7 Keys to Building Strong Families

If you survived a nuclear disaster, when the danger was over and you came out of hiding, what would be the first thing you would look for? If you are like most of us your answer is simple and wouldn’t take much thought.

You probably wouldn’t be too concerned about the paint on your house, the flowers in your garden or the football game that had been interrupted. You wouldn’t look for a thing. You’d look for a person. You would frantically search for your husband or your wife, your son or your daughter. You’d want to find your family and make sure they were safe.

Some time ago I saw an interview of a couple who had lost their home and all of their possessions but had barely escaped the fury of hurricane Georges. They were exhausted, soaking wet and holding onto each other and their children.

After answering questions as to what they had lost the husband turned to the reporter and said, “Most of what we lost we can replace. It may take some time, but we’ll bounce back.” He then looked at his wife and his kids and with a lump in his throat said, “I just thank God we were able to save what we could never replace.”

The quality of family life influences every other part of our life. Surveys tell us that the greatest source of happiness in life is the family. The same surveys tell us that the greatest source of frustration and disappointment in people’s lives is dealing with family problems.

Every one of us, including you, is part of a family. In fact we’re part of several families. You didn’t have any choice in the matter. God has designed the family as the basic unit of all society. As goes the family, so go our communities. As go our communities so go our states. As go our states so go our nations. As go our nations so go entire civilizations.

You may be surprised to learn that there is a clear pattern to the rise and fall of great societies such as Rome, Greece and Egypt. When they were at the peak of their power and prosperity, the family was strong and highly valued. However, when family life became weak, when the family was not valued, when they began to value things rather than relationships, when society became extremely individualistic, the society began to deteriorate and eventually fell apart.

A short time ago I heard an interview with former President George Bush. He expressed regret over his failure to help American families more during his term in the White House. “I thought of all the things I had the power to do as President,” Bush said. “I moved half a million Americans over to the desert to show the world that aggression would not stand. A president has great power over foreign policy.”

“But if I had a chance to do one thing, it would have been to further the return to this country of an internal moral compass. We cannot continue to produce generations born into despair. We must say every choice is a moral choice, and some things are simply morally wrong.”

Bush said his experience since leaving the White House – as a grandfather instead of president – has been enlightening. “We love having the kids around,” he said. “I really believe that family is what it’s all about. What kills me is the decimation and decline of the American family.”

I agree with Chuck Swindoll who writes, “How parents raise their children will have a greater impact on society than the way they vote, the art they create, the books they read, the technological problems they solve, or the planets they visit in space.”

Surveys and polls show that Americans are more concerned than ever before with decay and decline of the family . . . and for good reason! Newsweek magazine recently devoted a special issue to “The 21st Century Family.” Their writers make the bold statement that . . .

“The American family does not exist. Rather, we are creating many American families, of diverse styles and shapes. In unprecedented numbers our families are unalike: we have fathers working while mothers keep house; fathers and mothers both working away from home; single parents; second marriages bringing children together from unrelated backgrounds; childless couples; unmarried couples with and without children; gay and lesbian parents. We are living through a period of historic change in American family life.”

Indeed times have changed. These changes are having a dramatic effect on the face of today’s family. There is increasingly clear evidence that many or the major problems in our society are associated with poor, negative, unsatisfying or even nonexistent family life. We know what’s wrong. But what can we do with our kids that can make a difference?

Over the past 15 years there have been numerous studies on characteristics of strong, healthy families. What does a healthy family look like? What do healthy families do? From my research, interviews, clinical work and from my experience as a father of three, I’ve identified, not 12 steps or a “Top 10” but 7 simple keys to growing healthy families.

In the weeks ahead I will be sharing these seven simple keys with you. Most of them are fairly common-sense basic principles that all of us have heard before. But, just because we’ve heard them doesn’t mean we do them. I don t know about you, but in my own life, knowledge doesn’t always lead to action! Or when it does, it can lead to an attempt to accomplish too much change in too little time. That just leads to more discouragement and frustration.

