I learned about family between commercials.
Most days, I came home to an empty house. So I’d grab a soda, flip on the TV and join other, better families for an hour. These families seemed to be what families should look like. Not the messy, fractured version I experienced: the hardworking, hardly-ever-there mom; the drunk, abusive father who’d abandoned us; the strict, overbearing stepdad. No, these families were better. Loving parents. Obedient children.Life’s dilemmas solved in 30 minutes.
Looking back, I often wonder how many parents asked why their homes didn’t look like that fictionalized ideal. How many moms observed their screaming kids and thought, Where did I go wrong? How many dads left for work after a turbulent morning feeling guilty — and maybe a little relieved? How many kids wished their parents would solve problems with wise words and a comforting smile?
And how many of us today still pursue this fantasy? We know what a perfect family looks like. We know what ours looks like. And we wonder why there’s such a difference between the two.
Why aren’t our families perfect?
That’s the wrong question to ask. We’re flawed humans. It’s our nature.
A better question might be, “How can we get better?” How can we repair and build relationships? How can we overcome mistakes and create healthy, safe environments for our families?
The answer starts with shaking the sense of inferiority that most of us carry, the crippling idea that we’re not good enough. It starts with breaking free from the notion that we have to do everything perfectly, that our home has to be perfect, that our kids need to make the honor roll and the varsity squad.
Accepting imperfection is the place where great families begin. It’s the place where mistakes are made, where milk gets spilled and glasses shatter. But in the middle of the chaos, there’s love, safety and forgiveness.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m talking about imperfect parenting, not indifferent parenting. We shouldn’t slavishly focus on the rules of the parenting game — striving for perfection and obedience in every moment — but there are some important principles we should pay attention to. And when those guidelines are balanced with grace, with a recognition that every member of the family is going to mess up, we create a space where our kids can truly thrive.
A refuge from the storm
In the Daly family, if the boys start bickering — if one calls the other “stupid” or makes fun of him — their mother steps in.
“Hey!” Jean will say. “Family’s supposed to be a safe place! Family is a place where we love each other. Where we can be the real us.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a better definition of what family is supposed to be.
Families won’t be perfect. But they should be safe. Family should be the safest place we’ll ever know, the place we go back to when everything else in our lives blows up.
I sometimes like to think of the family as a literal house. We can’t just quickly build one with drywall, carpet and paint. We need a strong framework in place, a structure that defines what our home will look like and how it’ll operate. That structure supports our floor and roof and walls. It keeps us dry and warm — and safe.
Likewise, the framework of a family is critical to a healthy home. Children need structure and boundaries, predictable, reliable limitations that don’t shift by the hour. It’s important that we correct our kids when they cross those boundaries. And while I’ve never thought you need a lot of rules to create a well-functioning family, whatever rules and expectations you do have need to be clearly defined and steadily, reasonably enforced.
It’s easy to understand this need for structure and slip into a rigid, legalistic mindset. But we can’t lose sight of the importance of grace. In a healthy, well-functioning family, everyone is still a flawed human. We need to find a balance between correcting our children and not crushing their spirits.
In the Daly home, we expect our boys to keep up their grades, tend to their personal hygiene, follow the Golden Rule — all good, important things, but things they sometimes struggle to master as young teens. All those expectations can lead to an avalanche of correction.
And when it gets pervasive — for example, when Jean or I have corrected or instructed our son Trent every time he’s within earshot — it wears on him. “You forgot to take out the trash.” “Is your homework done?” You can see it pulling him down — to a point where he doesn’t feel so safe anymore. As parents, we’ve had to focus on this balance between structure and grace.
A house that consisted of nothing but structure would make a very poor home indeed. It might stand for 100 years, but you wouldn’t want to live there for even a day. Thankfully, the framework in a house is usually hidden, even if we know it’s there. It’s covered with walls and paint, carpet and ceilings. It has art and bright windows, sofas for afternoon naps, and tables and chairs where we might spend hours talking and playing games.
Rules, boundaries and standards are all essential. But most days, we should barely know they’re there. We cover them with laughter and affection. We coat them with our memories. We decorate them with our love and grace.
Time and conversation
There’s another thing that a home has: people who spend time together, laughing and playing, connecting with each other. People who want to be there doing these things.
Why do parenting experts constantly affirm the importance of sitting down together for a family meal? Because of the time spent together at that table.
Time is the greatest currency of family: How you spend it shows what you value, and who you value. You can’t know your kids — their strengths and weaknesses, their interests and passions — without spending time to get to know them. You can’t model good behavior for them if you’re rarely around. You teach them how to laugh by laughing with them.
My son Trent gets chatty at night. When I’m tired, Trent turns conversational. He’ll start talking about school and friends. About dreams and goals. And though I’m tired, I’ll think, This is great! A conversation with my son!
We recently had another long conversation — about grades, which he’s been struggling with. I wasn’t angry, and he wasn’t defensive. We’re trying to make these conversations constructive, and a big part of creating the right atmosphere is to be willing to listen. He knows the score: School is important. It’s not as if my yelling about it again would suddenly cause Trent to think, Wow. Dad really cares about this stuff. Guess I’ll work harder.
As parents, we’re often at our most convincing when we’re just there. In a way, we’re evangelizing our kids — not just into the kingdom of God, but also into the world of responsible adulthood. We want to love them. To save them. To prepare them for the challenges and the beauty in their future.
Yes, sometimes we have to force conversations. We have to tackle problems that can’t be ignored. We have to get down in the dirt and love our kids where they are.
Families are like a house, but they’re also like the garden out back. They can be dirty places filled with weeds and bugs, too much water or sun. They require patience and often a willingness to work in the mud. And it helps to have a sense of humor.
But gardening is an act of trust. An act of faith. Underneath the earth, a miracle grows — one that has less to do with you and more to do with God. You can’t make a seed sprout. You can’t force it to flower. Your job is to help the miracle along.
This article first appeared in the June/July 2017 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.