Building a Family, Creating the Future
by Barbara Graham
Families that plan together are better equipped to function in our often chaotic world.
When builders decide to construct houses, they
first design the necessary plans, or blueprints, to guide them through the
process. They work with their teams to put together outlines that best meet
the needs of everyone, recognizing the pressure of having to complete the
process within a given timeline.
The same process happens in corporations where
teams of people get together to create a strategic plan so that everyone
knows which way to go and how to get there. With blueprints and strategic
plans tightly in hand, the homebuilder and the business builder march
forward with a certain degree of safety and comfort, feeling better prepared
to meet the challenge of the journey.
These vocations are responsible and often
difficult. However, the most difficult and most important job any of us have
is that of building a family – and we do it without any plan at all!
What could happen if families were to use the
proven strategies of homebuilders and business builders? How much easier
would it be for families to create satisfying family lives and direct their
own learning if they had a plan to follow?
In this “hurry, hurry” world of ours, where we are
typically over-scheduled, we need to stop for a moment to remember the cost
of being under-connected. The results of high stress, low tolerance and
little time spent together are now well-documented and well known. The end
result is that we all pay for unhealthy families.
Let’s recognize the fact that family
organizations outlast all other organizations, and so must be made most
worthy and must be made most deserving of our full and conscious attention
to building a strong and sustaining human foundation.
It behooves us, then, to do all we can to learn
the “tools of the trade” to build as strong a family as we can, to create an
environment that shares values, understands expectations, and follows a
jointly determined direction.
Unfortunately, there are relatively few
textbooks or learning materials on the subject of designing and developing a
strong family foundation. As humans, we have no built-in knowledge about
human development and family living.
|“How much better could family life
be if there were a plan for building a family?”
So how do we create an environment that helps
to generate relationships of resilience, better mental health, and a strong
sense of importance? While recognizing that there is never just one right
way to do anything, our families are clearly in need of something – perhaps
a blueprint – a strategic plan – a family plan, to offer structure to the
Steps to Creating a Family Plan
It is said that for learning to be effective,
it must be marked with a high degree of self-direction and so with that in
mind, let’s create a plan that involves everyone in its creation. The
relevant literature and research shows that connected family relationships
and a strong family foundation are key to good health and well-being and
that there are lasting and immeasurable benefits for all members when
authentic connection and communal learning occurs.
So, how do we start a family building plan?
The first step starts with a decision by family
members to build a firm foundation that will stand the tests of time.
Ideally, it could start at the beginning, when two people join together to
become a family, but this decision can be made and implemented at any time
within the life of a family. Together, they can design a plan that will:
- Offer a vision of the current home
- Identify individual and then common values
- Develop rules for acceptable behavior
- Design a path toward the desired future
It begins with a commitment to set some time for each
family member to sit down together to ask some honest questions about what
is currently happening within the home environment. Each can make up and
list their own questions that can be joined with the others in a simple
one-page format – perhaps three to five questions each is enough. Keep the
questions simple and straightforward to make it as easy as possible. Don’t
be afraid to ask “hard” questions because the idea be- hind this exercise is
to open up conversation to uncover both strengths
and challenges. Under each question, list the numbers 1 through 9 so that
there is a grade assigned to each as an answer. Some of the questions could
include subjects like communication styles, perceived expectations, team
work and/or many others, and could read as follows:
1. How effective do your feel our family’s
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
2. How well do you think the members of our
family understand what is expected of them?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
3. How well do you think each member of this
family feels supported, like members of a team?
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Once the questions have
been written, make copies for each member of the family who is able (old
enough) to participate. Then take the phone off the hook, and allow no
distractions in your thinking through and grading of the questions. When
each person is finished grading, open up discussion for sharing each other’s
answers. As there is no right or wrong answer, what becomes evident is the
perception of each person regarding the current family environment.
For example, one family
member may think that communication is already effective – meaning that
he/she feels understood – when another member may not. One family member may
feel that the family operates as a “team,” where another may not. The
assessment may show that one member feels supported when another does not,
and so on. It is always easier to make decisions about change and
improvement when each family member is clear on what needs to be changed. So
start the conversation….
Being aware of various
areas of family life through the eyes of each other brings better insight
and deeper understanding. There is also a building sense of unity, knowing
that exciting change is possible through choice and combined learning.
Remember that it helps everyone to focus on those things that are working
well instead of finding only those things that are not. Encouragement goes a
lot farther than does criticism!