Growth is a process. It takes time. It isn’t always easy. It can be frustrating. We read a book or leave a lecture excited and motivated, and often try to do too much or expect too much too soon. As a psychologist and a parent I’ve discovered that meaningful change takes place as a series of small steps.

I know that this column has readers that come from different places in life. However, each one of us is part of a family. Regardless of your age or marital status, I believe that you will find something in each article that you will be able to apply in your present relationships to make them healthier and more mutually satisfying.

Key #1: The Power of Modeling

Everybody believes family is important. Everyone wants to have a healthy family. From my review of research at The Center for Marriage and Family Studies, interviews with hundreds of families, clinical work and my experience as a father of three, I’ve identified seven common-sense keys to growing healthy families.

I recently saw an excellent illustration of how families function. My wife Carrie and I were visiting the seaside town of Cambria, California. While shopping we saw a mobile made of nine seashells. Each shell was a different size, shape and color and hung in delicate balance with the others.

I gently blew on one of the shells. Do you know what happened? Because the shells were linked together, the energy from that gentle breath on one shell was transmitted to the others. The entire mobile was affected and all of the shells moved.

Families are similar to this mobile. In place of the seashells, picture the members of your family. Your family “mobile” may include grandparents, parents, siblings, your spouse and your children.

Regardless of a family’s structure, what happens to one family member or the decisions one member makes affect every other individual in the family as well as the entire family system. This is especially true with parents. While we’ve always known that parents have a tremendous influence on the development of their children’s character, we’re now discovering that influence is far beyond what we had imagined.

Key #1 says that, “What your kids see you do as they grow up is what you’ll likely see them do when they’ve grown up.”

What do your children see modeled in your character? Do they see a mom and dad who have a visible love for each other or a single parent who has a visible love for family and close friends? Do they see truth, honesty and integrity in action? Do they know that your love for them is not based on their performance? Do they have healthy examples of problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills? Do you appreciate and promote their uniqueness? Do you model and encourage a healthy experience and expression of emotions?

Why are these things so important? They are some of the core skills our children need to become healthy individuals and develop healthy relationships. You can feed your kids good food, buy them nice clothes and a car, give them a great college education. What you may end up with is a well-fed, well-clothed college graduate who drives a nice car but doesn’t have a clue about what it means to be a person of honesty and integrity and have healthy relationships.

Trust me when I tell you that the most influential education your children will ever get is what they see and hear in your home. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9 we read that there are two basic ways to teach their children. The first is formal instruction. This is where parents tell children what they should and shouldn’t do. We give them helpful information, often in the form of a lecture or less helpful, “How many times have I told you?”

The second and much more powerful way to teach children is informally through the morals and values we model before them. While both are important, informal or what I call “lifestyle” instruction is by far the most influential.

While writing this article God brought to mind the example of my own parents who gave me both formal and informal instruction. Yet when I reflect on what they did that was most helpful to me, what stands out in my memory is their informal instruction, their example.

They didn’t merely tell me how important it was to go to church. They took me to church. I wasn’t forced to get up early to read my Bible and pray. In fact I rarely got up early. Yet, when I did, forever etched in my mind is the vivid picture of my dad in his bathrobe either reading the Bible or praying.

When I was wrong they corrected me. When I was disobedient they disciplined me. When I made a mistake they forgave me. When I sinned they reminded me of the need for repentance and the fact of God’s grace. When I was overcome with discouragement they listened and encouraged me.

No, they weren’t perfect. They made mistakes. But that was another gift. They let me see their weaknesses as well as their strengths. They acknowledged their limitations and apologized when they were wrong. They taught me that no matter how old you are you can always learn and grow.

The home is the window through which children get their first glimpse of who they are and what they are worth. Children discover their value in the mirror of those around them, by how much they are looked at, listened to and touched, by what their parents say to them and about them in front of others.

The greatest gift you can give your child is who you are. The lifestyle our children see us model daily is much more powerful than what we tell them. Both are important. But there must be congruity between the talk and the walk.

“Children Learn What They Live”

If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.

If a child lives with hostility, she learns to fight.

If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilty.

If a child lives with tolerance, she learns to be patient.

If a child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy.

If a child lives with encouragement, she learns confidence.

If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice.

