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Building Family Identity

Families who nurture shared time, traditions and values create a sense of belonging that helps kids thrive.

My wife, Cathy, and I stared at each other in disbelief as our oldest daughter, Christy, told us she was running away. When she started packing her suitcase, we knew she was serious. Cathy and I weren’t sure if we should laugh or cry. After all, Christy was only 6.

Our daughter told us she was moving to Julia’s house across the street because her mommy and daddy were nicer. My wife called Julia’s mother to tell her what was taking place and that Christy was on her way over. Then, we stood on our sidewalk and watched our little girl carry her suitcase and favorite doll across the street where Julia’s mother waited outside the door to greet her.

A few hours later, Julia’s mom reminded Christy it was Monday night, when our family always went to Golden Spoon for frozen yogurt after dinner. It was a tradition our three girls always looked forward to. To our delight, she called and asked if she could go. It was a joyous reunion!

The weekly yogurt run was part of our family identity — part of what made us who we were. Our three daughters are now grown, but when our family gets together, we still make trips to Golden Spoon. It’s one of those simple traditions that have kept our family bonds strong.

Not surprisingly, a strong family identity helps children develop a strong and healthy self-identity. Knowing what makes their family unique — traditions, values, ways of relating to one another — gives children a clear starting point for discovering their own place in the world. Studies even show that kids who report a strong connection to family tend to be less promiscuous and face less risk of drug and alcohol abuse.

It’s been a long time since Christy “ran away.” With Christy, the journey was never dull, and we had a few bumps in the road along the way, but today she is a teacher and a responsible young woman deeply tied to our family values, faith and identity.

Parents who want to equip their kids to thrive can start by building a strong family identity. There are at least three important building blocks: shared time, shared traditions and shared values. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Shared Time

Why it matters:

Your children regard your presence as a sign of caring and connectedness. Don’t underestimate the positive message you are giving your kids by watching their games, driving them around town and being with them in hundreds of other ways. Your presence gives them a greater sense of security than almost anything else you can offer them. When kids understand that their parents are there for them, they can overcome amazing obstacles to make a positive impact in their world.

Perhaps one of the biggest problems of modern culture is this breathless pace in which we live our lives. Well-meaning families have become overcommitted and underconnected. But families who build a healthy identity are the ones who slow down enough to share enjoyable and meaningful times together. Fifty-two weeks a year of throwing a ball together, taking walks, sharing milkshakes and just being together multiplied over 18 years is a lot of connection time. Those shared times are a deposit into a child’s emotional and spiritual bank account that will pay off in dividends of family intimacy and understanding.

Family solutions:

A little creativity can lead to meaningful family times. The Kneipp family, of Washington state, enjoys indoor campouts — complete with camp games, camp food, a no-electricity rule, a fire in the fireplace, s’mores and sleeping bags in the living room. The Nyberg family, of Wisconsin, enjoys “Popcorn Nights.” As they snack, the topic of conversation is always “I love you because … ” They appreciate how this together time helps them focus on what’s special about each family member.

Meaningful times don’t have to be planned, either. The Teetzel family, of Ontario, has learned to make the most of everyday moments. They connect with good-morning snuggles, tickle wars, science experiments while making supper, silly faces in the mirror, butterfly kisses and prayers before bed.

One-on-one time can be just as important as time together with the entire family. The Tuckers, of North Carolina, routinely schedule mother-daughter and father-son outings. Whether the time is spent shopping at a thrift store or catching the latest outdoor concert, the main focus is being together and growing closer. The Gretz family, of Maryland, carves out special time for their four kids every day. Each child enjoys 20 minutes of uninterrupted time with a parent. Sometimes the children want to play with dolls or LEGOs; other times, they just want to talk about their day.

Shared Traditions

Why it matters:

Families who make a place for traditions in their routine and rhythm place another great building block within the family identity. Family traditions are a bit like the old chair we have in our living room. It’s become more than a comfortable chair; it’s a part of our family identity. Family traditions build family memories. They’re talked about, reviewed and become a part of the family story. Traditions nurture the sense of belonging that makes up an identity in families.

Some traditions just happen, but you can also be proactive with building new ones. How about making a list of traditions that could help draw your family together as well as reinforce your values? Your list might include holiday traditions or service projects or maybe weekly family nights where you build warm memories around play and laughter. It’s never too late to start new traditions. Some last a lifetime, and others just for a season.

Family solutions:

In many families, traditions often center on food and meals. The unique tradition of the “New Plate” is used in the Needles household. Before a meal, the “New Plate” (a cherished piece of family china) is presented to a child who has done something special — such as helping out without being asked. The Osbornes, of Missouri, have started a weekly tradition they call “Sweet Sundays.” The family members look through cookbooks together to decide what they are going to make. After church, the family whips up the dessert together and anxiously waits for the treat after dinner.

Birthdays are also fertile ground for meaningful traditions. The Savage family, of Illinois, celebrates with a birthday breakfast. The night before a child’s birthday, Mom and Dad wait until the child has fallen asleep, then sneak into the bedroom and hang streamers and balloons. In the morning, the child wakes to a decorated room, birthday plates on the kitchen table, and cake and ice cream for breakfast. The Maynard family, of Oregon, has been observing “half-birthdays” for three generations. The family celebrates the special day with half a cupcake and a half-used candle.

The Tomcik family, of Ohio, works together on an annual family memory journal. Throughout the year, they save small mementos and photos from different family events. Each family member takes pride in creating a page or two, and at the end of the year, all the pages are put together in one scrapbook.

Shared Values

Why it matters:

The building block of shared values may be the most important and the most complicated of family identity issues. While several studies have shown that many young people leave the church after high school, I’m convinced that kids who frequently experience faith conversations in the home are much more likely to adhere to their family’s values later in life. These conversations help form a strong family identity that is rooted in their faith and values.

About every six months, Cathy and I would pull out a notebook and write each of our daughters’ names. Then we’d discuss what we hoped we could teach our girls in the next six months on topics such as faith, sexual purity, relationships and character.

Such topics don’t always come naturally for parents. Maybe you have some anxiety about starting a faith or values conversation with your children. Remember, your talk doesn’t have to be forced or lengthy; it can be simple, short and spontaneous. Getting preachy with your kids can be just as unhelpful as avoiding the topic of faith. Let the discussion be as natural as possible.

Family solutions:

Rather than lecturing kids, encouraging lively family discussions can be an effective way to share values. The Needles family, of North Carolina, presents thought-provoking questions as dinner conversation starters. They encourage family members to share thoughts and experiences, and they try to relate the questions to their daily Scripture readings.

For faith and values to be truly caught by kids, parents must model those values in their daily lives. The Branyon family, of Texas, has established their own “huddle time” before heading out to special events. Briefly gathering together to pray reminds them that they are a team and that God is always with them. As a way to pass along the value of helping others, the Haines family, of South Carolina, started a children’s “clothes closet” in their basement. They collected donations of gently used children’s clothes of all sizes, then prepared boxes of clothing for families in need. The effort made such an impact on the Haines’ 5-year-old son that he began donating his own toys and clothes to other children, without any prompting from his parents.

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