7 Keys to Building Strong Families: Key #1 The Power of Modeling

Everybody believes family is important. Everyone wants to have a healthy family. From my review of research at The Center for Healthy Marriages, interviews with hundreds of families, clinical work and my experience as a father of three, I’ve identified seven common-sense keys to growing healthy families.

I recently saw an excellent illustration of how families function. I was visiting the seaside town of Cambria, California. While shopping I saw a mobile made of nine seashells. Each shell was a different size, shape and color and hung in delicate balance with the others.

I gently blew on one of the shells. Do you know what happened? Because the shells were linked together, the energy from that gentle breath on one shell was transmitted to the others. The entire mobile was affected and all of the shells moved.

Families are similar to this mobile. In place of the seashells, picture the members of your family. Your family “mobile” may include grandparents, parents, siblings, your spouse and your children.

Regardless of a family's structure, what happens to one family member or the decisions one member makes affect every other individual in the family as well as the entire family system. This is especially true with parents. While we've always known that parents have a tremendous influence on the development of their children's character, we're now discovering that influence is far beyond what we had imagined.

Key #1 says that, “What your kids see you do as they grow up is what you’ll likely see them do when they’ve grown up.”

What do your children see modeled in your character? Do they see a mom and dad who have a visible love for each other or a single parent who has a visible love for family and close friends? Do they see truth, honesty and integrity in action? Do they know that your love for them is not based on their performance? Do they have healthy examples of problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills? Do you appreciate and promote their uniqueness? Do you model and encourage a healthy experience and expression of emotions?

Why are these things so important? They are some of the core skills our children need to become healthy individuals and develop healthy relationships. You can feed your kids good food, buy them nice clothes and a car, give them a great college education. What you may end up with is a well-fed, well-clothed college graduate who drives a nice car but doesn’t have a clue about what it means to be a person of honesty and integrity and have healthy relationships.

Trust me when I tell you that the most influential education your children will ever get is what they see and hear in your home. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9 we read that there are two basic ways to teach their children. The first is formal instruction. This is where parents tell children what they should and shouldn’t do. We give them helpful information, often in the form of a lecture or less helpful, “How many times have I told you?”

The second and much more powerful way to teach children is informally through the morals and values we model before them. While both are important, informal or what I call “lifestyle” instruction is by far the most influential.

While writing this article God brought to mind the example of my own parents who gave me both formal and informal instruction. Yet when I reflect on what they did that was most helpful to me, what stands out in my memory is their informal instruction, their example.

They didn't merely tell me how important it was to go to church. They took me to church. I wasn't forced to get up early to read my Bible and pray. In fact I rarely got up early. Yet, when I did, forever etched in my mind is the vivid picture of my dad in his bathrobe either reading the Bible or praying.

When I was wrong they corrected me. When I was disobedient they disciplined me. When I made a mistake they forgave me. When I sinned they reminded me of the need for repentance and the fact of God's grace. When I was overcome with discouragement they listened and encouraged me.

No, they weren’t perfect. They made mistakes. But that was another gift. They let me see their weaknesses as well as their strengths. They acknowledged their limitations and apologized when they were wrong. They taught me that no matter how old you are you can always learn and grow.

The home is the window through which children get their first glimpse of who they are and what they are worth. Children discover their value in the mirror of those around them, by how much they are looked at, listened to and touched, by what their parents say to them and about them in front of others.

The greatest gift you can give your child is who you are. The lifestyle our children see us model daily is much more powerful than what we tell them. Both are important. But there must be congruity between the talk and the walk.

“Children Learn What They Live”

If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.

If a child lives with hostility, she learns to fight.

If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilty.

If a child lives with tolerance, she learns to be patient.

If a child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy.

If a child lives with encouragement, she learns confidence.

If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice.

If a child lives with security, she learns to have faith. |

If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself.

If a child lives with acceptance & friendship, she learns to find love in the world.

This week, how can you model love, patience, honesty, thoughtfulness, fairness and acceptance to someone in your family? Pick one person and for the next 2 weeks practice modeling one of these characteristics.

Gary J. Oliver, ThM, PhD
Executive Director at Center for Healthy Relationships | + posts

Dr. Oliver is the Executive Director of The Center for Healthy Relationships, and professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University.  He has authored over 20 books and more than 350 professional and popular articles.  Dr. Oliver has over 40 years’ experience as a Clinical Psychologist, Marriage  & Family Therapist and Spiritual Director.  He leads seminars & workshops both nationally and internationally on a variety of counseling-related issues, healthy relationships as well as Emotional & Relational Intelligence (ERI).

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