If you ever want to know what your kids will grow up to think about media use, alcohol, sex, faith, managing conflict, and a host of other important issues, don’t ask yourself what you believe, or what other people are telling them. Ask, “What story does our family life tell about X?”
Once Upon A Time…
It isn’t unusual for me to have conversations with a parent (usually a mom) who is concerned that she and her husband aren’t on the same page about a particular issue. “What do the kids make of the fact that we don’t see eye-to-eye?”
The answer to that question is that kids resolve any disagreements between their parents (and other outside influences) by looking at the story their family lives tell about relating to those things. For instance, one mom asked me if it was OK that her husband, a casual drinker, occasionally let their 14yo take the last sip of his beer. She was, personally, appalled. Further, the teen had recently come home with a handout from his youth group stating that underage drinking was a sin. She was worried what her son would make about the various conflicting messages he would get about alcohol.
I asked her to tell me the story her family life is writing about alcohol. I explained that I wasn’t interested in what she and her husband believed about drinking or what she thought her kids were hearing about alcohol but rather, what the narrative her family life told about their household’s relationship with alcohol. What do the kids see? She told me that her kids see that mom and dad have a drink at special dinners, that dad will have a beer sometimes either after the kids are in bed and they are watching a movie together, or if they get together with friends they might have a drink or two but never to the point of even getting buzzed much less drunk. I asked her to write these things into a brief narrative. “In our family, drinking alcohol is something that grown-ups sometimes do as part of certain social situations and never to get buzzed or drunk.” When I asked her, she emphatically agreed that she would be comfortable with her children internalizing this “story” that her family life told about alcohol. Even though she had specific concerns that she could certainly continue to discuss and discern with her husband, she could have that ongoing conversation feeling confident that the general message her kids were getting about alcohol was a healthy one.
The Power of Story
We often worry about specific details while missing the big picture. The stories we tell with the lives we live at home are the most important catechesis we put our kids through. The overall way we live around our disagreements is more important than even the need to resolve the disagreements. Parents will never be on the same page about everything, but that can be alright if the way they relate to those differences creates a functional narrative that their children can use as the script for guiding their own behavior around that issue. Although the example above was about responsible drinking, it could just as easily be about sexuality, faith & prayer, conflict management, or anything else.
See For Yourself
If you wonder what attitude your children will have about the things that are most important to you, try this exercise. Ask yourself to describe, in two or three sentences, the story your life at home tells about prayer, or sex and romance, or handling disputes, or any other topic. Describe in a short paragraph the story that your children are “hearing” as they watch you and your spouse relate to and around that issue.
Getting Your Story Straight
More than anything you tell them that is the family story that will guide their own relationship with that issue as adults. To learn more about telling the family stories that can help your children have healthy attitudes about life, faith, and relationship, check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn how our Catholic tele-counseling practice can help you live a more abundant marriage, family, or personal life.