This wonderful article stirs up amazing images of spiritual "home improvement." Can you see it? A well-known New England woodworker and builder - having embraced Orthodoxy, and exchanged his trademark plaid shirt for a cassock - stands in a tidy, well-equipped workshop, reviewing the project plans with an attentive audience… "No project is too complex or intimidating if you study the plans and follow the safety instructions provided by the Manufacturer." Enjoy!

Blueprint
for a Family

by Fr. John Dresko

Our project for today is to build a family. In a minute, I will give you the approach which we in the Christian field like to think is a good plan for this type of project.

First, I must tell you that a "family" begins with husband and wife. That is the primary relationship in a family, and anything that turns the focus from that primary relationship (even children!) is a danger. The most difficult time of life for many people is when the last child goes off to college and the husband and wife are faced with each other, often as total strangers. Why? Because they neglected their own relationship while they focused on the kids. That's backwards! The most important image your children will ever see is the image of your marriage. If you love one another, cuddle, respect each other, treat each other with love - then your kids are going to do all right! Remember that!

However, as with all building projects, there are a few pitfalls that you must avoid before building. There are ten of these. Let's make you aware of some of the problems in building a family before you actually pick up the tools.

  1. We all have experiences of "family." When we begin to build our own families, we bring baggage with us. Some of that baggage is good, but some is also bad. We shouldn't try to "shoe-horn" our particular family into an image that we have of family. Some of us would like things to be exactly as they were when we were little. Some of us would like things to be exactly opposite of when we were little. Most of us settle for a blend. Very few families are the Cleavers [(from Leave it to Beaver)] and very few families are the Simpsons or the Bundys (from Married with Children). Most of us limp along doing our best.
  2. All families are unique. My family does not have the same type of relations as the one next door. Perceptions are very important - remember, the first child perceives things very differently from the second, etc.
  3. The family, especially today, is stressed. They cannot do everything that needs to be done, so stress is released in different ways - some of them abusive.
  4. The family is the focus of the problems we deal with today. Many times, a man can't yell at his boss, so he yells at his wife, who then yells at the kids, who then yell at each other and the dog! And on and on and on...
  5. When the family life is bad, it is really bad - in fact, it's hell.
  6. When the family life is good - it is never as good as expected.
  7. The family is the most intensive and extensive relationship most of us will know. The "nuclear" family is a title that is only a little out of place. When explosions happen, they are incredibly intense.
  8. By nature, the family is a relationship of "dependents" - and since no one likes to be dependent upon someone else, it breeds hostility.
  9. The family is "community" par excellence, but with that "commune" also comes independent feelings, selfish feelings, etc., which destroys the ideal of community.
  10. The ideal analogy to represent the family is the Holy Trinity - but that icon leads us to also believe that we are doomed from the beginning, because no one lives up to the ideal.

Now we are familiar with the "pitfalls" of family life, so I would like to share with you the different building materials used in making a healthy family. These are listed in order of priority:

The healthy family communicates and listens. When someone wants to show you the ultimate disrespect, they tune you out! In a healthy family, we recognize that everyone has a basic need to be heard. That doesn't necessarily mean agreed with! Families don't communicate expectations - kids don't know what their parents really expect, parents don't know what their kids really want, husbands and wives fail to communicate about their most basic desires and needs. The most taboo subject: sex!
The healthy family affirms and supports. Responsibility brings freedom, achievement brings support, loyalty brings commitment. If we give our kids responsibility and they meet it, we have to trust them with more freedom to decide things. When they achieve something, even if it is not "our" interest, they have a right to our support. They must be loyal to their decisions - if someone wants to play the French horn, they have to do it right for three months, even if they quit after that.
The healthy family teaches respect for others. Beginning at home, if we can't respect and love each other, what kind of people are we? A study shows that Christians who come from "happy" (their definition) homes also have a social conscience [and engage in charitable acts] - they love their neighbors.
The healthy family develops a sense of trust. Protection, safety, security for kids. The crisis comes when that trust is shattered, for it takes years to rebuild.
The healthy family has a sense of play and humor. If you can't laugh at yourself and among yourselves, this world will crush you. Many times laughter is the only thing that keeps us from crying.
The healthy family shares responsibility. That develops character, and responsible people at home are responsible people everywhere. And vice versa.
The healthy family teaches right and wrong. To function as human beings, we need to have clearly defined limits. We are most happy when we know exactly what our limits are - even if we occasionally break those limits. At least we know them.
The healthy family has a strong sense of kinship with many traditions. Of course, we Orthodox are great at this! But the happiest memories a person has are of family traditions from growing up. Many spend years trying to recapture those days.
The healthy family has a balance of interaction. It is good for the family to function as the sum of many parts, but in no case should the child be allowed to become the head. That is dad or mom!
The healthy family has a strong, shared religious core. Studies have shown the tension in families of mixed religions, but it is more important to share a common set of beliefs. Right and wrong. Good and bad. Ideally, it would be shared by the whole family in the same structure of the Church.
The healthy family respects the privacy of one another. This is especially important as the kids get older. We do need our privacy. Many times there is not a lot to be said between a 40-year old and his 15-year old child. That's OK.
The healthy family values service to others. When we are selfish, our family is dysfunctional. See no. 3.
The healthy family fosters family table time and conversation. A special pox on television. It makes zombies who simply eat, sleep, procreate, and watch TV. Communication (no. 1 above) is impossible if the TV is on. At the very least, try to have some time together at the table once in a while. It has to be a priority to break into our busy lives!
The healthy family shares leisure time. What is more healthy than a family that enjoys each other's company, even when they don't "have" to?
The healthy family admits to problems and seeks help. We are not perfect, so at least, as Christians, let's give each other the proper example of humility, repentance and guidance. My kids need to be forgiven, but so do I!

If we follow all these steps, we should have a pretty good family. But there are no guarantees. Even with all these, our family could be the most messed-up group this side of the Simpsons. Without them all, we could be better than the Cleavers. With prayer, love and the grace of God, we made it to today. With the same things, maybe our kids will make it to tomorrow.

(With thanks to Dr. John Boojamra of St. Vladimir's Seminary for the lists [as used in his family ministry workshops].)

Fr. John Dresko is the editor of Orthodox New England, Dean of the Connecticut Deanery, and Rector of Holy Trinity Church (Diocese of New England, OCA), New Britain, CT. He resides in Southington, CT, with his wife, Elizabeth, and their four children.

Reprinted from Orthodox New England, Nov. 1993, with Fr. John's gracious permission. Look for more great ONE articles on the Web at http://members.aol.com/johnd3/ONE

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