Chapter 1: Family Matters
What's wrong with the world...
People livin' like they ain't got no mamas.
-- THE BLACK EYED PEAS
He lives in two worlds, this twelve-year-old boy. Every day, he troops in and out of those two worlds, in and out of the tiny paint-peeled tract house he lives in with his father, mother and three sisters. To say his is a modest neighborhood is kind. To the casual observer the houses are indistinguishable. There is kind of a peace and order to the cookie-cutter sameness, everything in its place and a place for everything. At least so it appears. Like every other neighborhood in America, suburbia or the inner city, every home is a façade, an outward face that betrays little of what lies inside. Sometimes what is inside is the opposite of peaceful. Behind the social masks, all too often lie families that are chaotic and disconnected, that threaten to disintegrate with the next crisis. The boy lives in just such a house and in just such an American family.
Outside the doors of his home, the boy finds a world that seems immeasurably more validating. He has a small group of friends and acquaintances to whom he in some ways feels closer than his own family. Yet they too seem distant and different because he is different, at least in his own eyes. Among them, he, like so many others, wears a social mask of "okayness," but he doesn't know theirs is a mask as well. He seems relaxed, even confident, but secretly he's always on guard, because he knows he's not like them, not really. He knows he and his family are poor and that they live differently with different problems, problems you just don't talk about. He's making one of the first and most common mistakes children make: He's comparing his private reality, his world behind the door, to the social mask of all of his friends. He assumes that what he sees is the truth, and in comparison, his image of his own family situation suffers dismally.
In the world beyond his home, the discovery of athletics has been an absolute godsend. He and his family don't have the money, the clothes or the ability to participate in any of the extracurricular activities except for sports, which are free to all students. In fact, at his young age, the boy already works two jobs, and so he embraces sports as a leveling device. On the playing field, he doesn't have to talk or be like everybody else; he doesn't have to have money or a fancy upbringing or even a stable home. He just has to be what he is -- a strong and coordinated kid, able to excel at just about any sport. Through athletics, he has found not only his self-esteem but an acceptable outlet for a burning anger that he doesn't understand, but knows is always there. Even with sports as an outlet, violence and fights are an everyday occurrence in a rough testosterone-driven world. Backing down is not an option. Because of sports, the urge to win has been planted in his head like a fast-growing seed -- he loves being in the thick of competition and he has learned what it takes to win and others are eager to follow. The seed has sprouted; he doesn't like being second-best.
School life is less comfortable. He is smart, though not academically motivated. He reads all of his textbooks from cover to cover the first few weeks of school and masters the material, but could care less about class or grades. Homework is turned in only if it is handy to do so. Teachers find him quietly charming but reluctant to get involved. His writing is excellent when he bothers to do it. His test average is A+.
To his twelve-year-old sensibilities, being out with his buddies, playing sports with a passion and getting through each day are what life is all about -- "out there," at least, in "that world." Out there, in that world, he is his own person, but always with an undertow from the other world, the world behind the door.
Once he goes home, he enters a completely different world, and he becomes a completely different person.
Cut off from his friends, his athletics and his school life, he is withdrawn, sullen, depressed, lethargic and emotionally detached from the rest of his family. Being the only boy, he has his own small room and he stays in it the vast majority of his time. He has no television, not even a radio. He just stays quietly to himself and even comes and goes through his bedroom window to avoid walking through the house. Unbeknownst to his parents he roams the streets after the family is asleep. He sleeps little as his paper route starts at 4:30 a.m. Days and nights don't seem much different when you are alone. He yearns for the hours to pass so he can make his way out into the other world, the one in which he is more functional, engaging, successful and motivated, at least in some areas of life. There is an astonishing contrast between what he is like in that world, out there, and what he is like in this world, in here.
Before that question is answered, let me tell you that in the many years that I've worked with the parents of troubled youngsters like this one, it became quite common to hear a mother or father request that their "problem" child be fixed. "Get our child straight!" they would demand. "We just don't know what happened! He just seemed to go downhill overnight. He is so withdrawn, so down and depressed. What is wrong with him? Can't you do something to fix this problem?"
Is this right thinking? Not even almost. No matter what maladaptive behaviors a child is exhibiting, I can guarantee you that the problem is almost certainly with the entire family, and most often the child is just the sacrificial lamb dragged to the altar of the counselor because he or she happens to be making the most noise and has the least amount of power or ability to shift the focus to someone else.
