“Secret of Strong Families”
Nick Stinnett and John DeFrainNick Stinnett is a professor of Human Development and Family Life at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. John DeFrain is an associate professor in Department of Human Development and the Family at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Do strong families still exist? After 30 years of marriage and family counselors, we knew that despite the average family’s ups and downs, the answer is yes. What puzzled us was why so much media attention focused on the down side of family life.
We decided that part of the problem might be a lack of information, and that a round of research—on family strengths—might help to correct the negative slant. We placed a brief notice in four dozen newspapers in 25 states. “If you live in strong family, please contact us. We know a lot about what makes families fail; we need to know more about what makes them succeed.”
Letters poured in. A questionnaire was mailed to each family who responded and the Family Strength Research Project was born. So far, more than 3000 families have participated.
One of the most surprising things to emerge is that six key qualities for making a strong family function were mentioned time and time again by many families. Those qualities are:
Crucial to any family’s success is an investment of time, energy, spirit and heart, an investment otherwise known as commitment. The family comes first. Family members are dedicated to promoting each other’s welfare and happiness—and they expect the family to endure.
For strong families, commitment and sexual fidelity are so closely linked that an extramarital affair is regarded as the ultimate threat to a marriage. “An affair does terrible things to your partner’s self-esteem,” one woman wrote. “It says: ‘You’re replaceable.’”
Some families have seen commitment eroded by a more subtle enemy—work, and its demand on time, attention and energy. One Wisconsin father offered this insight: “Sometimes I feel that the time I spend with my sons could be better spent at the office. Then I remind myself that the productivity report will affect life for a few days or weeks. I must do it and it’s important, but my job as a father is more important.”
“If I’m a good father to my sons, they’re likely to be good parents too. Someday—after I’m gone, and certainly after that report has rotted—my grandchild or great-grandchild will have a good father because I was a good father.”
2. TIME TOGETHER
When 1500 children were asked, “What do you think makes a happy family?” they didn’t list money, cars, or fine homes. They replied: doing things together.
Members of strong families agree. They spend lots of time together—working, playing, attending religious services, and eating meals together. What you do isn’t as important, they say, as doing it.
“We spend as much time working together as playing,” wrote one woman. “There are always dishes to wash, clothes to fold, grass to mow. But that isn’t bad by any means. We’ve had some of our best, closest times working together.”
What about quality versus quantity of time? Strong families realize the time they spend together needs to be good time. It also needs to be sufficient; quality interaction isn’t likely to develop in a few minutes together. A working mother from Wisconsin wrote, “To excuse myself for spending so little time with my daughter by saying, ‘It was only 15 minutes, but it was high quality,’ is a cop-out.”
Feeling appreciated by others is one of the most basic of human needs. As we scored questionnaires and conducted interviews, we found that the quantity of appreciation family members expressed to one another was even greater than anticipated. One mother wrote: “Each night we go into the children’s bedrooms and give each a big hug and kiss. Then we say, ‘You are really good kids and we love you very much.’ We think it’s important to leave that message with them at the end of the day.”
Another couple said that appreciation had literally changed their life together. “We fell into a trap early in our marriage,” the wife reported, “partly because of some couples we saw socially. They considered themselves to be very sophisticated: nothing quite measured up to their standards. One couple delighted in acid sarcasm-especially with each other.”
“We hadn’t realized how their fault-finding and belittling were rubbing off on us. We had begun to see things in a negative way.”
“We decided to stop. First, we found new friends. Then we began to accent the positive. Now when my husband comes home he says, ‘I see you’ve been busy with the boys today and you got your hair cut and did the marketing.’ He doesn’t mention the weedy garden.”
“And when he comes in disappointed over a sale he missed, I remind him of the three he made last week. We’ve conditioned ourselves to look at what we have rather than we lack.”
Psychologists know that good communication helps to create a sense of belonging, and eases frustrations as well as full-blown crises. Strong families emphasize that good communication doesn’t necessarily happen; it usually takes time and practice.
As one father said: “We spend a lot of time in casual conversations. Sometimes we uncover important issues, feeling or values that need to be aired. If my son can’t talk with me about cars and tennis, why should I expect him to discuss the drug traffic at school?”
Good communication means clearing up misunderstandings. Strong families work at deciphering one another’s messages. A New Mexico husband wrote: “My wife would say, ‘Are there any good movies downtown?’ and she’d mean, ‘I’d like to go to a movie.’”
“I’d answer the question literally, by telling her what was playing. Rarely did I suggest going to a show. Then I’d be surprised when she sulked. Eventually we figured this pattern out. She’s better now about saying ‘I’d like to …’ instead of hinting, and I’m better about checking to be sure I understand what she really means.”
5. SPIRITUAL WELLNESS
Spiritual wellness was defined by strong families as a caring center with in each of us that promotes sharing, love and compassion for others.
For many, the yearnings of their spiritual nature are expressed by church or synagogue membership. For others, spirituality manifests itself as concern for those around them, or adherence to a moral code.
Strong families express their spiritual dimension in daily life. They literally practice what they preach. “Our family,” one participant wrote, “has certain values—honesty, responsibility and tolerance, to name a few. But we have to practice those in everyday life. I can’t talk about honesty and cheat on my income-tax return. I can’t yell responsibility and turn my back on a neighbor who needs help. I’d know I was a hypocrite, and so would the kids and everyone else.”
6. COPING WITH CRISIS
John DeFrain tells a story of his grandmother, Effie, who shortly before she died at age 86 lay in bed blind from cataracts and suffering from complications of diabetes. Her middle-aged son, Orville, was telling her about difficulties in his life. She listened patiently, then spoke. “Life,” she told her child as kindly as possible, “is troubles.”
Strong families are not without problems. But they have the ability to surmount life’s inevitable challenges when they arise. Many of the tools these families identified as necessary for coping with crisis have been touched on earlier: focusing on the positive; skill in communication; spiritual resources. Another significant tool is adaptability.
At age 40, a Harvard Ph.D. had just about everything he wanted in life. A family man, he had a wife and three children. He was a full professor and a successful writer. Life was moving quickly.
It fell apart even more quickly. His wife packed her bags to leave him one Monday. His brother, a heavy smoker, had developed throat cancer and his larynx was removed the following Friday. “I looked at his life, and I cried,” the professor said. “And then I looked at my own life and I cried.”
He began to change. He set aside time for his family—time to chat with his young sons while they snacked; time to hold the baby. Soon his wife agreed to visit a family therapist with him. She saw that he was exploring a new way to live.
The professor had learned what all strong families know. A healthy family is a place we enter for comfort, development and regeneration; a place from which we go forth renewed and charged with power for positive living. As one woman said: “I put love into my family as an investment in their future, my future, our future. It’s the best investment I can make.”“SECRETS OF STRONG FAMILIES,” COPYRIGHT © 1985 BY NICK STINNETT AND JOHN DEFRAIN, IS PUBLISHED AT $16.95 BY LITTLE, BROWN AND COMPANY, 34 BEACON ST., BOSTON MASS. 02106.