The next step is to take
the necessary time to have a discussion about values, or those things of
importance to each member of the family. You may wonder what the benefits to
this exercise are. Determining and designing common family values can do
many things. For example, values can:
these especially turbulent times, family and relationships are the
things that keep us together. And in lifetimes to come, they are the
things remembered as traditions and rituals pass from generation to
1. provide a common
standard and language
2. foster strong feelings of personal
promote high levels of loyalty
4. encourage appropriate behavior
5. reduce levels of stress and tension
6. foster pride
7. facilitate understanding about expectations
8. foster teamwork
9. provide a shared understanding
10. create a sense of positive family identity.
So, how do we determine
values? And what are some examples of values? The list could include
respect, integrity, timeliness, learning, love, independence (or,
interdependence), curiosity, fun, patience, optimism, manners, kindness,
spirituality, and so on.
The Values Game
One way to work with and determine common
values is with some help from a fun and simple values card game, where
separate values are written on pieces of paper, perhaps designed as a deck
You will also need a large piece of paper or
poster board, a marker, and a package of stickers (any kind). Take the phone
off the hook, don’t allow any distractions and treat your family to some fun
A: Involve everyone in determining values to
include in the deck and have some empty “cards” to write on for those values
that get missed in the first listing. To determine values, think of what is
important to you. Is it honesty? Is it cleanliness? How about sharing time
together? List whatever values come to mind so that there are a number of
choices for everyone.
B. Invite each person to take three values
cards from the deck and then play the game by trading cards with each other
until the values held in hand most closely describe the person holding them.
C. When everyone is as satisfied as possible
with their final choices, designate someone to write everyone’s chosen
values on a larger paper, preferably a poster board size so that everyone
can see the list.
D. Then give each family member two or three
stickers to place beside the values most important to them on the larger
E. When each person has marked his or her most
important values with stickers, it will be clear which selections are most
important to the family as a whole. These chosen values then become the
“family values” to use for guidance and support.
Think for a moment about your own family of
origin. You may remember values taught to you through word, deed, or action,
but regardless of how they were taught, they are remembered. Shared family
values become precious beliefs that we carry with us all our lives and act
as our guidelines for “normal” behavior.
To relate to other building processes, as the
cement in a house foundation provides grounding and stability, and as the
strategic plan in a business provides focus and clarity, determining common
values can provide all the same and more for a family. Finding meaning
together through developing family values is a learning process that
enlightens understanding and promotes stronger relationships. Clearly,
“building” will have already started and so what’s next?
Another step of the plan includes creating
clearly defined rules that confirm your family principles and outline the limits of acceptable behavior. When
we know what is expected, there is less confusion and stress for everyone.
With the most important family values chosen, rules can be designed that
will provide a framework for behavior. For example, if the family chooses
“love” as a common value, a ground rule may be that love be expressed each
time you leave the home. If “fun” is chosen, it may be that a member of the
family is responsible for creating playful moments each day. If “manners”
are chosen, it may be that the family designs a chart of appropriate manners
to go on the fridge. The combinations and creations of values and ground
rules are endless and unique to each family and they are always open to
change according to influences and stages of life.
To create a family plan that represents every
member, it is essential to include children in the design. Even very young
children, whose cognitive development has not yet matured to a stage of
logical and concrete events, can be included in this part of the process.
They can do all sorts of things, from listening to preparing the
environment, from which they will derive a sense of purpose within the
family unit and a place in the ongoing process of living as a family. By
providing an opportunity for everyone to actively engage in the process of
designing the family plan, learning takes place, connections are
strengthened, and progress is made.
Remember that accountability is part of every
action plan. Even with the plan in action, it takes monitoring to make sure
that everyone is on track. Make it part of your plan to check in together
once a week to talk about progress or challenges. Remember that it is always
easier to build on those things that are working well than to focus on those
things that are not. And remember, too, that all family members need to
contribute for the plan to work well.
So, if we design a plan to help build a strong
family foundation by looking at what the current situation is, by
determining common family values, by designing some rules for behavior and
by regularly checking in with each other, can we now begin to imagine the
results, or the direction we are going?
Results of Family Building
Many authors suggest that families who plan
together and spend extensive quality and quantity of time together will
enjoy elements of a more positive, rewarding, nurturing, and sustaining
experience. Family members will be more resilient, they will enjoy better
mental health, and they will have a stronger sense of their own importance
in relationships and in the world. They will enjoy better coping skills,
social support networks, and physical well being. In short, they will be
better equipped to function in our often chaotic world.
In these especially turbulent times, family and
relationships are the things that keep us together. And in lifetimes to
come, they are the things remembered as traditions and rituals pass from
generation to generation. After all, as families, we’ve got the future to
Barbara L. Graham, MA, is a strong
believer in the importance of family life and the long lasting effect of
family influence. Her consulting practice, Family Dynamics Consulting,
focuses on improving the quality of family life. She enjoys a fulfilling
family life with her best friend and husband of over 40 years, her two
daughters and their husbands, and her three grandchildren.