Have you ever met one of those families that just seem to have it all together? Maybe you knew such a family growing up and loved hanging out over at their house – there was such a great atmosphere there that you kind of felt like you were coming home whenever you stopped over. The parents were happy. The kids were all well-adjusted and generally did the right thing. Everyone in the family seemed to genuinely love, respect, and care about each other. They all truly enjoyed each other’s company and had a blast doing things together. Sure, they had problems and struggles like any other family, but they supported each other and rallied together to take care of whatever they were going through. Maybe you joked about them being so good it was creepy – perhaps they were perfect aliens from another planet — but you envied them nonetheless.
These days you’re the dad, and you’re heading a household of your own. Things in your home might be a bit chaotic. Perhaps your kids don’t get along, maybe there’s tension in your marriage, or maybe you just feel like your home life isn’t quite in the shape you want it to be. You think of that fun, warm family of your youth and want what they had, but you don’t know how to go about it. In twenty-two years of school, no one ever offered you a single course in parenting. Maybe you hope it will just happen as the years go by.
As a young dad, I find myself in this position. I want to create a close-knit, fun-loving family and raise children with upstanding character. So I’ve asked the parents of the families I admire what their “secret” is to creating such a tight family bond. They all pretty much say the same thing:
They’re intentional about creating and fostering a positive family culture.
We typically don’t think of families as having a culture. Countries and communities have cultures, but not families. Right?
Well, in recent decades, organizational experts have argued that cultures not only develop in large societies like countries and cities, but also smaller ones, like corporations and non-profits. Sociologists and family experts say that even individual families have their own cultures.
What’s more, research has found that family culture plays a more important role in shaping a child than parenting styles, and the type of culture a family develops strongly predicts their happiness.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, we need to take a look at what exactly we mean by “family culture.”
What Makes a Family Culture?
To understand what family culture is, I think it’s instructive to see how business management experts define business culture. MIT professor Edgar Schein describes it thusly:
“Culture is a way of working together toward common goals that have been followed so frequently and so successfully that people don’t even think about trying to do things another way. If a culture has formed, people will autonomously do what they need to do to be successful.”
A culture is, in short, a way a group of people think, feel, judge, and act. You can probably sense the culture at the business or organization you work for. Is morale low and does everyone sort of half-ass it and just do the bare minimum? Or is there an unspoken expectation that people always go above and beyond the call of duty and take pride in doing so? Does the employee identify with the company and its vision, or just see it as a temporary gig? Before making any decision, do employees only consider short-term profits or do they also take into account long-term success and even other intangibles like social and environmental impact? What an employee instinctively does – even when the boss isn’t looking — will depend on the business’s culture.
Some businesses have become famous for their positive cultures. Online shoe retailer Zappos has a culture that encourages above-and-beyond customer service. Everything the company does is geared towards “wowing” the customer. To ensure that they only hire employees that will fit into that culture, Zappos has a long and extensive hiring process to weed out folks who aren’t willing to put the customer first. If you’re lucky enough to get a job offer, they will actually offer you $3,000 to NOT take the job. Zappos would rather lose $3,000 in the short-term than hire someone who’s not fully on board with their distinct business culture. The effort in crafting a customer-first culture paid off handsomely for Zappos, as it was acquired by Amazon in 2009 for nearly $1.2 billion.
A business culture like Zappos’ just doesn’t happen. It takes a lot of work. As Forbes writer Mike Myatt argues, business culture is created either by design or by default. Culture created by default tends to produce mediocre results because humans have a natural tendency to take the path of least resistance. If a business wants a culture of excellence, its leader must intentionally create that culture and work hard to maintain it.
As it goes with businesses, so it goes with families. It may seem a little off-putting at first to apply business principles to what we think of as the ethereal, spontaneous bonds of blood kin. But there are definitely parallels between the two organizations that can be instructive, even if the aims and definition of success for each entity differs.
Every family has a distinct way they work together to solve problems, achieve goals, and relate to one another. And just as business culture is created by default or through intentionality, so too is a family’s culture.
Family cultures created by default are just like their business culture counterparts: mediocre. Parents haven’t thought through what kind of values they want to impart to their kids, and just figure that those values, as well as close bonds between family members, will just happen as the years go by. They then wonder why their kids didn’t turn out the way they had vaguely imagined and hoped for, but never articulated or planned out.
Understand this: A family culture happens whether you’re consciously creating it or not. It’s up to you and your wife to determine whether that culture is of your choosing. If you want a positive family culture, you must commit yourself to years of constant planning and teaching. A culture isn’t something that’s created overnight; it requires daily investment. But the payoff is definitely worth it.
