How do you hold a family together? How do you make kids WANT to spend time with the family? How do you give your children the motivation to work things through positively with their siblings and with you, instead of hardening into negative attitudes? Much of the answer has to do with the family culture you create. Some ideas to consider:
Consciously create a family identity. Obviously, you want this identity to be positive and expansive, not limiting. Is yours an athletic family? Do you all follow current events? Talk about who's reading what? Most families have several identities: The Traveling Smiths can also be the Bookworm Smiths who love to cook together or collect funny jokes.
Eat dinner together whenever possible. You've probably heard that having dinner together as a family is a good thing for your kids, but you may not realize that it could change your child's life. Dinner is the best predictor we have of how kids will do in adolescence. The more frequently kids eat dinner with their families, the better they do in school, and the less likely they are to become sexually active, suffer depression, get involved with drugs or alcohol, or consider suicide.
Why? Maybe because families who eat together talk more, which helps them stay connected and build better relationships. Maybe because parents who show up to eat with their kids are more likely to express their love constructively in other ways, in the form of both attention and supervision. Maybe because families who offer kids more structure are more likely to keep kids attending to their homework as well as out of trouble. Maybe because dinner transforms individual family members into a "group," which gives parents more clout to rival the power of the peer group.
Or maybe because children, even more than the rest of us, need something to count on every day, the tangible security of belonging and being nurtured that is represented by the ritual of sharing food with those we love.
Whatever the reason, dinner is a pretty easy insurance policy to build into your homelife. If you're too busy to have dinner as a family on a regular basis, you may want to re-examine your priorities.
Seize any excuse to celebrate and have fun together whenever possible. Fun is the grease that keeps thing running smoothly when stress wears everyone down. The family that plays together stays together.
Find ways to enjoy each other. Her music choices may sound like noise to you, and she may have no interest in that stroll on the beach that makes you happy just to be alive. But if you put a little energy into it, you will find ways to enjoy each other, whether it's making waffles together on Sunday morning or a shopping trip with lunch just for the two of you.
Honor each other's passions. Take an interest in each other's fascinations. If you started dating someone whose ruling passion was antiques, you'd probably want to understand what they loved about old things, and maybe read a book or accompany them on an antiquing foray. Your son's obsession with Star Wars novels may be seem like a waste of time ("Why isn't he reading the classics?") but your interest in hearing about the plots, even if they all sound the same at first, will go a long way toward making him feel comfortable talking with you about what's important to him when something's bothering him.
Keep the tone loving. Every household has an emotional tone, which changes but tends toward a particular range of notes. I tend towards a cozy, quiet sanctuary feel, my husband tends toward funny and raucous; either can be embracing. The point is to notice what creates discordance and avoid that. That may mean reducing screen time, or agreeing that certain sections of the house are for quiet pursuits, or simply monitoring tones of voice and reminding kids when they start shouting at each other. (Obviously, with young kids things tend to be loud, but that doesn't mean the tone isn't loving.)
Develop family rituals. Rituals, through their repetition, reinforce particular feelings and values. Children love ritual. The comfort of belonging, the sense of wonder, magic, and celebration -- all create a bonding experience that nurtures both kids and parents, and holds families together. Rituals and traditions may be the single most effective tool parents have to create a positive family culture.
Consider drawing up a Family Mission statement. It may seem artificial, but families who do it say the process helps them focus on what matters, and regular (at least annual) reviews/rewrites keep them on track. There are many resources online to get you started.
Dr. Laura Markham