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Healthy Families: Incubators of Hope for the Future

BY George Sim Johnston

February 08-14, 1998 Issue | Posted 2/8/98 at 2:00 PM

 

Greetings from Orlando, Fla. No, I'm not visiting Disney World. Until Disney CEO Michael Eisner tones down the anti-Catholicism, especially in the ABC network division, the Johnstons will have to take a rain check on the Magic Kingdom.

It is my family, however, that has brought me down here. I'm attending an annual congress sponsored by the International Family Foundation (IFF), which operates in 30 countries. The purpose of IFF is simple but not modest: To teach parents how to build a happy family, and, in the process, transform society.

There's a lot to like about this outfit. It is counter-cultural. It is “grass roots.” And it is optimistic. During the three days of lectures and workshops, there was very little hand-wringing about how dark and inhospitable the culture has become for marriage and family. Instead, the message was: We parents have a job to do. Here's how. Let's get on with it.

What are the secrets of a happy marriage? First, ponder St. Thomas Aquinas's definition of love, which has never been improved upon: “To love is to will the good of another.”

Notice that Aquinas does not mention feelings. If you decide that the good of the person to whom you're married is the most important thing in your life—more important that your job, your friends, even your children—then the feelings will take care of themselves very nicely. It's also good for the children.

Second, learn to yield cheerfully in matters of personal preference. It did not occur to me until several years into my marriage that a father can give a bath to a small child and do it cheerfully. Marriage should never be a 50-50 proposition, but rather 80-20 or even 90-10, with each spouse trying to make those small daily sacrifices that are a key to family happiness.

Third, build shared memories. Watching reruns of Seinfeld doesn't quite do it. Your courtship should be just beginning on your wedding day, not ending. Husbands, in particular, tend to underestimate the effect on their wives when they are tender toward them or surprise them with a special dinner date. Fourth, understand that married love and children are indivisible. As Scott Hahn once put it, the unity of the marriage bond is so deep and profound that nine months (or whatever) after the wedding you have to give it a name. So much for being a good spouse. Now, what makes a good parent? What are the important things we can do for our children?

First, have more children. Any child psychologists will tell you that the best thing you can do for a child is to give him or her siblings. It is paradoxically harder to do a good job bringing up one child than raising four or five. Siblings, among other things, are a reality check.

Second, set high goals for your children. The message that many children get from their parents is: “Do your homework, eat your vegetables, do not disturb my peace.” Smart parents set long-term goals for their children, and work at instilling specific virtues.

Third, kids who have a strong sense of connection to their parents are far less likely to indulge in drugs, alcohol, or early sex. It's not just the hours that parents spend with their kids. It's their emotional availability. A daily sit-down family meal should be non-negotiable. In many households today, parents and children accidentally bump into one another in front of the microwave. They should be sitting at a table and talking.

Fourth, successful parents try to make each child feel special. Once in a while, take each child out for a special meal alone with Mom and Dad, letting the child choose the restaurant.

Fifth, always keep in mind that the family (and, with due respect to the Clinton Administration, not day care centers) is where each of us gets a sense of our personal dignity and unrepeatability. The family, finally, is a school of love. The French novelist Andre Malraux once said that the 21st century will be religious or it will not be. We can paraphrase that and say that the next century will be the century of the family or it will not be. All the good things that are going to happen in the next few decades—including the revival of religious faith—are going to be incubated in the family.

George Sim Johnston is a writer based in New York.