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The Secret of Happy Families

There’s been a lot of research on what makes for happy families, and it turns out the number one predictor for children’s emotional well-being is whether they knew their family history. We are not talking about distant genealogy but rather families sharing their “stories” in a way that helps kids to grow with a sense of confidence.

This is something I have found to be true in my family and in my work. Not only am I an entrepreneur and mother of three children (ages 18, 12 and 9), I’m also a program leader for Landmark, an international personal and professional growth, training and development company. Among Landmark’s teachings is the idea that the stories we tell ourselves have a profound effect on our effectiveness, happiness and satisfaction in life.

Stories are critical in shaping people’s lives. For example, someone in a course I recently led had a story about how her father had left when she was a child, and her mother told her from the time she was little that her father “abandoned” them. Although she had no personal memory of the incident, that story shaped her relationship with people to this day. She had trouble connecting with people, especially men, for fear that they would leave. She recently found out what actually happened: her mother told her father to leave due to his mental illness, and he had not abandoned them. The story she had held as the truth for so many years began to fall apart, and a new view of people started to emerge. She stopped viewing people as threats of abandonment and was able to create close connections that were never possible inside the original story. It is rarely what happened that impacts us as human beings, but rather the story we hear or make up about what happened that has the real impact.

So how can we as parents and family members share stories in a way that encourages and strengthens kids? Here are three ideas:

  1. CREATE (a Game) vs. REACT – You can create games with your kids that inspire them to come up with new interpretations or stories about the challenges they face. For instance, at one point my son Shane was reluctant to do his reading assignments for school. As a family, we came up with a game to encourage him, built around his desire to become a writer when he grows up. We created rewards and milestones to help Shane explore his reading and writing. For every three books he read and one original story he wrote, he was able to pick out a family activity for us to engage with together where he was in charge of the evening. Shane set out a goal of how many books to read and how to weave that into his writing interests. What originally was a chore of getting him to read books for school became something natural and interesting for him. Now he’s playing a game called “reading books to be a writer” instead of reacting to school assignments (read this book to get your homework done). You can try this idea with your own kids. Recognize them and reward them for pursuing their interests and passions. Some milestones might include doing homework without being prompted, completing major assignments a day ahead of due date, or making the honor roll. For younger children, stickers or pocket change make great rewards. Older kids, however, will probably want more tangible rewards such as cash, coupons or gift certificates. Once they reach a certain age, it’s all about “show me the money.”
  1. Turn COMPLAINTS into COMMITMENTS – Most kids (and many parents) complain at times about school, other siblings or family members, or work they have to get done. In my family, I have found the key to resolving complaints is to get whoever is complaining to turn them into commitments. If your child complains about doing math homework, for instance, connect it to a large interest in his or her life. It could connect back, for example, to their favorite hobby, book, movie or TV show and what it takes to be strong and overcome obstacles—or even what it takes to work with numbers, for that matter. For example, my son Sage complained about having to do his health homework, which involved looking up nutrition values on certain foods and doing certain exercises. He loves plants and flowers, so we connected the two and got him to plant vegetables. For every vegetable he planted, he researched the nutritional values and caloric content and then connected it to how many calories are burned in those exercises, so the whole thing circled back to his health assignments. Now we have cherry tomatoes and carrots sprouting as well – a win/win scenario all around!
  1. Stop MAKING THINGS UP – One of Landmark’s trademarked concepts is “always already listening.” It’s about the little voice we all have in our heads that’s constantly commenting on circumstances and coloring our relationships. For instance, sometimes when we appear to be engaged in conversations we may actually be trying to predict what the other person will say or do before they say or do anything. Regardless of whether we view our predictions of what’s coming as positive or negative, they’re made up and skew how we hear what people are saying to us. This process is as invisible to us human beings as water is to a fish, because we’re in it all the time. One way to help kids become aware of that little voice that’s impacting how we listen: Anytime they are upset, ask them what happened vs. what were their thoughts (via antonio), feelings or interpretations about what happened. This allows them to separate their “already always listening” from what actually happened, and helps them see that their interpretation is simply one possible view, not the only way of seeing the situation. Again, it is rarely what actually happened that upsets us, but rather the story or interpretation we tell ourselves about what happened that impacts us in a negative way.

In working to become the best parent you can be, it is also important to look at the stories you may be telling yourself.  Do they serve the best interests of you and your child? For instance, you might find it useful to give up the story “it’s always so hard to get my child to do his homework.” Letting go of such preconceptions will allow you to simply be in and enjoy the moment as you work with your kids to find creative solutions to common challenges. That may be the most important thing of all that you can do, because kids always know when we’re really present for them and when we’re not.

Josselyne Herman-Saccio is a communication expert with Landmark, a personal and professional growth, training and development company that’s had more than 2.2 million people use its programs to cause breakthroughs in their personal lives as well as in their communities, generating more than 100,000 community projects around the world. In The Landmark Forum, Landmark’s flagship program, people cause breakthroughs in their performance, communication, relationships and overall satisfaction in life. 

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