ONCE UPON A TIME, there were Three Little Pigs. (You’re probably wondering what this has got to do with families – right? – but stay with us: there is a connection …) These three little pigs were builders. And they each built a house. And each house faced a test. But when the test came … well … you know what happened. The Big Bad Wolf came knocking on each front door: “Little pig, little pig, let me come in!” And each little pig responded: “Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin!” But there was a problem, remember? Only one of the pigs was smart – he’d built to last, out of bricks. The other two were stupid – they built out of sticks and straw. They never stopped to ask if their houses would stand up to the wolf. And, sadly, they didn’t …
This favourite piggy story raises a profound human issue: How can WE build to last? How can WE survive the test? How can WE keep our families together in a world that pulls families apart? Because the wolf (you don’t have to be a rocket-scientist to work this out) is still doing house-calls. And the family is still an endangered species.
In spite of a million clever experts, sexperts, psychologists and spooks, families down every street are in a mess: couples hating instead of loving … parents and children at war … broken homes, ruined relationships and screwed-up kids around every corner.
And the cost – in terms of human pain, lawyers’ fees and welfare dollars – is astronomical!
LITTLE PIG, LITTLE PIG …
It makes no difference which side of the tracks you’re on. It doesn’t matter whether you’re smart or stupid, rich or poor, somebody or nobody. Sooner or later, every family gets tested. Sooner or later, the wolf comes knocking.
And when it happens, your home can get shaken to the core …
So how can we make our families strong? How can we build to last? How can we stick together in a world that pulls families apart?
Once again, it’s not rocket-science:
1. Strong Families
MAKE TIME FOR EACH OTHER
COME WITH US TO A TYPICAL household, 6:30 at night, dinnertime. Mum’s been home with the kids – Dad’s just got in. She’d love to talk to him about her day, but the News is on. Anyway, she long ago gave up expecting him to listen.
Their two small kids, however, are more determined. “We played soccer today,” says his six-year-old. “And I got all my spelling-words right!”
His four-year-old sister joins in: “Daddy, my kindy teacher’s sick. But you know our tadpoles?” (Her eyes light up.) “They’ve turned into frogs!”
The man nods and grunts over the TV. He’s had a busy day. Got an even busier evening ahead of him. But when the phone rings – “Dad, it’s for you” – he suddenly comes alive. With great enthusiasm he shares his ideas with the voice on the other end. And his kids get the message: the stranger on the phone is important to Daddy!
“Can we play football after tea?” asks his boy.
“Not tonight, son,” he says. “Sorry. I’ve got a meeting. The weekend, maybe.” And the kid doesn’t argue.
Let’s fast-forward: It’s now 10:45pm, same night, and the guy’s still not home. His wife’s in bed, trying to read, but the disappointment tastes strong at the back of her throat. No, her husband’s not out getting drunk. And he’s not with some other woman. But he’s not with HER, either. And she can’t remember when they last had a decent conversation.
Now, let’s be fair: our man’s not a drop-kick. He’s one of the good guys … reliable … very involved in his job and community … the kind of chap you turn to when you want something done.
But he’s pretty-much lost his wife. And his kids are starting to feel like orphans.
WE’VE GOT ‘HURRY SICKNESS’:
We’re too flippin’ busy. We’re addicted to emails and airpoints, cell-phones and strategic plans. We can’t stop. We’ve gotta fly. We’ll call you back. We’ll catch you later. And we steal time from our families without even knowing it …
Talk to teachers and counsellors these days and they’ll tell you: a growing number of kids are spending five minutes with mum or dad for every five HOURS they spend watching TV or on their phones. Our daughters, they warn, are growing up lonely … our sons are growing up lost.
Funny thing is, we each start the day with 1440 minutes. By the time we wake up, shower, get dressed and eat our Weetbix, we’ve only got 1000 left. And we spend every one of them, every day, by the choices we make!
You want the truth? Some of us are CHOOSING to let our families slip through our fingers – while we yawn through meetings … surf the net … play golf at the club or darts at the pub … write to-do lists in our diaries … and tell everyone how busy we are.
Being an effective partner or parent is not some spare-time, piece-of-cake, optional extra that we can casually squeeze-in between the ‘really important’ stuff that we do. This IS the important stuff!
And NOW is the time to do it – NOW, not later, when you aren’t so busy.
One far-too-busy dad, Ben, realised what he was doing to his family. He quit a 70-hour-a-week corporate job and changed his lifestyle – so he could spend more time with his son.
