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"Running" an (almost) Functional Home - Part 1

By R' Shmuel Gluck  

In the course of my work, I'm exposed to many types of families, most of whom fall into two types, the effective and ineffective ones. However, there's also a third type, those who appear effective now, but years later will prove to be ineffective. It is this third type that will be the subject of the next few articles. Although these articles will be written in the plural, referring to families. Nevertheless, the message also applies to individuals.

Many families consider their outward appearances as very important, and that's the way it should be. There's no doubt that people should act differently in public from how they act in private. My mother, in one of her cynical moments, described the normal family as, "a family that can appear normal in public". The gist of her comment was that all individuals and families have quirks. It's those families who can't control those quirks, that step beyond what's considered normal, who're considered less than normal.

At what point does a family sacrifice too much to maintain a wholesome public appearance? I believe that there are two conditions that will allow this:

The first condition is that the parents make certain that everything they're doing to preserve the family image, will also help, or at least not hurt, their children. If this is not the case, then the parents should take whatever steps are necessary to help their children improve to the best of their abilities, even if the issues that require improvement (such as needing a tutor, or dealing with an eating disorder), will cause those issues to become public. This is their responsibility to their children. Insisting that they appear emotionally healthy in public, at the cost of holding back opportunities that would make them into healthier children is wrong, and something that they will regret later.

The second condition is that they're aware that their family is a "work in progress". (I've written previously about being honest with oneself. If you're interested in this topic, please call the office and we'll send those related articles to you.) If the parents believe that everything is okay when in reality it isn't, one of two common problems will follow:

a) The children may become engrained with worrying about appearances, become superficial, never learn about healthy relationships, or how to cultivate their personal thoughts, likes, and dislikes. It'll always  be about what other people  will think.

b) The children realize that their parents approach is wrong and they become very resentful, and angry, at their parents and with any siblings that agree with their parents' approach. The parents, unaware of the source of the anger, respond by treating their children as if they're mentally ill.

Parents must be aware that when problems are submerged, those same problems, or other new ones, will eventually surface. Sadly, until they surface, which may not happen for many years, submerging the issues may appear to "work". The house may run smoothly for years. The children may be well behaved, the delight of their teachers and grandparents, and everyone may appear to be happy. Everything about the parents approach seems to confirm that submerging the issues was the right approach. The parents believe that they're running the house efficiently, teaching the children with a hands-on approach and, in general, are cultivating a better than the average family.

As the children get older, cracks begin to become visible. Some children aren't happy, others begin to act with Chutzpah, and still others begin to compromise the families' religious standards. Some children will require different schools, others outpatient therapy, and  still others inpatient facilities.

In most cases, the parents haven't learned the lessons that they should have. If multiple problems are taking place, and with multiple children, there may be a common cause. Deviations from the family norms that repeat themselves are a sign that it isn't "by chance". If there's a common cause within the family, it's probably the parents who're the most likely cause. They have the greatest input and affect on their children, more than any siblings, Rabbeim, and friends. To conclude differently would require long discussions with experienced Mechanchim who're very familiar with the family dynamics.

Many parents continue to be unaware that it's their approach that's flawed. Since the children's issues vary and seem unrelated ("What does our children's desire to listen to non-Jewish music have to do with anything that we did?"), parents draw one of two conclusions:

a) "We need to repeat everything we've done in the past but do it even more intensely". This conclusion will intensify the problem with the remaining children.

b) "It's the children that are the problem." They're sick, angry, or any other attribute to explain their behavior in a manner that disassociates it from the parents' approach. Since the parents need to keep their personal images intact, they convince themselves that they're the ones who're good, and it's their children who aren't.

There's another point worthy of mention. Many of these parents lack self-esteem. (I've also written articles on this subject.) Worrying about what people may think of you is healthy, up to a point. Past that point, it's self-serving. In many cases, the parents who insist that everyone must believe that their family is healthy, also insist that their children believe that the parents are perfect.

Perfect is a "tricky" word. Most parents will admit to making errors, but never on this topic. They'll say, "Yes, we make mistakes, but in this case, we're definitely right".

I apologize for painting such a bleak picture. However, this issue, which is more common than many people believe, is  very damaging. Although most families don't demonstrate the symptoms as strongly as I'm describing, many of them do. There's an even greater number of families that, to varying degrees, have to improve the balance between their individual and public appearance needs. 

In the coming weeks, iI'll describe additional, intangible, problems created by parents who focus on the family and not on individual children. I'll also suggest solutions to help such families repair the years of damage caused by such attitudes.

To be continued...

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