain traditions or ways of behaving. I have found this to be true not only abroad, but also in my own country. Sure, I still consider myself to be an American. But does that mean I really identify myself with modern American culture? If I were to even attempt to define modern American culture, could I? Would my definition be the same as yours? Probably not. There might be some shared ideas, but there would also be a lot of different ideas, depending on what sub-cultures and individual perspectives we come from.
The best place for our kids to learn who they are and define their own identity is in the family. The family is their immediate support system, and the structure God put in place to give each of us a loving and caring environment that helps us develop as an individual while learning how to be an effective member of a community. What we learn in our family ultimately affects how we interface with broader social realities, and how we think about ourselves. It gives us the foundation we need to later understand how we fit into other aspects of identity, such as nationality, culture and religion. A positive family culture can be empowering, challenging and fulfilling. But that doesn’t happen magically. It takes intentionality and effort.
WHAT GOES INTO A FAMILY CULTURE?
This is far from an exhaustive list, but here are a few things I believe are essential for a healthy, happy family culture:
1. Values: Family values provide everyone with a sense of orientation and purpose. Other aspects of family life, including family rules and ways of thinking and acting can be evaluated in light of key family values. This helps avoid arbitrariness and promotes a general awareness of WHY our family does x, y or z. As kids grow up and start discussing and pushing back a little regarding different rules or expectations, having a list of defined family values can become the starting point for many healthy conversations. It allows for a degree of flexibility and adaption while adhering to the essential principles that define our family life and identity.
2. Traditions: Values are great, but abstract. Traditions express values in concrete, visible ways. Traditions make fun and meaningful memories, and often get passed on from generation to generation.
3. Time: It’s impossible to have a unified culture without spending time together. Being together gives us the opportunity to listen and learn from each other, share with each other, and grow in an awareness of both who we are as individuals and how we all fit into the family. Spending (meaningful) time together creates a sense of belonging which is essential for having a common culture.
HOW CAN WE MAKE THIS HAPPEN?
Every family ultimately has to figure out what works best for them. What pulls my family together might not be the same thing that pulls your family together. That being said, there are some “tried and true” practices that many families have found helpful. Take a look, and see if any might be for you!
1. Family Prayer. Yep. You’ve heard it: “The family that prays together, stays together.” As a writer, I hate clichés. As a mother, I love them – somehow, the old adages that have survived for generations represent perennial truths and are worth passing on some more. Each family is at a different point in their journey of faith, and needs to define how often they want to pray together and what form that prayer will take. It might be something once a week, every day, or several times daily. It might take the form of set prayers or more spontaneous faith-sharing opportunities. Family prayer is a simple way of connecting to God as a family and anchoring the family in a greater reality. It opens up a source of strength, nourishment and support that often goes unnoticed, but helps sustain the family in the tough times and the joyful times.
2. Family Meals. Between work and school schedules, other activities and errands, it might not be possible (read: is completely impossible!) to have family meals together all the time. But having them together as often as possible is a good idea. This means setting times for family meals and then sticking to them, even when it means saying “no” to other things that pop up. Again, don’t compare with the family next door. Decide what YOUR family is going to do. Daily family dinners? Dinner all together 4 times a week? Lunch and dinners on the weekend? Make your plan, and stick to it. Having family meals teaches your kids that being together as a family is worth prioritizing. It shows that it’s important to TALK together, not just coexist under the same roof. It gives everyone a chance to be heard, and to listen. It helps little kids learn from the other family members, and teachings children how to have a conversation. It sets the expectation that families SHARE together. What’s important to one is important to all. It’s also a great setting to learn that everyone can contribute something (helping prepare the meal, set the table, clean up, etc.) and that everyone should recognize and be thankful for what they receive from others.
3. Family Study. This one’s a little harder, but worth making it happen if you can. Pick something you care about as a family and set aside a little time, even if it’s just once a week, to study together. Read something worthwhile and talk about it. In general, the younger kids will be learning more from the older family members, but parents and older siblings shouldn’t underestimate what they’ll end up learning from the littlest ones too!
4. Family Mission Statement. Develop a brief, succinct statement that describes who you want to be as a family. Make sure it includes the key values you’ve identified, as well as a reference to WHY those values are important to you. Include your kids in the process of developing this statement so it’s something they are familiar with, understand and relate to. Hang it on your wall or refrigerator. In the middle of “those days”, when chaos reigns supreme, point to the mission statement. Take a moment as a family to reflect on what your family mission is and how you can reorient your actions and thoughts to be better aligned with your family mission.
5. Family Service. Your family is a small community. Each of you has unique strengths and challenges. Each of you has God-given talents to contribute to the family, and each of you can learn from everyone else in your family. At the same time, your family community operates as a unit in the context of a larger community – society. What unique strengths and talents can your family contribute to your local community? What can you, as a family, learn from your local community, or other constituents within the local community? Ask these questions together as a family, and identify a few projects or events you can participate in as a family to help serve your local community. This will not only strengthen your identity as a family unit, but will also help increase your awareness of different essential values, such as responsibility and solidarity.
6. Family Fun. Don’t forget to have fun. Family isn’t all about growth and development. It’s also about love and joy. Having fun together is important. It makes the tougher moments livable and keeps life sane. It also forms some of the strongest bonds and makes great memories. It could be a great family vacation, a game night, or simply laughing together at the table. Just make joy is a regular part of your family life – no one ever regrets moments spent with smiles and laughter.