“I notice when I pick Sam up from school, or when we’re at the supermarket on a weekday afternoon, I’m the only father there. All the other dads are working and, I assume, earning much more money than I am.
“This makes me envious at times, but never for more than a few seconds. I mostly feel I’ve learned something others have missed: If you work hard, you can usually make enough money to put bread on the table. If you don’t get promoted this month, there’s always another chance. But the few years between five and 15, when your child is articulate, insightful and boundlessly affectionate, these years go by astonishingly fast.
“No millionaire can turn his surly 16-year-old into a devoted, hold-your-hand youngster. No corporate title can replace the times when your boy leaned his head on your chest and fell asleep. No fancy car or private jet makes up for being there when your son is growing from a child into a young man.
“Time spent with Sam isn’t a distraction from the main event. It IS the main event!”
GROWING A FAMILY TAKES TIME:
It doesn’t happen when you’re rushing past each other in the morning, trying to get off to work. It doesn’t happen during the commercials on TV. And it doesn’t happen last thing at night when you’re pooped.
- A word for couples: If your relationship’s important to you, it deserves some of the BEST time in your day, not the rag-ends when you’ve got nothing left to give!
- A word for parents: The No.1 requirement for good parenting is not complicated or difficult – it’s actually breathtakingly simple: just BE THERE, and give the little guys your undivided attention!
2. Strong Families
HAVE FUN TOGETHER
IMAGINE YOU’RE EATING OUT, Saturday night, and the restaurant’s full. Everyone’s having a ball – except for the grumpy couple sitting over in the corner. They’re not looking at each other. Not enjoying their food – just poking at it. Not saying much, either. In fact, you can tell by the look on their faces that what little conversation is happening, it sure ain’t HAPPY talk.
“They’re boring each other to death!” you think, and you’re probably right. They’re living proof that one of the first things to go when a relationship is in trouble is the LAUGHTER.
But wait! At a table nearby you spot the young lovers. And these two pass the ‘laughter-test’ with flying colours! They’re all over each other, eyes glued on each other, touching and giggling and whispering about every stupid little thing that comes into their heads. Just passing the pepper is a romantic encounter!
Yes, it’s pathetic! But who cares? They’re in LOVE! They’re having FUN! And it’s all too wonderful to behold …
For a moment there, in the middle of that restaurant, you’re tempted to drag the boring old sad-sacks out of the corner … point to these kids … and ask: “Do you remember what it was like when YOU were first in love? Do you remember how much FUN you had?”
TIME TO REMEMBER:
Do YOU remember how cheerful and romantic you used to be … the nice things you used to say about his crazy sense of humour, or her gorgeous, sexy legs … the movies and milkshakes at midnight … the walks in the wind and rain … the messages, cards and phonecalls?
Do YOU remember those long, lazy hours you spent gazing at each other, clinging to each other, talking non-stop, and laughing ‘til you choked?
Maybe you can’t do all those things now. (Maybe you can’t afford to!) But it wouldn’t hurt to dust off some of that fun and put it to work again …
“Some families,” writes one experienced friend, “don’t know how to have fun anymore. Some parents are so worried about the mechanics of raising children that they lose the JOY of raising children. They want their kids to be trouble-free, low-maintenance ‘things’ that will slot in where they’re supposed to, cause no trouble, and grow up to make Mum and Dad proud.
“But children aren’t ‘things’. They’re wild, spontaneous, unpredictable bundles
of energy that have minds and hearts of their own. A child is a divine interruption, likely to explode into life without warning and in all directions at once – throwing our neat and tidy theories out the window, and testing his or her parents to the limit.
“Families aren’t greenhouses. They’re playhouses. Or (if they’re anything like ours) madhouses, even! They’re places where children can be children … where wonder, joy, laughter and tears are constant companions … where growing up is a great adventure full of surprise, danger and risk … a roller-coaster of happiness and sadness, of success and failure, ending up finally in a bundle of memories that’ll stay with you through the rest of your lives!”
- A word for couples: Wanna earn some big points with your partner? Take the fun and the zing and the excitement that make an affair seem so attractive – and put them to work back home!
- A word for parents: Wanna earn some big points with your kids? Dads – let them see you having fun with Mum! Mums – let them see you having fun with Dad! There’s nothing that makes children feel more secure.
THE GOVERNMENT CAN’T HUG KIDS:
It can’t tickle kids on the carpet … or have water-fights on the lawn … or read kids a story in bed … or giggle with them at the movies … or help them make a tree-hut … or take them fishing … or can’t tuck them in and kiss them goodnight …
The Government’s not much good when it comes to praising kids or praying with kids. It can’t give them emotional warmth and healthy limits … a sense of personal worth … and the knowledge that they’re wanted and loved.
