Eleven Essential Elements
Editor’s Note: Richard and Linda Eyre will be guest hosts along with Dr. Joseph Allen on a “Book of Mormon Symposium at Sea” leaving March 21. To learn more about this uplifting and exotic Caribbean cruise click here
Look closely at the title. It says “Emptying” rather than “Empty” because the challenges of absentee, long-distance parenting begin when the first child leaves home. Whether we have none left under the roof or ten, the minute one of them is gone we begin to understand what a different and difficult proposition it is to be a good steward over and a good parent to a child who isn’t sleeping down the hall anymore. Any control we ever told ourselves we had is gone. We’re no longer managers and at best are now mere consultants. Most of our information has to come secondhand or through “secondary sources” like letters and phone calls or reports from other people. The “primary source” of actual, personal observation is now available only occasionally.
Last column we discussed developing a positive perspective and finding a balance between our own needs (as slightly older, waiting-to-do-some-of-what-we-couldn’t-do-while-they-were-here parents and their expanding needs as recently-departed kids. This column we’ll get a little more analytical and look at the eleven essential elements of family relationships and see how they apply to kids who have moved out and are moving on.
As we think together, keep in mind the perspective that we have just begun a parenting role that lasts forever. We’re on page one of a book with infinite pages and chapters. If we think of it in earthly terms, we’re about at halftime. In the first half, thirty years give or take, which probably started in our twenties and ends in our fifties or early sixties, our children lived with us in our home. The second half, again thirty years plus or minus, will hopefully take us into our eighties or beyond and be played with our children living outside our home.
Which half is most important? Which half of a basketball game is most important? What a tragedy if our team quit playing, quit trying when the buzzer went off to end the first half?
The fact is that most of the same principles and priorities that applied in the first half continue to be equally important in the second half.
Eleven Essential Elements of Family Relationships (applied to the emptying nest):
On the first page of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy makes a most provocative statement. He says, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
When we first read that sentence, we disagreed with it on two levels. First, no family is completely happy or completely unhappy, so what was he talking about? Second, no two families, happy or unhappy, are alike anyway.
But maybe Tolstoy didn’t mean it the way we first read it. Maybe he simply meant that there are an infinite number of ways to fail as a family, but there is only one way to succeed. Perhaps he was suggesting that there are certain essential elements that are a part of all happy families, certain things that buttress and protect a family from forces that would otherwise tear it apart, and that these elements don’t change.
Indeed, all families that last and produce security and happiness for their members do have some fundamental things in common, some elements that may exist in different forms but that are always present:
1. Commitment and recommitment (frequently stated as well as demonstrated).
2. A clarity of purpose – some kind of formal or informal (written or implied) family mission statement, a conscious parenting approach or strategy.
3. A true prioritizing of family and family relationships – personal time management reinvented to reflect family priority.
4. Communication – an insistence on it and a constant effort at it.
5. Family rules, laws, or standards.
6. Some sort of family economy, or a way of dividing family tasks and teaching responsibility and motivation.
7. Fun and lasting family traditions that involve humor and service.
8. Some sense of heritage, family history, and roots.
9. Efforts to help kids gain or accumulate an understanding of other people, or other cultures, and of the larger institutions that have an impact on their lives.
10. Correct principles being taught, including faith and belief.
11. A set of clear and recognized values, which are even more specific than principles.
Now, here is the question: Are these eleven essential elements as vital in empty-nest parenting as they are when kids are still at home? If we stay true to our perspective of eternal parenting, it is natural to believe that the same essential elements must always be present if our relationships are to thrive and continue to grow. Let’s look at each of the eleven and question just how they can work in an emptying nest:
1. Commitment and Recommitment
Questions: How can you make sure kids who have just left home know that you are still deeply committed to them, to their needs, to their happiness? As they go out to face the world on their own, how much do they need the safety net of our unconditional love and support?
Ideas: Keep telling them! Every letter or e-mail, every phone call, every visit should include a recommitment – a reminder that while so much has changed physically and logistically, nothing has changed emotionally. Always say “I love you” rather than (or in addition to) “Good-bye.” Tell them often that while you will respect their independence and try to be wise in what and how much you give them, you will always be there for them and will always be their mom or dad.
Testimony and spiritual commitment ties so closely to family commitment, and a private family testimony meeting on any Sunday when you might be together can strengthen the ties that bind. Similarly, use of the priesthood in the home can deepen both gospel blessings to those with health needs or those facing important decisions or difficult challenges. Gather as much of your family as you can for blessings and confirmations as well as marriages. Use the great commitment of these ordinances to remind you all of your personal commitments to each other.
