I’ve always liked Leo Tolstoy’s statement, in Anna Karenina:
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Does this make sense to you? I suppose, as a generalization, I might say: well, it depends upon what you mean by “alike.” Of course, every family is unique. Every family has their own special things, their own special ways. Good. Bad. Happy. Sad. Functional. Dysfunctional. The way I’d say it is this: every family has its own story.
And yet, when you think about the building blocks of a childhood, in some ways, it takes the same set of blocks to make a happy family, no matter which way you slice it. That is, there generally need to be the same set of building blocks if the result = happy family, well-adjusted kids. And I do tend to agree that when a family is unhappy, when a family is dysfunctional, there is always a story behind it. That family is unhappy in its own special way that connects with its story and the stories of those who make up that family.
So, then, as a parent, I ask myself what those building blocks are. If there are some basic building blocks for making a happy family, and if that is something I am seeking for my own family, then what building blocks should I use and how should I work toward constructing this building?
I also might ask myself whether happiness is a reasonable thing to seek. I think so, but it’s still a question worth asking. And I might think not only about the family, but about the people in the family. Are the parents happy? What about the kids? Is it possible to build a happy family, while some of the component parts aren’t happy? And of course, happiness seems somewhat fleeting, doesn’t it? So, when I think about these things, I tend to think about broad, sweeping generalities. I’m not worried about whether you or I or we are happy TODAY. I am concerned that we are generally enjoying one another’s company, that we are getting along. I suppose if I were to sum it up, I would say that I want us to love one another well.
And the moment I bring this into the arena of love, I come back to a theme in my life and my parenting. Jesus summed up the Jewish Law in two commandments, the ones he called the Greatest Commandments:
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)
In modern English, Jesus said to “love God & love people.” At the core of my desire for my children is that they love God and love people. If our family is one of the main vehicles by which I teach my children to love God and love people, then there needs to be something about the family that is putting those things into practice.
What, then, is the most salient characteristic of this family I want to grow, one that teaches children to love God and love people?
In my reading about parenting and children and education, I often come across articles about research regarding what makes kids successful. Now “success” is one of those words like happiness. What does it actually mean? Is what I think “success” is the same thing that you think success is? However, if I think more broadly about successful kids, I really am thinking about happy kids. I’m thinking about kids who are content in their lives, who are accomplishing good and loving things. I consider those kids to be successful.
There are two notable things I’ve heard over the years about happy families with successful kids. The first was something I heard years ago. This research was specifically about what made kids successful in school. Researchers looked at kids who did well in school and those who didn’t. They found one common denominator: kids who did well in school had dinner with their families. You’ve probably heard this one. I think it’s important and we aim for that at our house. I have wondered, though, if it doesn’t quite go deep enough. As we might imagine, it’s not actually about dinner.
Another piece of research I read about more recently found that children are successful in life when they know their families stories. Here’s a cool article in the New York Times that references this research and talks about what this looks like in families.
Even more recently, I came across this post by Donald Miller, Christian author and speaker. Miller isn’t a researcher, but he is a keen observer and storyteller. And he’s not yet a parent, but he’s paying close attention to those of us who are. Miller points out something that he sees in common among great parents.
Here, I should add, I’m creating a link. I don’t have the evidence to talk about causation, but I will offer a proposal that possibly the happiness of children is linked to the success of children is linked to the happiness of families is linked to the kind of parenting that’s going on in those families. Not always in that order, of course. I think it’s more complicated and dynamic than that.
I would also assert that it is not, essentially, the responsibility of the child to create happiness or success or boundedness or all the good things we might look for in family. A child gradually becomes an agent in his or her own life, and in so doing should certainly begin to “own” his or her choices and “own” his or her attitudes. However, the genesis of all these things, it seems to be, is in the choices the parents make.
It is here that Miller’s post hits it out of the ballpark. Miller observes the one thing he says happy families have in common: the parents are vulnerable with each other and with their children. They own their own mistakes and even their own chronic flaws. They own them. They ask for forgiveness. They give forgiveness. I would summarize with one of my favorite words. In happy families, grace abounds.
Grace is, well, amazing. Grace brings together what has been apart. Grace heals where there are wounds. Grace mends where things are broken.
What do you think? Is grace a hallmark of a happy family? Is grace necessary for a family to be happy? Is grace an important goal for parents and children and families? If grace is valuable, what can we as parents do to build more grace into our homes? And what, exactly, does grace look like? Do you know it when you see it? Do you see it in your home?