No, these are jobs only families can do!
3. Strong Families
DO LOTS OF LISTENING & TALKING
OPPOSITES ATTRACT. EVERYONE knows that. Scratch around below the surface and you find that NO two people think or feel or act exactly the same. We’re all incompatible, and probably always will be.
However, that’s not the problem it’s often made out to be …
Those frustrating, delightful, annoying differences are one of God’s nicest ideas. They keep us on our toes, stop us getting bored. And it’s time couples stopped blaming incompatibility for their relationship failures.
No, the problem is that PEOPLE DON’T TALK ANYMORE. And that (ask anyone stuck in a communication rut) is not funny:
IT’S NOT FUNNY …
… when one-time night-time lovers discover they’re no longer daytime friends … when somewhere between their daughter’s first tooth and their son’s graduation, two people who once talked about EVERYTHING now talk about NOTHING, nothing important.
But it’s happening! Everywhere you turn, in homes great and small, couples who once loved each other are becoming strangers. Marriages-made-in-heaven are becoming stalemates-made-in-hell. Parents and kids are shouting, screaming, giving each other the ‘silent-treatment’. And angry, raised voices can be heard declaring: “Talking to you is like talking to a brick wall!”
Your best defence when the wolf comes knocking is CONVERSATION. And if that’s become a lost art at your place …
Turn the TV off – and turn the talk back on: Grab some time alone each day. Go for a walk. Drink some coffee. Try some music. Create some atmosphere. Practise small-talk … which leads to big-talk … which leads to intimate, one-on-one talk. Practise talking about how you feel inside, how you feel right now, how you feel about each other, how you feel about life.
Stop nag-nag-nagging – and try listening for a change: Listening is hard work. And most of us prefer speaking, arguing, having the last say! But listening is one of the kindest gifts we can give each other. Listening is more than politely waiting for your turn to speak … or working out what your next argument’s going to be as soon as he/she shuts up. Listening means concentrating on what is being said and accepting what’s being said … whether or not you agree with it, and without passing judgement.
FRAGILE – HANDLE WITH CARE:
God gave us two ears and one mouth. And listening means keeping those ears open and that mouth firmly shut! Listening needs all your attention. It’s letting the other person know that his/her feelings are important … that you’re trying to understand.
Family therapists Gary Smalley and John Trent, tell of a varsity tutor who, on the first day of class, asked his new students to respond to two questions: “What do I LIKE about myself?” and “What DON’T I like about myself?” And one by one, the students responded.
Hiding near the back of the room was Dorothy. Long red hair hung down around her face – and when it was her turn to speak, there was only silence. The tutor gently repeated the question, thinking she may not have heard.
Finally, with a deep sigh, Dorothy sat up and pulled back her hair. Covering nearly all one side of her face was a large red birthmark, nearly as red as her hair.
“THAT,” she said, pointing to it, “should show you what I don’t like about myself!”
Moved with compassion, the tutor leaned over and gave her a hug. Then he kissed her on the cheek where the birthmark was, and said, “That’s okay. God and I still think you’re beautiful.”
Dorothy started to cry uncontrollably, and the students gathered around to comfort her. Then, as she wiped the tears from her eyes, she whispered, “I’ve waited so long for someone to hug me and say what you said. Why couldn’t my parents have done that?”
Mmm … gets you thinking, eh:
- When was the last time you told YOUR daughter that you think she’s beautiful?
- When was the last time you told YOUR son that you’re incredibly proud of him?
- When was the last time you told your wife that she’s the best thing that ever happened to you?
- When was the last time you told your husband that you’re so glad you married him?
- When was the last time you told your parents how grateful you are for everything they’ve done?
Don’t put it off. Don’t wait until you’re not so busy. Get off your butt – grab the phone – write a note – do it NOW!
4. Strong Families
NEVER GIVE UP
IT’S EASY TO GET ALL MUSHY and sentimental about family-life. But, as most of us learn, closeness is costly. And relationships are hard work.
Oh, sure, the Wedding Day’s easy. Like dying cows in a hailstorm, we stand there, dressed to kill, and itching to take our vows. He mumbles “I do …” (wondering, fingers-crossed, if he really will) … and she says the same (believing, with starry eyes, that “till death us do part” means all of next year).
But what do these kids know about bills and budgets … dirty kitchens and wet washing … stretchmarks and full nappies … lawns that have to be mowed … kids who throw wobblies in supermarkets … and pets that poo on the carpet?