2. Clarity of Purpose
Questions: What is the purpose of an adult, empty-nest family? Is it important that parents and their grown children come together on a purpose and a plan – that they share common goals and have clearly-defined expectations of each other? Since most organizations and corporations today have a “mission statement,” should families have one too? Can that credo or mission statement embrace the principles you’ve tried to teach and that you hope your departed children continue to embrace?
Ideas: If we want our families to continue to function and to exist after our kids leave home, we’d better have some plans about what they will do and how. Ask each other the basic question, “What is our family now, and how should it serve each of us?” Try to get everyone involved in writing a family mission statement. Ask what they think the key principles are that they have learned and incorporate them into the statement.
3. A True Prioritizing of Family and Family Relationships
Questions: Once our children have left home, are they “out of sight, out of mind”? Are our kids still the most important thing in our lives? Should they be? Do we just need to turn them loose and stop thinking about them so much? Is it time to move on to other priorities? If our kids do still come first, how do we show it and live it?
Ideas: Family is always first. The minute we lose that sense, we begin to lose ourselves – our truest identity. They are no less ours when they’re gone – our stewardship, our joy, our pride, and our concern. Think about their needs every day. Don’t smother them or try to manage them, but always be aware of them. When you plan your day (or your week or your month), think of your family first.
There are two simple adjustments you can make in how you make your list of things to do each day that will bring about a more consistent orientation to the priority of kids and family. First, get in the habit of thinking, “What does my family need today?” and writing down the answers that come to you before you make your list of “Things to do.” (After all, things are never as important as people – especially people who happen to be your children.) Second, draw a vertical line down the middle of your planner page or your list page. Keep the things (work, business, and church assignments) on the left. Reserve the right side for family things that may come up. Be willing to “jump the line” and take care of family whenever a need or idea occurs to you.
Questions: How do we stay in close touch while still giving them their independence? What are the key things to communicate about? How should our relationship change now that they’re grown and gone? How do we approach them as adults but still as our children? How do we show interest in what they’re doing without being too intrusive?
Ideas: This should be a great pleasure and reward of empty-nest parenting – kids whom we can now talk to as adults, as friends, as interesting people who can expand us even as we expand them. Think of your communication with them as an interest and a joy. Ask questions of genuine interest rather than interrogation. Enjoy them as you would a new friend. Realize that the very technology we often blame for moral and family decline can be assets and powerful keys to our success in empty-nest parenting. E-mail, computer instant messaging, and low rate, long-distance calls can keep communication open and current from any distance. Grab any chance to travel somewhere with an adult child. “Car time” almost always lends itself to an “opening up” type of communication. Encourage your grown children to talk to each other often by phone or through “weekly update” types of e-mail. Consider a brief “online family home evening” once a week from your various locations through an easy-to-set-up computer “chat room.”
5. Family Rules and Standards
Questions: Do the rules still apply? How would you or could you or should you enforce them?
Ideas: It’s more a question of standards than of rules once children are gone. Now is the time they will make truly independent decisions about their behavior. Encourage them by making full use of the two most important tools you still have: example and confidence. View your own behavior not only in terms of its consequences to you but in terms of its impact on them. Look for every opportunity to show your confidence in them and in their choices. Start a new kind of “rules” that are really more like pledges. (“We’re willing to listen, day or night, when someone needs to talk.” “We support each other’s decisions.”)
6. Family Economy
Questions: What expenses should you pay and what should be your children’s responsibility? At what stage should they be completely on their own? What are the tradeoffs between gifts and loans? What approach will maximize their individual initiative and motivation? Do you want them to struggle like you did or to have the advantages you didn’t?
Ideas: Talk this out together and come to an agreement. Don’t figure it out as you go. Kids need to know what to expect and what not to expect. Keep in mind that the goal is independence and self-reliance.
7. Family Traditions
Questions: How many of your family traditions can be continued in some form even though the children are not living at home? What new traditions are starting to form now that they’re living elsewhere? Why is it important to hang onto as many traditions as possible? How do you go about establishing new ones (that center around reunions, weekly e-mails, doing similar things on Sunday, and so on)? What difference do your family traditions make to a child once he or she has left home?