Trying to understand a child's behavior without interviewing the rest of the family just won't cut it, and any therapist worth their salt knows it. I want to be sure you know it too. So let's step through the front door with the twelve-year-old boy I described earlier and observe the other five parts that would be missed if a therapist, or more importantly, you, as a defensive parent, trivialized or ignored the family aspect.
Life "in there," life with his family unit, is tumultuous, volatile and unpredictable. Here's the real cause for this boy's refusal to plug into his family: His father is a severe and chronic alcoholic. He is typically emotionally unavailable to the boy, and to the rest of the family. He and the boy have clashed violently when the alcohol takes over and while the father barely remembers the confrontations, the experiences are seared into the boy's mind and heart. Further, the father has aborted his career in sales, uprooted the family, moved to a new state and returned to school at a university in the hope of a brighter yet highly speculative future. Though nobly inspired, this decision hurtled this family of six into grinding poverty. There is little inner connection as each family member's own personal struggles drain them of energy. Hunger gnaws at times and doing without is just how it is. Life is insecure, as the children are the poor "new" kids. Life is emotionally barren, full of desperation and drama, with one crisis after another. Tired and struggling, this family is not coping well at all.
dClearly scarred by the psychological and emotional stress, the boy's two older sisters try in their own way to escape the turmoil. But this turns out to be a classic case of "out of the frying pan into the fire." Both sisters have ill-fated elopements with boyfriends before finishing high school. Tension is everywhere in the home. The boy loves his sisters and they have protected him and helped him in a number of ways, but then they were gone. When they returned home, they were strangely different. They weren't just the other kids in the family anymore. And so, the boy feels further isolated. Although loving and caring, the mother works long and grueling hours on her feet as a store clerk just to keep food on the table. She is ill-equipped to deal with or counterbalance such a dominantly patriarchal family and such disconnected kids fleeing from their father's alcoholism. Baby sister is cute but silent. God only knows what she must be thinking. She is extremely dependent, afraid to leave home even to sleep over at a friend's house. She must stay close; this deal could cave any minute. The boy stays close to her, and they talk late at night, but he realizes that the less she knows, the better.
Both the mother and father were born into poor, uneducated families, and consequently, they had very little idea that life offered anything other than what they were exposed to. Tragically, the father had suffered severe mental, emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his own mother, and this legacy crippled his relationship with his own wife and children.
This is the world in which we find this twelve-year-old boy. He is embedded in a family on the verge of imploding and to evaluate him in isolation would be an exercise in futility. There is in this world an enveloping bleakness.
Trouble runs in packs.
If you haven't figured it out already, I know every detail of this story because I lived in that house. The story is my own. I was the twelve-year-old boy who moved from one world to the next, and back again. That was how I saw and experienced my life. That doesn't mean that my perception is correct or is how the other five members of my family would describe it. Every family member's experience and perceptions are different, but you can bet that everything each member thinks, does or feels bears on every other person in the family.
Although it isn't much fun to recall, I'm telling you this story because it's one I lived, and one I can say with great confidence illustrates that family matters. Family matters because it is the single most outcome-determinative factor shaping one's outlook and achievement. Your family powerfully determined what you've become and how you think about yourself, and so it will be for your own children. That's why among all words in the English language, none means more to human beings than "family."
In a typical family of four, there are five distinct personalities because you must also count the collective one. Your family's collective personality is a bundle of all the personalities, subsystems, roles and rules that exist, values embraced, the togetherness (or lack of) in which you live, standards and expectations and the thoughts and beliefs you share. The collective personality of your family can affirm and build on what you have to start with or it can countermand and erode the family unit.
If you want to understand your children, you must think of your family as a system. Whether we're talking about a family with a husband, wife and children, a single-parent family, a blended family, a gay or lesbian family or a multigenerational family with grandparents living in the home, a family is a system, not just a collection of individuals. If you were to look up "system" in the dictionary, you'd see it defined as "a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole." To understand this concept, think of the systems at work in everyday life -- even your own body, which is made up of a number of interacting parts. For example, if you rupture a disc in your lower back, you may experience what is called referred pain in your legs, and even in the bottom of your feet. No part works in isolation; the function or dysfunction of even one part affects the whole.
