Five of my six kids have never met my parents.
Despite the fact that family was a huge priority for my mom – she verbalized that value often and committed regular time to family gatherings – she and I haven’t spoken for over ten years.
Family estrangement is hard and multi-dimensioned, and my experience has caused me to spend a lot of time reflecting on what went wrong. I desperately don’t want to duplicate the cycle with my own children. The thing is, my parents were good parents in a lot of ways. They were good providers, deliberate with their money, because they wanted to give us kids a better childhood than they had. They did their best to tell us they loved us, giving us affection that they hadn’t received from their own parents. They tried to shelter us from harmful influences like our local public schools and those Disney movies that caricaturized fathers as bumbling idiots (all you 90s church kids know which ones I mean ;).
They were sincere, well-intentioned, doing their best. They cultivated in me a love of books and learning and a standard of excellence. My peaceful nature comes from my sweet-tempered mom, and my hard-working dad gave me my work ethic. My parents valued family time, and invested in extended family connection.
But just valuing family wasn’t enough.
As I’ve reflected on the differences between my family of origin and the family I’m raising, I have a working theory on what helps our family feel connected. I won’t say I have conclusions by any means, because life has taught me to release my hold on certainty. But my current hypothesis is that in order for connection to be tangible and enduring, it has to be a core value. Not like, “oh yeah, I think that’s valuable,” but like, “this is a value that underlies and drives all of my operations”.
We feel connected in our home because we value connection, and connection is part of our culture because it’s part of our ingrained value system. That means that we fight to protect connection in every way we can, and we actively seek ways to pursue more of it. When conflicts or negative emotions or destructive coping mechanisms would create distance or discord, we navigate hard conversations, endeavoring to seek the connection on the other side of the conflict.
And here’s the part where I feel like my two families diverge. Even though “family” was a “value”, my family of origin was lacking the tools to fight through conflict for connection. What my parents didn’t do well was teach us to know ourselves, to be curious about our emotions and triggers and coping mechanisms; nor do I think they had much, if any, awareness of their own. They didn’t teach us to work through hard feelings or solve problems in relationships – problems that will inevitably arise if you spend enough time with those people you value.
The dictionary definition for connect is, “to join, link, or fasten together; unite or bind; to establish communication between.” This is the goal of cultivating connection for us: that we would be joined, linked, united; that communication would be established that provides a channel for each person to hear acceptance and belonging and a foundation for identity.This is the goal of cultivating connection for us: that we would be joined, linked, united; that communication would be established that provides a channel for each person to hear acceptance and belonging and a foundation for identity.
The reality of relationships though is that communication takes constant work. Unity is a thing only achieved when consistently fought for, and our human tendencies to self-promote and self-protect consistently get in the way of our ability to join anyone for long without contention. No amount of game nights and family vacations will protect us from this inevitability.
I recently read John Gottman’s Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child; a book that I was surprised to learn was published in the 90s because it was definitely ahead of its time in terms of what was culturally considered good parenting. Emotional intelligence was not getting a lot of air time thirty years ago. Yet Gottman concluded from his decades’ long studies of families that “…good parenting requires more than intellect. It touches a dimension of the personality that’s been ignored in much of the advice dispensed to parents over the past thirty years. Good parenting involves emotion.” (Gottman, 20)
He elaborates: “The key to successful parenting is not found in complex theories, elaborate family rules, or convoluted formulas for behavior. It is based on your deepest feelings of love and affection for your child, and is demonstrated simply through empathy and understanding. Good parenting begins in your heart, and then continues on a moment-to-moment basis by engaging your children when feelings run high, when they are sad, angry, or scared. The heart of parenting is being there in a particular way when it really counts.” (Gottman, 18)
In other words, emotional intelligence is highly important in order for connection to persist in the face of conflict.
And those shared experiences like game nights and vacations? They go really well hand in hand with emotional tools. When intimacy and respect are present between family members, time spent together is more enjoyable and yields greater connection. When you and your children are emotionally close, conflicts and problems will seem easier to navigate. Because you have an emotional bond with your children, your words matter and you can assert a stronger influence.
The bottom line is, pursuing connection as a family isn’t just about time spent together. It’s a multi-faceted, intentional, continual process. It requires me to know myself and my emotional wiring, and to be honest about the things I do that get in the way of connection. It asks me to develop understanding of and empathy for the emotions of my family members. It makes good communication paramount and necessitates tools for navigating inevitable conflict. It is consistently challenging and growing, and so, so worthwhile.