Ideas: If traditions are the glue that holds families together, perhaps we need them even more when our kids are living away from us. Write your traditions down or have your children make a list of them to see what they remember. Then calendar these traditions – the holiday ones, the birthday ones, the seasonal ones, the weekly or Sunday ones, the ones that center around the dinner table – whatever they have been, capture them in writing and give a copy to your departed children. Make an effort to keep those traditions alive, even if you have to do them separately or save them up for times when you are together.
8. Family History and Roots
Questions: Why does it matter that kids know something about their grandparents, great-grandparents, and ancestors? Why might this be especially important to children who are now living away from home?
Ideas: We adamantly believe that you don’t know who you are until you know where you came from. The older we get, the more we see traits of our parents and grandparents in our children (including a lot of ours – the bad along with the good). Kids can see part of their own dreams, desires, and gifts as they study the lives of those who preceded them on the family tree. Write down any interesting stories you know about any of your ancestors – particularly incidents that illustrate their character or personality – and send these to your live-away children. If you don’t already have a pedigree chart, make one. Develop and communicate an interest in the cultures and places where your family has originated. Talk and write about the self-identity we can gain from our roots. Do genealogy together and go to the temple for your own ancestors. Celebrate ancestors’ birthdays, complete with cake, birthday song, and stories that have been passed down. Often working together on the roots is the best way to strengthen the branches.
Consider a summer family vacation to the land of your ancestors. Go to the actual places they were born and lived. If your children are not all with you, write descriptive and imaginative accounts of what you learn about your ancestors’ origins and circumstances.
9. Understanding of and Healthy Skepticism for Larger Institutions
Questions: If we think of the family as the smallest and most basic institution, where our deepest loyalties should lie, what are the larger institutions that compete for that loyalty and that can undermine the principles and priorities we’ve learned in our families? Which larger institutions are particular threats to children as they leave home for the first time?
Ideas: Have some adult conversations with your departed (or soon-to-depart) children about the “mixed blessing” of today’s large institutions, which on the one hand help us and provide valuable services, but which can also deceive and damage us. (Big financial institutions encourage debt; big merchandising and advertising foster materialism and greed; big media promote violence and recreational sex; big data and information [computer and Internet] can waste time and give access to pornography; big government can over-regulate and overtax; and so on). Help your children become good “critics,” with an attitude of healthy skepticism toward the forces of the world – looking for and appreciating the good but also being aware of and cautious about the dangers.
Questions: Do moral and gospel principles become more or less important as children leave? How does Joseph Smith’s statement, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves” apply? How and when should children live less on “borrowed light” and rely more on their own convictions and testimonies?
Ideas: Continue to talk about gospel principles. Hold at least occasional “family home evenings,” even if it has to be by conference call of Internet chat room. At family reunions, have each family member prepare and present a talk on a gospel principle that is important to him or her. Have scripture-reading schedules that you all try to follow as a family. Pray specifically for each other and let each other know the things you’d like to have your family pray about for you. Ask missionaries to send home names and details about investigators and members they are working to reactivate so you can pray for them specifically and by name.
Questions: In connection with the thoughts just mentioned, how could the values you’ve tried to teach your children be undermined as they move out on their own? How will they develop their own personal set of values?
How can those values be kept prominent despite countering influences of media and peer group? Away from your home and your influence, won’t it be substantially harder for your children to live within those values?
Ideas: Agree together to a list of values and to focus on one of those values each month wherever you are and wherever your children are. Devote one letter or e-mail per month to the “value of the month.” Focus on and discuss how values connect to happiness. Make service to others the paramount value of your family and look for chances to serve together in various capacities.
Do the eleven essential elements still apply to grown-up, empty-nest families? Of course they do. In fact, the eleven elements can be used as an effective checklist to evaluate and measure how well you are doing with your empty-nest parenting. If you sense slippage on any of the eleven, it may mean that your family is, at least to some small degree, weakening. As if you were mending a fence, prop up and rebuild any of the eleven sections that are sagging a bit. Be aware of the condition of each element and make repairs and improvements consistently. In so doing, that fence will stay strong enough to protect your family from outside elements that would undermine and destroy, and it will also hold in a concentration of unity and joy that will make the rest of life worth living!
Good luck! And join us next column for more empty nest parenting ideas. In the meantime, answer the following three questions and e-mail your answers to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will tabulate the results and give you feedback in a later column.
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1. What has been your hardest adjustment as your child (children) grew up and left home?
2. What’s the best idea you’ve had for communicating effectively with a child who has left home?
3. What questions or concerns would you like to see addressed by other empty nest parents?
Submit to: email@example.com
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