The same is true of a family. In a family where the mother is diagnosed with cancer, her disease is not simply a personal problem; it's a family problem because the entire family is affected. Whenever something happens to a family member, whether it is cancer, substance abuse, an addiction, a chronic illness or failures in life's pursuits, no family member can avoid being touched by it.
These events dramatically impact a child's socialization -- the ability to learn, be independent, get along with others and understand the importance of rules. Moreover, it impacts academic progress and the building of self-esteem.
Socialization is one of the most important jobs a family has. When the family fails to provide the healthy nurturing children need, the impact on their lives can be destabilizing and can cheat them out of the chance to be the best person they can be. Children who are not properly socialized have problems in the world. They do not respect the authority, hierarchy or boundaries of their parents. They have poor impulse control. They can be selfish and extremely demanding, with little regard for how their behavior hurts the family. The resultant dysfunction of unsocialized children simultaneously contaminates the very family that may well have spawned their troubles. A vicious cycle, to be sure.
Of course, who and what you have become is also dictated by your education and your relationships with your friends, neighbors and employers. And as previously pointed out, a huge influence is the massive media machine -- five hundred TV channels, the Internet, the radio, the newspapers. If you don't think so, just consider the now-unequivocal evidence that violent television and films, video games and music increase aggressive and violent behavior in children, teenagers and even adults.
Yet for all that, the family -- your family -- remains the most powerful influencing factor. Your past experiences may make you want your family to not be such a powerful influence on who you are or who you become, but it is, whether you like it or not. Bottom line: We need to get it right, right now.
THE NOBILITY OF PARENTING
As a parent, you're the head of your family, and therefore you occupy an unbelievably powerful role in shaping the tone, texture, mood and quality of this interconnected and vitally important unit. You're a system manager. By successfully managing this system, you can parent your way to a phenomenal family -- and avoid the problems and erosion seen in so many of the families in your very own neighborhood.
But let me ask you:
What kind of family manager have you been up until now?
Are you working on a day-to-day basis at managing your family, treating it as a project, giving it the priority it deserves?
Are you creating a family environment that brings out the best in your child?
Do you have the skills necessary to give your child his or her best chance at succeeding in this world?
Have you overcome any "family legacy" that has contaminated the way in which you define and parent your family?
If the other parent is in the home or active in the children's lives post-divorce, do the two of you have a parenting plan that provides guidance based on consistent values?
Do you have a plan and an objective in mind for what successful parenting is and will yield in your child's life?
Have you created an environment that generates feelings of safety, security, belongingness, self-confidence and strength for the child or children in your charge?
Is your family nurturing your child's individuality and acting to ensure that he or she will become the unique and authentic person God intended?
I know you just answered those questions, but I ask you to go back and read them over again, and this time answer them keeping in mind that you are writing your children's future with your answers. Those questions are just a beginning of the self-examination you must be willing to do if you're going to strengthen the foundation on which your children are basing their lives. Frankly, I know that some of you reading this book right now are making choices and decisions that are setting your children up for disastrous failure. You may not know it, and you may not see the effects today, but trust me, you'll see them in the future if you're making the same mistakes so many well-intending parents unwittingly make. Are you one of those parents? Are you setting up your child to turn to drugs, violence, promiscuity, alcohol or withdrawal from life and all it has to offer? I intend to make it very clear to you whether your parenting practices are likely to yield unfortunate results, and if so, how to change them, starting right now this very day.
If you want a healthy and nurturing family, and successful and productive children, you must commit yourself to acquiring the insight and skills necessary to live the values that you know in your heart are so important. You didn't pick this book up because you wanted to study up on a bunch of child development theories. You bought this book because you care about your children and want action-oriented information about how to give them their best chance for success. You picked it up because you care about your family life.
I've so often heard parents say, "I would die for my children." Well, I don't want you to die for your children, but I do want you to live for your children.
Your role as a parent is the highest, noblest calling you will ever have in your life. What's more, I believe that you can and will rise to that challenge if given the proper knowledge and tools for this important task. I know that you already possess the most powerful and important ingredient to succeeding. That critical factor is an unconditional and heartfelt love and devotion you have for your child. But it takes much, much more than love and good intentions because you aren't the only influence in your child's life.