The 3 Pillars of Family Culture
So how do you go about creating a family culture? Organizational experts have pinpointed three main aspects:
Values. Values are the foundation of a family culture. Values give a family an overarching purpose and guide as to how each family member acts and behaves in different situations. Positive family values could include kindness, mutual support, respect, sacrifice, hard work, fun, and service. Each family’s set of values will be different from the next and will be shaped by things like education, religion, and family history. Family values can also be negative. In some families, petty competition, resentment, and entitlement are the guiding values. Negative family values typically appear when family culture is created in default mode.
Positive values require constant reinforcement, both through norms (see below), and talking with your children. For example, let’s say your kid knows you’re going out for ice cream later, but decides he wants to go now and starts throwing a tantrum. Operating in default mode, you’d just yell something like, “Cut it out and go to your room!” But if you’re trying to instill the value of delayed gratification as part of your family culture, you’d say something like, “I know you want ice cream now, but we need to stop by and see grandma first. Sometimes in life we want things right away, but we have to wait and finish other things first.” You then send him to his room and have the same talk when he’s calmed himself down. You do this even if he doesn’t seem to be listening, and you do it every single time he has a tantrum that is rooted in the same issue.
Norms. Norms are the spoken and unspoken rules of how a family operates; they represent your values in action. Norms guide how family members interact with one another and with the outside world. Examples of family norms include things like how family members resolve conflict (yelling? passive-aggressiveness? calm, assertive discussion?) and how and if children help out around the house. Norms are conveyed both by example and by intentional inculcation.
For example, if you want a family culture where work is valued, then you need to thoughtfully design opportunities for your kiddos (including your tots) to work and help out around the house. Because we want to encourage this value in our family, Kate and I find ways for our two-year-old, Gus, to pitch in with chores. Oftentimes it takes longer to get the job done with Gus “helping,” but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is trying to raise a child who appreciates hard work and understands the necessity of pulling his own weight in our family and in society.
In the absence of the setting of examples and rules, families will slip into default mode and norms will usually end up following the path of least resistance, devolving into things like incivility, laziness, and apathy.
Rituals/Traditions. Rituals and traditions are a set of behaviors and routines that provide a family a sense of identity and purpose. They provide cohesion to the nuclear family and connection to extended family. Rituals and traditions can be big things like family reunions and special activities around holidays, but they can also be small things like family dinners or game nights. This also includes rites of passage for your children as they go through various stages in life.
As with the other two pillars, rituals and traditions can either be created by design or default. When left to default, you end up with family rituals that feel empty and unsatisfying and don’t bring you any closer — like nightly TV watching or vacations where everyone spends the entire time looking down at their smartphones.
The How to Develop a Family Culture Roadmap
Have you spent much time thinking about these 3 pillars of family culture? Have you pondered what the purpose of your family is and what you think family means? Do you have a clear vision of what you want your family to be like and how you want each member to feel about and treat each other?
Are you a leader in your home or do you just kind of let your family drift along through chance and circumstance?
These are vital questions for a father to contemplate. I know I want my kids to not simply have a vague idea of being part of our family, but to really feel like they belong to something special, and know exactly why it’s special and what the McKays value. I want them to do good and treat others right not because we’re watching, but because that’s just what McKays do.
It may seem that happy families are just naturally happy, but as it is with successful people in any arena, there’s usually a lot of effort and conscious practice going on behind the scenes. It looks easy because they truly enjoy it, and for this reason, they may not even experience it as effort. But, you can guarantee it still takes intentionality.
With that in mind, over the next few months we’ll be exploring things we can do as fathers to develop a strong and positive family culture. All the suggestions are backed by research. Moreover, the suggestions will work whether you’re religious or not, conservative or liberal. The goal is to simply to provide a framework for dads to intentionally create the culture they want in their family, because an intentional family culture will always be better than one created by default.
Here’s a roadmap of the topics we’ll be covering in the next few months:
- How to Create a Family Mission Statement
- The Benefits of a Family Night and How to Plan One
- Creating Family Rituals and Traditions
- Resolving Family Conflict
- How to Be a Transitional Father
P.S. Just because you don’t have kids yet doesn’t mean you should gloss over this topic. You can sit with a spouse and discuss your values and what kind of culture you’d like to have in the future, and get working towards it right away. You can’t instill positive values in children if you don’t practice them in your marriage first.
How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen