Do you remember the television show “The Waltons”? I know it’s a rather old show, which launched in 1972. It was one of the few TV shows I was allowed to watch as a child. I loved the family support the characters extended to each other and it really touched my heart how each episode ended. You saw their house in the dark, the Walton family with their seven kids and two grandparents went to bed, one light after the next was turned off, and they all said “Good night” to each other. “Good night, Mama,” “Good night, Daddy,” Good night, children!” “Good night, John Boy!”
Over the last six weeks, I have been contemplating the question of what “family” really means. What constitutes family and how do families cope with things?
There is, of course, the ideal of the “picture book perfect family,” like the Waltons. We probably all carry that family archetype around in our mind. But let’s get real. It is 2017, not the 1930’s, and the reality is that there are more and more blended families. We are faced with more complicated family dynamics, other challenges, and different conflicts than the Waltons would have ever dreamed of. In today’s world, family set-ups change constantly. Separations and divorces occur and new unions, for example second or third marriages, are formed. Custody arrangements change, or children get older and move out. With each stage in life, energetic dynamics are transformed. Families even change temporarily, as we have experienced this summer.
For the last six weeks, my 16-year-old daughter has been living and working in Quebec. Meanwhile, we had a 17-year-old exchange student from Quebec staying with us. Just like our daughter in Quebec, he had to adapt to a completely new environment, a different language, his summer job in English, and many new impressions and events each day. They both impressed us tremendously with their openness and courage.
We also had to adapt as a family and understand cultural differences and differences in communication styles. Within the first weekend, our “exchange son” had captured both our hearts with his awareness and sensitivity. A bass guitar major for the last six years, he brought music into our house and many interesting conversations. He wanted to get to know both of us and made the effort to connect right from the start. Very observant and mature in his communication skills—despite the language challenges—we felt from the first moment on that we “lucked out” with this amazing summer guest.
Sounds like the “honeymoon”? It was. Ten days into his stay, the first challenges naturally arose which we had to work through together. Just as in a blended family, there were different values, other rituals and new ways of doing things. From home, he was used to coming and going spontaneously, unaware that over here in his host family, everybody else had adjusted their schedule to his to spend some quality time together. He was not used to communicating when plans that he had made were changing, or accustomed to keeping each other informed by text. The curfew put in place by the exchange program was initially looked upon by him and other French students as a suggestion, and the concept that parents might worry until the young people are back home safely did not occur to the students.
Having grown up in an all-girls household and having only parented girls, I was expecting that familiar communication of sharing your experiences and feelings, and expressing appreciation for each other on a daily basis. I read one syllable answers to questions and his lack of planning as a lack of consideration and lack of appreciation. He read our questions, responses to his behaviour and different rules as overprotection and judgement. The more he felt “not good enough” and “wrong,” the less he wanted to communicate. When we feel blamed, we sometimes just want to run and avoid an unpleasant talk. That is a human response. It took a change in approach—a “tough love” tone—for him to wake up.
We are so extremely proud of this young man for taking responsibility for his side of the misunderstandings and for being open to hear our explanations and apologies where we had made him feel judged as “wrong”. After this talk, we gained a tremendous understanding for each other. Our communication improved greatly, and we were able to see each other’s dissimilarity as just different instead of wrong or rude. We were able to focus on the similarities and the efforts made by everybody and express more appreciation towards each other.
Now, almost at the end of his stay, we are truly sad to see him go. There is no question in our minds and hearts that we will stay in touch with him, just as my daughter will continue the connection with her loving and truly amazing host family.
This exchange experience had me contemplating the question, “What is family”? What is it that the Waltons have that can be still found—or be missing—today in our modern families?
For me, it boils down to the wisdom that as a family you are stronger. What is good for one member of the family is good for all. You don’t give up on each other, but you talk through challenges and you grow from sharing your feelings and thoughts. You learn about the feelings, experiences and triggers the other family members have. From that place of greater understanding, you take responsibility for your part in a regretful interaction and create compromises together. Or, as a friend of mine said a few weeks ago when we spoke about issues with her step-son, “Shit happens in families, but as a family you work through this shit together!”
Unfortunately, in her case, the mother of my friend’s teenage step-son is sheltering him from having to take responsibility for a big screw-up. She is depriving the father and his family from having the opportunity to work through things together as a family unit. Instead of trusting her son that he is old enough at 17 to work through a conflict to which he contributed, she is doing him a disservice by letting him hide behind her apron. Wanting to be the more beloved parent can leave us very short-sighted in terms of what beliefs and coping strategies we teach our children.
A family unit can only function if our feelings and needs are not swept under the carpet but rather are processed. Without the willingness to be vulnerable and discover what is going on underneath the feelings of irritation or anger we might be experiencing, we can’t move out of a stuck state. By not working through things as a family, we are making a choice to carry anger, resentment and blame with us. Sometimes it is the parent generation who is not willing to communicate openly and honestly, at other times it’s the young generation feeling unable to express themselves. Often the unsuccessful communication goes both ways. However, only when we take responsibility for our feelings, words and actions, can we grow as individuals as well as families.
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