Last week my husband and I attended a workshop led by a couple who had once been on the brink of divorce. They had everything the world told them a successful family should have: two children, a giant house, a vacation house on the beach, and nice cars. Yet they were miserable. Their message: the world’s definition of success is a lie. For them, saving their family required them to leave their stressful jobs and focus on raising their children. We can all benefit from reflecting on the true nature of a successful family. So, what is a successful family? How do we achieve that vision? I explored this issue with Greg and Lisa Popcak on Thursday, March 27, on their radio program More2Life. If you missed the show (“Parenting Success”), you can access it in the Ava Maria Radio archives here.
Anyone interested in our website probably knows already that success has nothing to do with the size of your bank account or the square footage of your house. A successful family is one that lives out God’s plan for the family, which is to build a community of life and love. The successful family nourishes the well-being of the family as a whole and each individual member as unique, unrepeatable persons. Our culture tells us that certain things will make us happy or nourish our families when they don’t. Having a vacation house isn’t wrong, but it cannot bring the kind of meaning and joy to our families that God’s plan for our family will.
Anyone interested in reading this probably also knows already that successful families should pray together, attend holy days of obligation, and fulfill their sacramental promises. But here are five signs of a successful family many of us forget on occasion. They form the acronym GRAIL: Generosity, Resilience, Acceptance, a clear Identity, and Laughter.
The parents and children in successful families think in terms of WE instead of ME. The couple we heard speak admitted they had both been entirely focused on their own need for external approval – to be the best, the richest, the most admired in their circle of friends. They decided instead to prioritize the needs of the other spouse and their children. They began asking each other, “What do you need from me today” instead of “What have you done for me lately?”. They also opened their hearts and arms to five more babies! The most radical choice we can make as Christian families is to live for each other instead of ourselves, to practice self-donative, generous love. Children learn this kind of self-donative love through the modeling of their parents – how parents treat their children and one another.
Every family will face hardship and setbacks. Oftentimes, this is where the rubber hits the road, when we find out how strong our family connection really is. How do we treat one another during those times? How do we get through them? Successful families know they are not alone: they have a strong enough rapport to come together during crises to face the road ahead together with the assistance of God. Rather than coming apart at the seams, successful families are actually strengthened in adversity through a shared sense of determination and unity when faced with setbacks. Studies show that families who already have strong communication skills and a respect for one another develop resilience.
We all makes mistakes; we are all sinners. Successful families learn to forgive, to embrace one another even in our ‘not-finished-yet’ state. When our children make a mistake, we don’t have to pretend like it didn’t happen, but we can lovingly and gently show them a better way to handle big feelings or frustrations in the future. Instead of hurting or scaring our child with a harsh punishment, we can empathize with her experience while at the same time giving her the skills she needs to succeed in the future. When we foster this kind of loving acceptance in the home, families serve as a sign to the Church and to unbelievers of the mercy of God.
A Clear Identity
Successful families make it clear up front what they’re about – which virtues and values are most important to them. Then they can see more clearly how they want to spend their time and money. Coming up with a family mission statement is a fun and effective way to concretize your family vision.
We too often forget how important laughter is for creating a joyful, vibrant home. In our achievement-oriented culture it’s easy to get caught up in pushing our kids to work night and day to become successful academically or in sports. Good grades and sports are fine, but not at the expense of our child’s heart or our family’s sense of mirth. Jesus surely laughed with his disciples when he gathered with them around a table for a meal. Becoming a family that laughs together doesn’t take any extra time: it’s an attitude, a way of making ordinary moments of connection light-hearted and fun.
So there we have it: GRAIL. Hopefully we can all remember to foster the GRAIL in our families this week!