Five Steps For Improving Family Life


We have a conifer tree in our front yard that is tremendously fun! Yes, plants can be fun, especially when they are pruned to have pom poms. We call this "The Truffula Tree" as an homage to Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. As much as I love this tree, it requires a certain amount of attention to maintain its shape.

You can’t hack at it with a hedge trimmer, you have to trim it back the slow way, with surgical pruning to maintain the right shape.  A snip here, a trim there; I feel as if I’m forever shaping this tree into the proper circles.

I knew The Truffula Tree would require time, the way a show poodle demands attention to its coat, and boy was I right. I have to make a little cut, and step back to see if it's even.  When I get one side "perfectly" pruned,  I walk around to the back side of the plant only to discover something else out of whack. The first pass on any pom pom isn't enough - there are dozens of snips.

I am frequently impatient with the process, but I do the work even when it's tedious.

There is no substitute for making the effort.

Still, I love this plant, in part because it reminds me of my parenting gig.

Children are, after all, closely related to an unruly tree; growing constantly, always changing, and requiring attention. Parenting said children is an exercise in gardening, where one must prune and train gently, but consistently to keep the tree healthy and “in shape.”

There is no substitute for pruning.

But how do you prioritize what stays and what goes? This question bothers me because it’s strictly a judgment call.

Sure, there are books, blogs, and opinions galore on what should fold into the first position. For some families, academics trump everything.  Other families put sports first, while some may place creative activities above all else. All of those choices have a long list of “pros” and an accompanying list of “cons,” and none of them are bad, but I often wonder if their spot in first place is INTENTIONAL.

As parents do we approach the job with small pruning sheers or are we using a giant hacksaw?  Do we take steps away from our efforts to find perspective or stay so close that one side ends up lopsided?

In my world a "hacksaw" approach is when I let my emotions rule my reactions.  If the kids push my buttons a tad too often, I'm likely to (ahem) "over-communicate" as I dish out a consequence.  Or, I'll butcher my conifer by issuing a punishment waaaay out line for the crime. Sometimes, I do both at once. ("NO DESSERT UNTIL COLLEGE!!")

The only way I know  my approach isn't working is when I evaluate the impact of my style and decide to switch things up.  My steps take a page from my business experience, but I believe many business principles SHOULD apply in the home.  Here's where I go:

1. Create a strategy

What kind of shape is your family in?  Do you need a little pruning or a major reshaping? Monitor your expectations and plans accordingly!  What goals do you want to reach? How do you want your family to interact with each other? with others? As a family, do you know what you stand for? Sit together and give your goals words, images, ideals.

Even a bad plan is better than no plan.

2. Develop specific tactics

How can you reach your goals? What practical steps do you need to take? Create specific ways to move your family where you want it to be.

Create visual goals. Should you trim the family schedule or overhaul the calendar completely? Do you need to clean up manners or is there a crisis of respect between family members? What are you going to do differently to meet your goals?

3. Adjust to stages

Life with toddlers looks different from life with Middle School students. Your goals may not change, but your tactics certainly will.  Don't become so wed to one approach that you fail to adjust when the family's needs change.  Flexibility will keep you from breaking.

4. Commit to quantity time

There is a link between quality time and quantity time. You don't get the first without the second.

Hurry home. Hang out. Linger at the dinner table. Play board games. Take walks.

Slow down even when you don't feel like it.

The days will race by so rack up as many long hours together as possible.

5. Persevere

No matter what shape your family life is in, don't give up.  One of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, said,  "The dedicated life is the life worth living. You must give it your whole heart."

This applies to your faith, your spouse, your family... above all, persevere and know that you are not alone in your struggles.