Have you ever wondered why the concept of family is so powerful?
People who are not even biological families often adopt the title of “family” like gangs and businesses, organizations and churches. They choose this analogy knowing that it has powerful implications. So what causes us to be drawn to a group that identifies itself as family?
Honestly, as I began writing this article, I realized very quickly that this is a huge topic that could never be covered thoroughly in a blog article. A single article is not a complete or extensive exploration of why family is so powerful, so this will be a “to be continued” article in multiple parts.
Also, as you read part one please consider this point: Family is powerful, whether it is healthy or unhealthy. We have the option of choosing behaviors, thought patterns, and interactions with others that define whether family is healthy or unhealthy, but we have no choice on the powerful impact family has on the life of its individual members. It just is.
Family units, whether biological or gangs or organizations, have common characteristics that bind them, like a last name, occupation, common belief system, common goal, etc. But whatever those characteristics are, with them come an identity and a set of expectations to accompany that identity. I have heard many parents reiterating these standards to young children over the years, conveying to their offspring the expectations that go along with being a member of their family. For example: “As Worleys, we get what we get and we don’t throw a fit” or “The Bryan family works hard and leaves things better than we found them” or “As a member of the Houston family, you make sure you earn the trust that comes with the name.”
This identity and set of expectations in family units are wonderful as long as the identity is honorable and the expectations promote the welfare of every individual member of the family.
There is a reason Proverbs 22:1 says, “a good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” A good name gives us an identity that makes us confident and respected by others and provides us with foundational core values to use throughout life serve us well in situations. I have often counseled adult children who worry about whether they would become parents who couldn’t cope apart from addictions, get a good job, or be accepted in a group because of “who they are.” They were worried about mimicking bad behaviors passed down from family members.
There is reasonable fear in each situation because family truly has the power to shape our identity and thought processes and create what we believe is the “way the world works”.
Our families impact three important areas of our lives: Belief Systems, Values, Self-worth/Self-confidence
#1 – Belief systems and values may sound like they are the same thing, and in some instances they are, at least in theory. Belief systems can be a list of things we believe are right and wrong, but values are what we believe are important enough to live by and guide our daily lives.
For instance, a family group may state that they believe lying is wrong, but if they do not abide by that principle, regardless of circumstances, it is not really a value. A family unit may have a a long list of what is right and wrong, but if a child listed the values that they learned were most important by how their family actually lived, the list would be shorter and, in some family units, completely different than the list of beliefs. When this is the case, there is dissonance (inner conflict created by not living up to one’s own standards) not only in the parent but also in a child trying to navigate and make sense of the words they hear versus what they see play out as right and wrong.
#2 – Values are important because they shape how a person perceives the world and decides what their priorities will be. Probably the one trait that is touted as most valuable in family systems – whether biological, organizational, or otherwise – is loyalty. But loyalty is defined so differently in every family system that it can be a negative or a positive trait.
Let me explain: In some family systems, loyalty means standing up for or supporting a family member even if they are doing something wrong or self-destructive. In these cases, loyalty is not helpful to that family or the individual member being supported because they are being encouraged in their bad choices while family members pay the consequences. In other family systems, loyalty means always loving but not tolerant or supportive of wrong choices or self-destructive behavior. This system is a healthy one because it is allows consequences to teach a family member to make better decisions and prepare a child for success in the world.
#2 – Self-worth: A family, no matter whether it’s a biological or organizational, conveys to its members how much and why it values them.
Re-read that sentence one more time.
Probably the most powerful impact a family has on its members is conveying to them whether they have value or not and how value is “earned.” If parents are unaware of their influence in this area, they can inadvertently convey to their children that they must perform certain tasks or perform to a certain standard to be valued.
Gangs and organizations certainly hold its members to certain standards, but truthfully the biological family is the first family unit initiated by and organized by God himself. Therefore the value of each member of a biological family should be pre-determined because he/she was placed in that family by God. The fact that we are God’s creation gives us value. The responsibility of caring for and teaching a child is given to parents in such a way that children understand their value even when their behavior is not tolerated. This is a parenting skill that reflects our relationship to God as His children and, therefore, is certainly a healthy way of interacting in family systems.
How a family lives out beliefs and values in front of a child in their developmental years also determines a child’s thinking. For example, if a child hears his father telling his mother how much he loves her yet degrades or hurts her physically, this becomes acceptable behavior in the child’s mind for how to respond to frustration or hurt, setting up that child for social failure when he hits someone at school.
As that child sees more unacceptable social behavior, he feels less confident of the things he was “taught” by observing his parents. The child may question his ability to navigate relationships, to love, or his value and sense of belonging in his culture, family, or peer group. This would be true of examples in which a parent demonstrates unacceptable responses to anger, frustration, sadness, challenges, and criticism. Obviously, this would impact a child’s confidence with which he/she can face the world or navigate various situations.
As parents we should mimic our heavenly Father in the way that He makes sure that any imposed regulations, examples, or freedoms He gives us are for our good and will help us live well in our relationships with Him and with others.
As parents, we will not perform perfectly, but the way we handle failure also teaches children how to respond when faced with failure. We must model for them an ability to acknowledge our sins, seek forgiveness for them, and work diligently to not repeat that sin. By showing our children humility, we teach them how to be respected and honorable among those who have the same values.
We have only scratched the surface of how impactful family can be in shaping our identity. In part two we will talk about how family impacts security and courage.