You must become highly aware, deeply committed and pointedly proactive. Parents everywhere are in a major tug-of-war with a slick, false-promising, glittery, well-marketed world to determine who is going to write the script of their children's lives. Given the current state of the world, I intend to hang on to my end of the rope with both hands and play a key role in writing that script. Solid values and morality seem to have stopped being a way of life and have simply become a punch line for the jokes of the fast-laners. Gone are the days when cheating in school was just some isolated case of some lazy kid copying off of the smart kid; today over half of students admit to cheating. Some kids are even using high-tech electronic pagers during tests and plagiarizing term papers off the Internet. Where once a kid could buy illegal drugs on a street corner in the bad part of town, today he can do it on the Internet from the kitchen table while you sit not ten feet away. In a phenomenon called "friends with benefits," children as young as twelve and thirteen are engaging in oral sex with no more thought or consideration than you once gave to holding hands or a peck on the cheek. No relationship, no emotion, just sex. One hundred percent of the children with access to a computer can view pornography with the click of a mouse. Our kids today are what I call an All-Access-Pass Generation.
It would be Pollyannaish for me to suggest that it is possible to shield your child completely from all of the negativity and temptation in today's world. I can't do that and I don't think anybody else can either.
But what I can do is help you add to the plus side of your child's ledger. Since you can't eliminate the bad influences, you must create deep, meaningful and consistently positive and well-grounded experiences, values and beliefs to counterbalance the negative. You must do it even though your children may roll their eyes and seem resistant. You must do it even though you're being pulled in a million different directions every minute of every day. That it is difficult makes it no less important and no less necessary.
Bad results don't just happen in the lives of other people's kids, and that is why there is all the more reason to vow to protect your own. Raising your family is not a dress rehearsal, and it can be a 24/7 job that will last for twenty-plus years, so you ought to know how to do it and do it well.
As I've pointed out, what you need in addition to the love in your heart is a very specific, step-by-step plan of action for leading your family and parenting with purpose. What you need is a really good guidance system so you know that you are tracking the target of success from one day to the next. You need to know how to create a phenomenal family and acquire the tools that will make that happen. Your family is worthy of everything you want for them; what you will learn here will help you.
All your children will ever be, they are now becoming. Let's be honest: If you're like any parent I have ever met you want your child to be the star in his or her own life -- the soloist in the choir, the quarterback on the football team, the lead in the play, the beauty queen, the honor roll student or the one in the best schools. Not only that, you also want your children to be happy, secure, self-assured and confident. You want to protect your child from getting shoved in the playground, picked on by bullies or molested by sickos, safe from failure and adversity and from social and interpersonal pain in general. On top of it all, you want your children to love you, accept you, respect and admire you.
What you do with them today, when they are two, three, four, five, six or sixteen years of age, will determine what they will do at age twenty-four, thirty-four or forty-four. You are raising adults. Right now, they are under construction, like a new house being built from the ground up. Once that house gets completed, it is subjected to the forces of nature and the wear and tear of life. Will its foundation crack, or its roof leak? Will it hold up or cave in?
Will your children withstand the pressures of their lives and worlds, or crack when the going gets tough? Is theirs a strong foundation for what is to come? The answers to those questions depend largely on how you mold and shape your children, their values, their behavior, their ability to make sound decisions on their own, and how well you honor their individuality and nurture their unique gifts and talents. In short, it depends on what you do today to help them become responsible adults tomorrow. Do you know the saying, "Children are messages we deliver to a future we may never see"? You are preparing future adults and you are preparing future families. You're in hot pursuit of what's best for your children and your family, but you may not know which way to go or how to reach for it. That's what a "really good plan" is all about.
I'm sure it's no surprise coming from me, but the key to that plan is you. As in most things in life, the challenge of raising a successful family cannot and will not happen until you decide to clean house inside yourself first. The journey begins with you. You can't be one kind of person and another kind of parent. If you don't scrape away all the layers of your past pain and disappointment and self-destructive legacies and bad spirit, then no matter what else you learn about successful parenting, you'll have such low standards and poor values that you'll continue to sabotage your, your children's and your family's opportunities for a joyful life.
I believe we all have something I call "personal truth." Your personal truth is what you really believe about yourself when you're not "performing" and not wearing your social mask and trying to put your best foot forward. It's what you really believe about yourself when nobody is looking and nobody is listening. This personal truth is so important, because I believe that we generate for ourselves and our families the results that we believe we deserve. If we do not believe that we, our family, are worthy of a phenomenal life, we will never have a phenomenal life. If you believe you're some second-class citizen, some undeserving individual, then you'll generate results that are consistent with that belief. That's why it's so important that you look first to yourself to make sure that there is not some compromised sense of worth or value that is limiting what you can create for your family.