They’ve yet to find out that this eating-sleeping-talking-breathing deal we call ‘FAMILY’ is quite a challenge.
LET’S FACE IT:
No one stomps on our egos, invades our privacy, rocks our boat and gets on our nerves the way our family does – right? Our partners and kids are always there (in person or in the back of our minds). And they’re forever exposing us at our worst – right?
Sooner or later, we all make the discovery: strong, healthy, together families don’t just happen!
And ‘real love’ doesn’t come naturally. Real love takes practice. It’s difficult! And when it stops being difficult it stops being real love.
There are times in even the best relationship when the magic disappears … when money-worries or sexual tensions or hassling-kids or sheer tiredness makes it all seem too much … when the hello and goodbye kisses are kinda ho-hum … when it just doesn’t feel that good anymore.
There are times with even the best parents when Home-Sweet-Home looks more like a battlefield … when your little darling becomes a little monster and pushes your patience to breaking-point … when life with your teenager is screaming-match after screaming-match … when you cry yourself to sleep at night wondering where on earth you went wrong.
There are times in even the most ‘together’ homes when the wolf won’t stop knocking … when the testing really hurts … when we’re up to here in deep yoghurt … when it all hits the fan.
Look, hear us on this:
- Some of the nicest people in the world end up alone – their marriages busted-to-bits.
- Some truly horrible people stay married – in homes robbed of love and togetherness.
- Some parents who are walking disasters raise kids who, in spite of everything, do brilliantly.
- Some parents who do everything right raise kids who, in spite of everything, make a shambles of their lives, and seem hell-bent on self-destructing.
But wait: – there’s hope:
- For every couple who are at each other’s throats, there are other couples who are more in love than they’ve ever been!
- For every kid who’s kicking the house down and breaking his parent’s hearts, there are other bright-eyed youngsters who aren’t gonna stop until they’ve made this world a better place.
- For every family that’s falling apart, there are other families who are pulling together like you wouldn’t believe.
5. So what’s the secret?
WHAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
LOVE, THAT’S WHAT! BECAUSE love (to quote the Bible) “never stops believing, never gives up, always endures – it’s the only things that works when nothing else will …”
Late author/speaker Brennan Manning, remembered a student he once taught at university. “Larry was short, extremely fat, and had a terrible case of acne. He was wearing a t-shirt that hadn’t been washed since the war, blue jeans with a patch in the backside, and bare feet – I’d never met a kid with such low self-esteem.”
In the holidays, Larry went home “smelling like a billygoat” – and he and his stiff-and-starchy father had their usual arguments. Then one night Larry announced: “I’ve gotta go back to uni in the morning.”
“What time, son?” asked his dad.
“I need to leave here at six.”
“Well, I’ll ride down in the bus with you.”
So next morning, father and son rode down in the bus in silence. They got off the bus and were standing on the corner – Larry was going to catch a second bus out to the airport. Across the street were a bunch of men who worked in the same factory as Larry’s father. And when they saw Larry, they began making loud and degrading remarks:
“Oink, oink – look at that fat pig over there!”
“They’re all the same, these hippies – lazy and immoral.”
“I tell you, if that was my kid I’d hide him in the basement, I’d be so embarrassed.”
“Not me. If that was my kid, he’d be out the door so quick he wouldn’t know if he was on foot or on horseback.”
“Hey, pig – give us an oink!”
Larry later recounted that, as these brutal insults continued, his father did something he’d never done before. He reached out, embraced his son, kissed him on both cheeks, and said, “Larry, if your mother and I live to be 150 years old, that won’t be long enough to thank God for the gift he gave us in you. I’m so proud you’re my son!”
Wrote Brennan Manning afterwards: “I have no words to describe the change, the complete transformation, that took place in Larry. He returned to university, cleaned up his act, and eventually became president of the student committee. To make a long story short, on June 1st several years later, Larry Malaney was ordained a priest.
“Do you know why?” asked Manning. “Because his father healed him! That’s why! His father had the guts to stand up beside his son. Instead of shouting with the crowd across the street, he looked deeply into his son’s eyes … saw the good there that Larry couldn’t see in himself … affirmed him by the touch of his love … and changed the whole direction of Larry’s life!”
LODGED IN YOUR HEART – and ours – is the same power that was lodged in Larry’s father’s heart: the power to step into the lives of our partners, our kids, the people we’re close to … affirm them by the touch of our love … and give them the courage to be all that they’re meant to be.
The big question is: WILL WE USE IT?