I learned about family between commercials.
Most days, I came home to an empty house. So I’d
grab a soda, flip on the TV and join other, better families for an hour. These families seemed to be
what families should look like. Not the messy, fractured version I experienced: the hardworking,
hardly-ever-there mom; the drunk, abusive father who’d abandoned us; the strict, overbearing
stepdad. No, these families were better. Loving parents. Obedient children.Life’s dilemmas solved
in 30 minutes.
Looking back, I often wonder how many parents asked why their homes didn’t look like
that fictionalized ideal. How many moms observed their screaming kids and thought, Where did I go
wrong? How many dads left for work after a turbulent morning feeling guilty — and maybe a little
relieved? How many kids wished their parents would solve problems with wise words and a comforting
And how many of us today still pursue this fantasy? We know what a perfect family looks like.
We know what ours looks like. And we wonder why there’s such a difference between the two.
Why aren’t our families perfect?
That’s the wrong question to ask. We’re flawed humans. It’s our nature.
A better question might be, “How can we get better?” How can we repair and build relationships? How
can we overcome mistakes and create healthy, safe environments for our families?
The answer starts
with shaking the sense of inferiority that most of us carry, the crippling idea that we’re not good
enough. It starts with breaking free from the notion that we have to do everything perfectly, that
our home has to be perfect, that our kids need to make the honor roll and the varsity squad.
Accepting imperfection is the place where great families begin. It’s the place where mistakes are
made, where milk gets spilled and glasses shatter. But in the middle of the chaos, there’s love,
safety and forgiveness.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m talking about imperfect parenting, not indifferent
parenting. We shouldn’t slavishly focus on the rules of the parenting game — striving for perfection
and obedience in every moment — but there are some important principles we should pay attention to.
And when those guidelines are balanced with grace, with a recognition that every member of the
family is going to mess up, we create a space where our kids can truly thrive.
A refuge from the storm
In the Daly family, if the boys start bickering — if one calls the other
“stupid” or makes fun of him — their mother steps in.
“Hey!” Jean will say. “Family’s supposed to be a
safe place! Family is a place where we love each other. Where we can be the real us.”
I don’t know
if I’ve ever heard a better definition of what family is supposed to be.
Families won’t be perfect.
But they should be safe. Family should be the safest place we’ll ever know, the place we go back to
when everything else in our lives blows up.
I sometimes like to think of the family as a literal
house. We can’t just quickly build one with drywall, carpet and paint. We need a strong framework in
place, a structure that defines what our home will look like and how it’ll operate. That structure
supports our floor and roof and walls. It keeps us dry and warm — and safe.
Likewise, the framework of
a family is critical to a healthy home. Children need structure and boundaries, predictable,
reliable limitations that don’t shift by the hour. It’s important that we correct our kids when they
cross those boundaries. And while I’ve never thought you need a lot of rules to create a
well-functioning family, whatever rules and expectations you do have need to be clearly defined and
steadily, reasonably enforced.
It’s easy to understand this need for structure and slip into a
rigid, legalistic mindset. But we can’t lose sight of the importance of grace. In a healthy,
well-functioning family, everyone is still a flawed human. We need to find a balance between
correcting our children and not crushing their spirits.
In the Daly home, we expect our boys to
keep up their grades, tend to their personal hygiene, follow the Golden Rule — all good, important
things, but things they sometimes struggle to master as young teens. All those expectations can lead
to an avalanche of correction.
And when it gets pervasive — for example, when Jean or I have corrected
or instructed our son Trent every time he’s within earshot — it wears on him. “You forgot to take out
the trash.” “Is your homework done?” You can see it pulling him down — to a point where he doesn’t
feel so safe anymore. As parents, we’ve had to focus on this balance between structure and grace.
A house that consisted of nothing but structure would make a very poor home indeed. It might stand for
100 years, but you wouldn’t want to live there for even a day. Thankfully, the framework in a house
is usually hidden, even if we know it’s there. It’s covered with walls and paint, carpet and
ceilings. It has art and bright windows, sofas for afternoon naps, and tables and chairs where we
might spend hours talking and playing games.
Rules, boundaries and standards are all essential. But
most days, we should barely know they’re there. We cover them with laughter and affection. We coat
them with our memories. We decorate them with our love and grace.
Time and conversation
There’s another thing that a home has: people who spend time together,
laughing and playing, connecting with each other. People who want to be there doing these things.
Why do parenting experts constantly affirm the importance of sitting down together for a family
meal? Because of the time spent together at that table.
Time is the greatest currency of family: How
you spend it shows what you value, and who you value. You can’t know your kids — their strengths and
weaknesses, their interests and passions — without spending time to get to know them. You can’t model
good behavior for them if you’re rarely around. You teach them how to laugh by laughing with them.
My son Trent gets chatty at night. When I’m tired, Trent turns conversational. He’ll start talking
about school and friends. About dreams and goals. And though I’m tired, I’ll think, This is great! A
conversation with my son!
We recently had another long conversation — about grades, which he’s been
struggling with. I wasn’t angry, and he wasn’t defensive. We’re trying to make these conversations
constructive, and a big part of creating the right atmosphere is to be willing to listen. He knows
the score: School is important. It’s not as if my yelling about it again would suddenly cause Trent
to think, Wow. Dad really cares about this stuff. Guess I’ll work harder.
As parents, we’re often at
our most convincing when we’re just there. In a way, we’re evangelizing our kids — not just into the
kingdom of God, but also into the world of responsible adulthood. We want to love them. To save
them. To prepare them for the challenges and the beauty in their future.
Yes, sometimes we have to
force conversations. We have to tackle problems that can’t be ignored. We have to get down in the
dirt and love our kids where they are.
Families are like a house, but they’re also like the garden
out back. They can be dirty places filled with weeds and bugs, too much water or sun. They require
patience and often a willingness to work in the mud. And it helps to have a sense of humor.
But gardening is an act of trust. An act of faith. Underneath the earth, a miracle grows — one that has
less to do with you and more to do with God. You can’t make a seed sprout. You can’t force it to
flower. Your job is to help the miracle along.
Jim Daly is the president of Focus on the Family and the host of its daily broadcast.