Focus on the Family

Adopting a Significant Family Purpose

How do you build a strong family? By paying attention not only to individual family members but to the family as a group.

by Dick Wulf

If members of the family do not consciously think about the family as a social unit, each person will focus only on his or her individual purposes. When these usually hidden agendas clash, conflict results. The family does not know how to handle it, since the family is not fully functioning as a family without a purpose to which all members are committed.

On the other hand, when a family is led as a family, careful time is taken to help the family adopt a purpose that is critically important to the family members. Expected behavior in light of this family purpose is discussed. I did this in my family when my oldest child was 4 years old, couching our purpose in 4-year-old language. As the kids got older, we went over our family purpose at higher and higher levels of understanding.

Our family's purpose was to "become as a family and as people all that God wants us to be."

Note that a properly stated purpose is a result, not an activity. Therefore, having fun as a family is not a recommended purpose, while being together "to make certain that every member of the family enjoys life" is an adequate purpose. It is measurable.

Without such a purpose to guide behavior, a family can become dysfunctional. Teenagers drop out of such a family since they were never card-carrying, contributing members of a group with an important purpose.

If you want your family to be a close-knit group of highly functional people, adopting a family purpose is critical. In the process of working toward a significant purpose with all its important goals, individuals (both children and parents) stretch themselves and become more capable.

Most likely you will want to propose to your family some purpose that specifically states or strongly implies an intention of helping one another be all that each can be. Two powerful possibilities emerge from such a purpose.

First, from that general purpose, you can help your family create goals for the family as a whole. For example, to develop into a helpful family, the family might decide to work toward the goal of being able to handle conflict calmly. The family could also set related goals for each member of the family.

Second, a family purpose can be used to measure what behavior is appropriate and inappropriate, right or wrong. For example, if one child takes something (steals) from another, it is not dealt with simply as an individual wrong, but also as something that negatively affects the family's purpose. Likewise, when people do not do their chores, they can be confronted with the family purpose and shown how such irresponsibility affects others. The family purpose should make disciplining kids more understandable and loving.

Do Not Do Anything the Family or Its Members Can Do

When you continually do things for people that they can do for themselves, you cripple them. Likewise, when you do things for the family that the family can do, you cripple the family. Doing way too much for the family and its members subtly communicates that the family and its members are not able to do things. (It is no wonder so many people in families do so little.) It also robs individuals and the family of a chance to achieve greater and greater maturity.

Take, for example, the situation where a family member is too talkative and pushy. Most models suggest that the parent pull the child aside and talk to him or her about the unwelcome behavior. This spoils a strengthening opportunity for the family.

The empowering model of family leadership says that the family as a whole should deal with the domineering member, that he or she is the family's problem. So one or both parents should instead help the family deal with the dysfunctional behavior. Family members will not only have to confront the offender but also learn to support and encourage him or her in order to keep the person constructively engaged with the family.

Giving the family the problem is critical to the development of the family and its members in many ways. Most important is the fact that the family can do many jobs a thousand times better than one or two parents. The family as a whole has more resources, more talent, more synergy, more time, more energy.

Therefore, the successful parent is constantly vigilant to assure that he or she does not hold the family and its members back by doing things that the kids or the family as a whole can do. Instead of talking, directing, empathizing, and a host of other things that the family and its members can do better, the wise parent is constantly thinking about what the family needs to do to be a more dynamic family.

A parent should begin by briefly modeling any behavior that no family member can model, and teaching what no family member or members can teach. Then the wise parent gives those tasks to the family for it and its members to do from that time on.

Imagine that two younger children in the family get into a quarrel over toys. Thousands of times the parent has modeled how to handle such a situation lovingly. Eventually, a mother or father should ask an older teenager in the family to help the two younger siblings resolve their disagreement. The parent should supervise directly or indirectly, because the main goal is not to resolve the argument of the two younger children but to teach a vital life skill to the teenage son or daughter.

Another example might be to have a senior in high school pay the family bills and balance the checkbook for six months. This could be done by the parents, as usual, but then a teaching opportunity would disappear. The teen will be paying bills and balancing checkbooks for the rest of his or her life.

Now for an example of giving a problem to the family. Let's say that a teenager is just about to get his driver's license. The family needs to have a car available for that youngster to drive occasionally. The family should deal with this together.

Or let's imagine that the family dog is getting out of the yard. What would be gained for a parent to solve this alone, if there is time for the family to find a solution together? Together the family might find a better or more complete answer. Furthermore, the children would learn how to solve problems and think of alternative solutions.