In his famous opening line of the book Anna Karenina , author Leo Tolstoy states: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’.
Could this be true?
Are all happy families alike?
Stephen Covey, renowned trainer, speaker and author seems to share the said sentiments, if the title of his bestselling book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families’ is anything to go by.
In this book, Covey brilliantly tackles a sensitive topic that many consider deeply personal; the family.
However, one would wonder if it is possible to sum up family experiences into seven habits. My answer, after reading Covey’s book is a resounding yes. A master trainer, Covey has combined different methods of effective training: from personal family experience anecdotes, to to-do-exercises to other peoples’ experiences and timeless principles thus making the book not only engaging but also easily relatable and eye-opening.
An old saying goes ‘nothing beats experience’ and Coveys’ insight-fulness into the family could be attributed to his being married for over four decades and successfully raising eight children alongside a very busy and successful career that required lots of traveling.
Hereunder are the seven habits discussed in the book that is arguably, the best book on family relationships I have ever come across and one that I would recommend to anyone who truly understands the value of family.
HABIT ONE: BE PROACTIVE
To be proactive simply means to act based on principles and values rather than to react based on emotions or circumstances.
How exactly does one become proactive?
Covey argues that as humans, we all need a pause button; something that enables us to stop between what happens to us and our response to it. ‘Between stimulus and response, there is a space, in that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response’. Instead of reacting to emotions or circumstances of the moment, act based on your deepest values which in the context of family, should include love, patience, understanding and consideration.
Is it easy to become proactive?
Not really. However, constantly reminding oneself will help recommit to the struggle and to get one’s motive straight.
Four simple ways to start being proactive with your family.
1. Learn to hold your tongue instead of lashing out at another person and rushing to say things you will regret later.
2. Develop a sense of humor and strive to see the funny side of life. This is learning to say ‘we’re off track but so what? It’s not sweating the small stuff but learning to be accommodating to our loved ones instead of demanding perfection. However, one should watch out for excess humor which can develop into a culture of sarcasm and cutting humor.
3. It’s in the little things that you do.
· Be kind to your spouse and children, treat them royally like they matter
· Make it a habit to complement a family member each day.
· Apologize. And let others have the right to disagree with you.
· Be loyal to those not present. Speak in a responsible and constructive way about those family members even when they are not present.
· Make and keep promises.
4. Teach yourself that love is a verb and not a feeling.
This would then mean consciously choosing to love your family members, not because of what they do or their choices but in spite of their sometimes poor decisions. It means training yourself to listen and empathize, to affirm the child and spouse and to appreciate even the little things that they do.
What if criticizing comes easier to me than appreciating?
Covey uses to analogy of muscle development to answer this.
The key is to push the fiber until it breaks, the nature overcompensates in repairing the broken material and the fiber becomes stronger within 48 hours. You have to bring into play the weaker muscles rather than taking the course of least resistance and staying only with those muscles that are strong and developed.
In life, our tendency is to run with our strengths and leave our weaknesses undeveloped. And yet the full utilization of our capacities requires overcoming the weaknesses. We can push against the resistance and break through to new levels of competence and strength’ says Covey.
BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND.
Always have a purpose bigger than your problem.
Covey argues that having a picture of what you’d want your family to be like in the end is a powerful tool because it helps you during the low, discouraging moments.
This final picture isn’t a one man affair. Actually, Covey proposes finding out what each family member purposes for the family then creating a family mission statement that features everyone’s expectations.
Ask your children and spouse the following
· What they want you to be.
· What kind of home do they want
· What embarrasses them about the family?
· What makes them want to come home
Answering these questions will help knit a shared vision and value system hence the family will head towards a mutually agreed on destination.
Does this sharing begin when one says I do?
Not according to Covey. He advises that while dating, you should get down to discussing what you’d want your home to be like.
Do you want it to be fun? Relaxing or educational?
What values would you like to instill in your children, honesty? Respect? Integrity? Faith or environmental sensitivity?
Use the mission statement to help you stay on track.
Covey is however quick to point out that even the best mission statement will not protect you from some thorny moments like handling a difficult teen. These teens feel insecure, traumatized and unstable; you have the potential for being the only really solid thing in their lives. So when you get discouraged, just remember what end you are working towards and strengthen yourself with the final picture of a happy, principled and loving family.
HABIT THREE: PUT FIRST THINGS FIRST
For any family, the very first thing is family time. You need to have it, weekly, uninterrupted, forever.
But, you may ask, is it possible in this era of professional competitiveness and twenty four hour economies?
Covey answers this by alluding to an analogy he expounds fully in another of his book ‘First Things First’.
Climb the ladder of success yes, but make sure the ladder isn’t leaning against the wrong wall. True riches are not in money or positions but in family relations. Your professional role is temporary, you will retire and be replaced and the company will go on; however, your role in the family will never end. You will never be replaced, Family is the one true permanent role in life,’ Says the world travelled trainer who organized workshops in numerous places across the globe while raising a family of eight children.
The place to start is not with the assumption that work is non-negotiable, its with the assumption that family is non-negotiable’ he adds.
Sometimes, it means choosing between more money or more family time. It is an open choice, however, always keep in mind that there is no substitute for that special relationship between a parent and a child.
During family time, read with your children, talk to them, work with them, listen to them and spend happy time together. Help a child connect with their greatest gift, the conscience.
Anyone serious about putting first things first needs to answer this question.
Whose going to raise my children, today’s alarmingly destructive culture or me?
In this era of media craze, media can literally drive the culture in the home. It is therefore imperative that before we choose our tools and technology, we must choose our dreams and values, for some technologies serve them, while others make them unobtainable.
As if this isn’t bad enough, we can no longer afford to depend on role models in society to teach our children the timeless principles that govern life. There are too many gray areas and someone we consider a role model for our child today may wake up tomorrow and announce a world shattering ‘personal view’.
We must therefore provide leadership in our own homes
Family time and family vacations make children feel close to one another and to their parents. And these times should be expounded to include at least each child’s favorite activity. This is the price to pay to make our family big picture come true.
One on one sessions are where most of the real work of the family is done . Deep nurturing happens here.
Listen to the child, don’t criticize or give advice or suggestions without being invited to.
Moreover, before a school term begins, get the events calendar and mark all the important functions to be attended. This is what putting first things first is all about.