By Chick Moorman
Togetherness and family pride don't occur accidentally. Luck, magic, or happenstance are not responsible for producing feelings of connectedness and belonging. Parents (or a single parent) produce family spirit. And they do it by purposefully structuring activities that allow for it to develop.
Firsts is one example of an activity that builds an "our family" feeling. Some others follow -- read through the techniques described, and see which ones have meaning for you and your family.
Individual Journals. This device can serve as a special connecting link between you and your children. Buy a new spiral notebook for each child and special pencil. Explain that children who write in journals get to stay up 15 minutes later than usual for just that purpose.
After children have written in their journals and are tucked into bed, read their journal entries and write a response. On the following evening, children will read your response before they write their new entry. Your mutual understanding and feelings of connectedness will grow steadily as journal writing becomes a habit in your lives.
Be advised that journal time is not a time for making corrections in spelling or penmanship. Nor is it a time to make value judgments on your child's written comments. Journal time is designed to effect a dialogue, to facilitate a meaningful exchange between you and your child. Nothing will shut down that exchange faster than judging or correcting your child. Simply use journal time to share from a feeling level. Let your children know your perceptions, thoughts, and feelings without criticizing theirs.
Warm Fuzzy Clothesline. A warm fuzzy is a compliment (written or oral) given to another person. A warm fuzzy clothesline is a delivery system designed to promote regular sharing of those compliments.
To begin a warm fuzzy clothesline in your home, have family members decorate a clothespin in their own image and include their names. Fasten each to a clothesline or string. Family members then use these mini-mailboxes to share positive messages with one another. Note: it helps if you model this technique by writing and sharing at least one warm fuzzy a day yourself.
Family Goals. Another strategy to use to create the "our family" feeling is to work together to achieve a common goal. People moving in the same direction for the same reason are living lives of active interrelatedness. They are united by their pursuit of a shared goal.
Effective goals are set mutually, with all family members agreeing on their importance. Reaching consensus is important here. Without it you will not have a shared commitment to the goal. Goals can be to finish a 400 piece puzzle in three weeks, clean up the basement, or save enough money to visit grandparents. It matters less what the goal is and more that there is one.
Start with goals that are clearly achievable. Work up to more difficult ones. Remember, the more difficult the goals, the greater the satisfaction felt and the greater the unity produced.
"I Can" Places. An "I Can" place is a special area within your home where you celebrate the things your family members can do. It's a place specifically designed to showcase successes.
Most homes have an "I Can" place, and it's usually the front of the refrigerator. That's where pictures, photos, and school papers are displayed, attached with magnets or tape. Our refrigerator quickly suffered from overload and we moved the "I Can" place to larger quarters.
Several cork pieces placed together and nailed to a kitchen wall now form our "I Can" area. Stickpins facilitate display and easy changing of the items.
Our "I Can" board has held awards, ribbons, certificates, letters, photographs, report cards, newspaper articles, and numerous other memorabilia over the years. These items have been put on display to help each of us see ourselves as able, capable, and responsible. Their display has also helped us develop positive pictures of our individual and collective strengths.
Nostalgia Corner. A Nostalgia Corner is a special place within the home where memories of past events are stored. Ours is in the living room and consists of photo albums bulging with a collection of family history.
As the self-appointed family historian, I clear off the "I Can" board every couple of weeks. I place appropriate items in large photo albums in chronological order. The albums are then stored in a prominent place to facilitate easy access by all family members.
A favorite pre-bedtime activity in our home is to lie on the floor and peruse the albums, now numbering over twenty. A postcard from Grandma, ticket stubs from a movie, photographs of special events, or examples of past school work promote conversation and reliving our shared time and space. The Nostalgia Corner becomes one more way we can connect and experience that family spirit.
The Family Journal. Seven years ago today I got the flu and Matt scored two goals in his soccer game. I know because we recorded and preserved that information in our Family Journal. The Family Journal (a blank book we bought at the local bookstore) is another strategy we use to create the "our family" feeling. It is an integral part of our Nostalgia Corner.
Our Family Journal has evolved slowly over a seven-year period and now contains numerous entries telling about significant events in our lives, how we reacted to them, and what we expect in the future. Reading it privately or aloud at the dinner table helps us to re-experience our shared time and space. It helps us to connect as individuals and as a family.
Share a Hobby. While it may not be true that the family who collects stamps together stays together, it won't hurt. In our family the collecting focus is on baseball cards. Going to baseball card conventions, garage sales, and poring over mail order magazines are unifying experiences that revolve around a shared interest. If baseball cards aren't your thing, then try stamps, coins, insects, Beanie Babies, bottles, buttons, bumper stickers, or whatever.
Service To Others. Doing service by giving or sharing with others can produce family spirit. Bake cookies together and spend an afternoon delivering them to friends and relatives. Clean up that vacant lot, rake a senior citizen's yard, or help a friend with spring cleaning. Watch your collective sense of worth grow as you band together to do something for others.
New Year's Eve. Some parents see New Year's Eve as an opportunity to get away from the family to celebrate in private or with friends. Going out to dinner, attending parties, and emptying bottles seems to be the order of the day and night. I recommend another alternative, one that can help your family grow closer. Spend New Year's Eve together. It's an ideal time to celebrate connectedness, reflect on the past year, and look ahead to the future.
For us, deciding what treats to purchase, shopping together, and decorating occupy much of the day. Dinner and card games fill the early evening. When interest in games dies down, we assemble in the living room, sit in a circle, and begin the most meaningful part of our New Year's Eve together, "Topic Talk."
Topics are ideas we dream up to structure our conversation. One family member suggests a topic like "A new friend I made this year" or "My favorite song this year." We each take a turn, responding orally to the topic, telling as much as we choose. Listeners do simply that -- listen until everyone as responded. When each person has had an opportunity to respond to the topic, we ask questions and elaborate on our remarks. Topics we have used in the past that have helped us get in touch with each other and reflect on the previous year include: My favorite book this year; Something I did that I am proud of; Something I wish I could do over; My favorite place I visited this year; Something I bought for myself; Something I did for others.
At 11:00 o'clock we end Topic Talk and get out "Our Goals." A list of goals were shared and recorded a year earlier and preserved in the Nostalgia Corner. Again, we take turns reading our goals from the preceding year and telling whether or not we reached them. One New Year's Eve we shared how we did on the following:
Jenny: Go to horseback riding camp.
Matt: Get a medal in wrestling.
Randy: Make the high school baseball team.
Me: Finish my manuscript on "Talk Sense To Yourself" and run a marathon with dignity.
After sharing in depth about how we achieved or didn't achieve goals, we set new ones for the upcoming year. Jenny acts as recorder and takes down our statements as they are dictated. The goals are then put away until our next New Year's Eve celebration.
As the time nears midnight, we turn on the TV and count down the minutes and seconds. The traditional hugs, kisses, and noisemaking are included in our celebration.
There is no single idea presented in this article that will in and of itself create an "our family" feeling. Taken together, though, these ideas can go a long way towards strengthening feelings of connectedness and belonging among members of your family. Adapt these ideas and implement them slowly throughout the year. Watch as your family evolves into a more cohesive unit.
Why not begin with New Year's Eve? Gather your family together and lead off the celebration by sharing your goal for the new year -- to promote togetherness and build family spirit. It could be a first!
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