In the United States, the phrase “family values” tends to be associated with a conservative “1950’s style” family structure and lifestyle, including a heterosexual marriage, a bread-winning father, a homemaker mother, and multiple children.
There’s nothing wrong with that kind of family, but it’s not accurate to consider this kind of family as “normal”. Most families in the United States don’t look like this.
The way the term “family values” is used politically angers me — it attempts to marginalize families with gay parents, single parents, even couples who elect not to have children.
What makes a “real family”? Love and commitment. That’s it.
Maybe it’s time to reclaim the phrase. What if “family values” simply referred to the particular values that your family holds?
The idea is simple: sit down with your family and discuss what’s important to all of you. What values can you agree on? What does it mean to be a member of your family?
This isn’t a new idea, but rather a trend that’s gaining momentum. I can’t remember where I first read about this particular exercise, but here’s another post that describes it.
Our daughter is six, and you can see a six-year-old’s voice in the some of the items below. First-graders tend to make fun of each other mercilessly, and she decided she didn’t need that at home. So for now, we’ve agreed to not make fun of each other.
Our daughter sees these more as “rules” — she doesn’t quite get what a value is. Kia and I see the list as aspirational. It’s what our family looks like on a good day (or week).
What is your family about? Articulating your values is powerful. Co-defining your values pulls your family together, like gravity (but doesn’t bind you, like glue).
Values ripple out. Your small (or big) family unit may be more influential than you realize. Values are contagious. Like cold viruses, values spread through children.
Here’s the list my own family came up with (in no particular order, redundancies and family slang included). If you do the exercise, feel free to post your own results below.
What does it mean to be a member of our family?
- We take care of each other.
- We help each other with projects and tasks.
- We share enthusiasm.
- We listen to each other.
- We prepare and enjoy healthy meals together.
- We make good food.
- We accept each other for who we are.
- We celebrate birthdays and holidays* together.
- We are polite and respectful and nice to each other.
- We go on adventurecations together.
- We learn together.
- We go to family camp together.
- We read together.
- We don’t make fun of each other.
- We go on bike rides together.
- We go to the movies together.
- We play games together.
- We spend time in nature together.
- We help our community together.
- We help our friends and extended family.
- We try to make the world a better place.
- We are loving towards each other.
* we celebrate all of the Jewish holidays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween … we are equal-opportunity observers (and yes I’m an atheist — but I don’t think religious practice needs to be tied to beliefs)
What was the result of completing this exercise?
As I mentioned above, our daughter has assigned herself the “enforcer” of the “family rules.” Even though she is selective and self-serving in her enforcement, her reminders do sometimes get us back on the right track.
What happens when you explicitly define your values is that inevitably you start to notice discrepancies between your stated values and your behavior.
A less-developed mind will shout “Hypocrisy!” and condemn the value setter.
But what’s the alternative? Lower standards? Not stating and therefore not knowing what your other family members hold dear?
Some “falling short” is inevitable. But it’s also inevitable that once you search your heart and then mentally focus your feelings into values, you’ll find yourself moving towards them.
Explicitly stated values vs. habitual behaviors create friction and tension within the mind. That leads to growth.
So slowly, day-by-day, we’re getting a little closer to what we all consider to be ideal family relations and activities.
In addition to growth, I have a secure feeling that I know what we’re about, as a family. It won’t be the same as your family (though there might be a lot of overlap). Each family is unique.
Conscious Growth — Personal vs Familial
Defining our values as a family made me consider what my own personal values are. The exercise served as a catalyst for my own personal growth. I ended up following-up with a series of exercises where I defined and prioritized both my positive and negative values (things that I want to have both more of or less of in my life). I’ll describe this process more in a later post.
Values as Cultural DNA
I sometimes think about my eight great-grandparents, and how they influenced me. I only knew one of them personally, and of course she was a really old lady when I was a little kid — I never got a good sense of what she was about.
But I know those eight people shaped me, not only through bits of DNA, not only via their life events that activated or inactivated various genes via epigenetic methylation, but through values, implicit and explicit, that they held and lived by. My strengths, my weaknesses, my hopes and fears, everything about me was greatly influenced by those eight people — even though I only met one of them.
Their values were passed down to my grandparents, to my parents, and then to me. No doubt some changes were made along the way. Sometimes we reject our parents’ values, because those values suck. But that kind of change takes tremendous self-analysis and effort, and even then we can find ourselves walking in our parents’ footsteps.
Take the time to consider your own values, and what values you’re passing on to your children (or whatever children you come into contact with in your life, even if they’re not your own). Make the passage of “cultural DNA” a little more conscious, a little more intentional.