Imagine two American families, living on the same street, both successful in pursuing the American dream. Their Christmas cards are equally impressive. All their kids are college-bound. Their marriages are stable, and they are in the midst of meeting their career and material goals. There are no skeletons hiding in their closets; what you see is what you get with them. But there is a difference that only their very closest friends and family might recognize.
Let’s first meet the Johnson family. Jim is an engineer, who loves to fish and go to his kids’ ball games as much as he can. He is a Boy Scout leader, a bible study leader, and a really nice guy, by all accounts. His wife Sue works part-time as a nurse at the local children’s hospital, in addition to raising three teenagers. Jack (16) plays three competitive sports and gets mostly A’s. He plays guitar in a garage band and loves to ride his dirt bike. Sally (14) is an average student but a truly outstanding gymnast who travels a lot for competitions. When home, she likes to go to the mall or the movie theater as much as possible. Jimmy (12) is interested in everything; he has dozens of hobbies, plays select soccer, is a Boy Scout, and still manages good grades. All in all, the Johnson’s are active, productive, and very busy. They seem content with life and get along well with all kinds of people. They are good neighbors, but they aren’t home much.
Now, meet the Landry family next door. Lou is also an engineer, and Donna works part-time at the elementary school where their three teenage kids attended. The three kids are Josh (17), Bill (15), and Claire (13). They are above-average students, but do not excel in sports or the arts. Except for a few minor incidents, the kids stay out of trouble. After dinner, they like to watch movies together, so they just built a family theater and a “ping pong arena” in the basement. Whenever possible, they get away to Grandpa’s cabin on a lake, where they do a lot of fishing, waterskiing, swimming, cliff jumping, and reading (since there’s no TV at the cabin). Lately, at night, they’ve been playing some very animated games of Texas Hold-em; Mom is actually the best bluffer of the bunch. Their neighbors miss them when they are gone at the cabin because they are a fun-loving family.
So what’s the difference? It’s subtle but powerful.
It’s all about WITH. One family lives WITH each other, while the other does not. The Landry’s play with each other, hang out with each other, and eat with each other. The Johnson’s, however, are not with each other much, except in the car, en route to somebody’s activity. Most people would never see the difference, but it’s a big one. One family is a team, while the other is a bunch of individuals. Yes, the Johnson’s appear to be a tight family, but they are not. They each have their individual lives, full of their own favorite activities; they freely pursue their own happiness, free from the inconveniences of the family bond.
A recent episode of The Middle, an ABC sitcom, portrayed this scenario in its own way. The Heck family is a middle class family in middle America, and their family situation is right down the middle – not truly dysfunctional but far from ideal. One evening, Frankie (the mom) witnesses the loving bond of her neighbor’s kids, then goes home to see the total absence of bonding in her own children. It’s an epiphany that most families never have. Click here to watch a 2 min excerpt.
So, what’s the big deal?
Well, it is no big deal if you want your kids to grow up thinking that life is all about pursuing their own interests and goals. But if you think there’s more to life than just doing your own thing, then the whole “family bonding” thing is a huge deal.
Everybody needs a family, or some kind of tight-knit community in which to fit. Every person needs to belong, and it’s in that place of belonging where we must learn to give and take and work together. We need to belong to a group that has an identity, in order to verify and validate our own identity. Why do you think people in Green Bay, Wisconsin, will sit for four hours in a wind-blown outdoor stadium in sub-zero temperatures, wearing a giant foam cheese-wedge hat? It’s because they feel good about belonging to a tribe – a really fun (and tough) family, if you will – and it helps them create an identity. Maybe that’s not the best example.
The Marines have a family identity: The few, the proud, the Marines. They know how to give young men an extreme sense of purpose and pride that exists only in the family. Their motto, Semper fidelis, means “always faithful.” And once a Marine, always a Marine. They prove that if a little bonding goes a long way, then a lot of bonding goes all the way. Ask a Marine if he will fall on a grenade to save his fellow Marines, and he won’t hesitate to say “Yes, sir,” and he’s probably just saying “sir” to be polite, since you aren’t a Marine. They know all about hard work, toughness, loyalty, and sacrifice.
Can a suburban family teach the same things? It’s not impossible.
Can the Johnson’s learn to be more like the Landry’s? Of course.
Is your family a team? Do you feel deeply connected to each other? What do you all share? When are you together? What do you do WITH each other? Does everybody have a valuable role to perform for the team?
Does your family have an identity? What are the common family traits that you are pursuing? When people talk about your family, what do they say?
I know a family that has is a team and has an identity. The kids all know how to act because mom and dad let them know all the time. When the little kids start whining without just cause, Dad barks out, “Hey Millers! (not their actual name) Is that what Millers do? No, Millers do not whine. Millers use words.” Yes, he’s a high school coach, and that’s probably why the family operates so much like a team. Dad knows that winners are not made alone, and he knows that kids will perform more for a coach and teammates who care about them. Even in an individual sport like swimming or wrestling or cross country, the best performers practice and compete with teammates and coaches who act as a family, providing identity, purpose, and support everyday. They are a loving, loyal, tough bunch of kids because their parents are teaching and training them to be exactly that kind of family. Family identity does not happen by accident, unless it’s some sort of dysfunctional identity.
It matters that kids grow up with parents, stepparents, and grandparents who not only provide for them and encourage them but also work with, play with, lounge with, eat with, and joke with each other daily. And as much as they may complain, kids need to have responsibilities around the house that help the rest of the family. Kids need to be needed, and chores are tangible reminders that they are useful, not just adorable.
As an example, I think of Joann, the woman who cleaned my teeth for about ten years. She was a single mom of three boys – big strapping athletic kids. Instead of putting them on every competitive sports team possible, she tried to strike a balance, in an attempt to keep the family together as much as possible. They had their share of games and practices to attend, but they also went camping, played cards, did chores, watched movies, and built a family life together. Their lack of spare money and the smallness of their house did not drive them away; instead they learned to accept the fact that they would usually be doing stuff together, whether it was one of the boys’ ball games, playing card games, or fishing. As time went on, the boys played high school basketball, earned good grades, and eventually went off to play some basketball and pursue their careers at colleges far away. It was not easy for mom or the boys to be apart, but as time went on, mom got remarried, the boys found wives, and they are still a very tight family. They belong to each other, and it is because they were WITH each other and shared their lives as a team.
So, take an honest look at your family. Are you WITH each other, intentionally building a family that is a tightly-knit team? Or are you just a bunch of individuals that live together?