Your personal truth will be clearly reflected in what I call your "attitude of approach." You probably inherited most or all of your approach and that may not be a good thing. If, for example, you were abused, emotionally neglected or just overindulged, those life experiences may have powerfully and boldly written on the slate of who you are, causing you to carry forward a compromised personal truth that can and will infect your children with the same things you learned. As a result you may have a much more challenging time raising a joyful child and creating a joyful family, the very two things that should be uppermost in your priorities. Joyful children don't come to be because they were born with a "joyful gene." Joyful children are taught how to live, think, interact, control their emotions, express themselves, discipline themselves the same way they learn how to ride a bike or tie their shoes. They're taught how to be joyful. That is one of your challenges, since the ability to raise joyful children is a learned skill.
When it comes to raising a family and parenting children, nobody ever really taught you the rules, let alone how to play the game. Think about it: Why are our kids turning to drugs, alcohol and sex at younger and younger ages? Because nobody has ever taught people how to parent their children in a way that keeps them from needing to turn to those escape mechanisms to feel the way they want to feel.
Since you didn't get any formal child-rearing training from society, you've probably relied on role models. Yet because our own parents were never trained to be effective mothers and fathers, what kind of role models could they be? In fact, I submit to you that if you've been fortunate to have parents who were positive role models, you -- and they -- can thank blind luck or even trial and error that they got it right, because it's a safe bet training had little to do with it. Simply put, this means not only that you may lack crucial information, but that the information you do have may be wrong. Sometimes, the hardest part in learning new and better skills is unlearning the old ways of doing.
I've designed this book to meet you at whatever point you find yourself. I did not want to guess at where that was. I did not want to assume that I knew what to include in this to ensure it was absolutely, bull's-eye responsive to your needs. Accordingly, I spent over a year designing and conducting a massive research project examining the family and parenting issues facing all of us raising children in today's world. The research project included over 17,000 respondents who generated over 1.5 million pieces of data. That data was then subjected to vigorous clinical and statistical analysis.
The analysis examines such issues as the most critical problems faced by parents, parents' greatest fears, children's levels of responsivity to different parenting approaches, parents' greatest needs for assistance and information and an overall assessment of attitudes and outlook for the future. (As you read Family First, pay attention to the "Survey Facts" that appear throughout the book. Each block of information contains eye-opening data about how mothers and fathers feel about their job as parents. You'll find more information about my National Parenting Survey in the Appendix.)
It doesn't matter whether you have good, well-adjusted kids whom you want to see do better and become better, or alternatively, defiant, misbehaving kids who seem headed for jail rather than college. Or maybe you have kids in crisis, a child on drugs or a teenager who is depressed. The tools are the same, whether your child is on the honor roll or the police blotter.
No matter how crazy things get or how stressed you feel, you know in your heart how fortunate you are to be given the precious, priceless treasure of children. I encourage you then to see this job of parenting as noble, as a privilege with which you've been entrusted and to take from that responsibility a feeling of meaning and significance.
Reading this book is not intended to be a passive experience. As you progress through it, you'll see that it's a hands-on, action-oriented book. Every chapter calls on you to play an active role. You'll learn, and put into play, skills in example-setting, discipline, negotiation, communications, intelligence-building, strengthening self-worth and self-confidence, behavior control and family lifestyle management, useful not only in raising your children, but also in structuring the content of your family life so that it supports and uplifts your efforts. Get these skills right and the rest of your life as a parent will be easy.
If you can bring up your children to be the confident, competent people they deserve to be, you'll have successfully fulfilled your purpose as a parent and given your children the greatest of all gifts. That's what I want for my children, and I know it is what you want for yours.
It is not too late. Isn't today the day to begin? If you have a great family with great kids, then let's build on that strength. If you feel you have blown it so far, then it is time to "re-parent" your children. Re-parenting means going back to the basics and setting new goals, rules, guidelines and boundaries. It means becoming the parent God intended when he blessed you with the gift of your children. Start by waking up every morning and asking yourself: What can I do today to make my family better? What can I do today to introduce something positive into my children's lives? What can I find that is good in each child and how can I acknowledge it?
Game on. My plan is for you and your family to be the winners.
Copyright © 2004 by Phillip C. McGraw