If a child lives with security, she learns to have faith. |

If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself.

If a child lives with acceptance & friendship, she learns to find love in the world.

This week, how can you model love, patience, honesty, thoughtfulness, fairness and acceptance to someone in your family? Pick one person and for the next 2 weeks practice modeling one of these characteristics.

Key #2: Giving the Gift of Time

This second key to building strong families is the simplest but also one of the most difficult. It doesn’t take any special training — only a mom or dad who knows it’s important to be available to their kids. Did you know that children spell love differently than most adults do? Most children spell love with a T, an I, an M and an E. That’s right. TIME is how most children spell love. Key #2 says: “Healthy parents don’t find time, they make time.

Why is it so difficult? We’re all busy with demands and pressures. In the midst of this busyness our children can easily seem like an interruption. It is unrealistic for us to always drop everything and cater to the demands of our children. At the same time we need to remember that children don’t have the same sense of time that we do.

How can we “make time?” One way is set aside special times for them. Acknowledge them when they get up in the morning or when they get home from school or another event. Set aside quantity time at certain times during the week.

As you study your children you may discover certain times during the day when they are more open to chatting. A smart parent will try to “set aside” their schedule during these times and just “happen” to be available to talk about their day, read with them, play with them, or share your day with them.

Another way is to look for “teachable moments.” In Luke 5:17-20 Christ was teaching a distinguished group of community leaders who had traveled miles to hear his sermon. Right in the middle of Christ’s sermon the ceiling tiles above His head began to move. Then they were pulled off and a paralyzed man on a stretcher was lowered down right in front of Him.

What a lousy time for an interruption. Can you think of a better way to blow a good sermon? We don’t know if Christ was on His second or third point or maybe doing the wrap-up for a powerful close. Yet, what most of us would view as an interruption Christ viewed as a unique opportunity. Christ saw the need, He recognized their faith and it was clear that this was more important than His talk. He immediately saw this as a teachable moment and took advantage of it.

Through teachable moments we can help our children deal with their issues. Sometimes they want to deal with them immediately and other times they need to think about them first. But our kids don’t forget confusing or painful emotional experiences. They need to learn how to process them with someone who will help them “get it out” but not try to “solve” it for them. Through trial and error we as parents can make time and provide a safe place to help our kids grow.

I don’t know of very many families today that aren’t overcommitted. I believe that lack of time, or to be more accurate, lack of choosing to make time may be the most insidious, pervasive, and destructive enemy the healthy family has. That may sound a bit strong but in many ways it is true.

J. Allen Peterson has written, “If I could start my family again, one thing would be changed. I would play more with my three boys, and cultivate more family sharing experiences. By sharing good times a family builds cohesiveness and unity. They learn to enjoy each other and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. The play of children is something of a rehearsal for life, and parents who share these times of play will have a great opportunity to teach their children how to live.”

Time is a concrete, measurable expression of love. When I give someone the gift of time I am saying “I value you” and “You are important to me.” The key to having a strong marriage, to communicating values to our kids is time. If we want our children to know, understand and adopt our values, we need to spend time with them.

In the past two years I have interviewed several hundred couples and each one has said “Yes!” they believe the family is important and that it is one of their top priorities. Then I asked them, “Do you plan your expenditure of time and money around your marriage and family relationships?” Over 80% stated that while they valued their marriage and family, what in fact happened was that they didn’t consistently give their marriage and family first place.

When 1,500 school children were asked the question, “What do you think makes a happy family?” the most frequent answer was “doing things together.” Over the years I’ve learned that in life it’s not so much what we do for our kids that impacts them. It’s what we do with them. When you think back to the happy times of your childhood what kinds of memories come to mind? When you get together with family or childhood friends and recall the “good old days” what is it that made those days good?

Several years ago I heard a convicting story of the value and importance of making the family a priority. A middle-class family in the 40’s set a family goal of remodeling their old bathroom. After a year of financial sacrifices they finally had enough cash for the project. At the family conference held to finalize the plans one of the children suggested, “Why don’t we use the money for a trip and fix the bathroom next year?” Even though it involved a change in plans everyone liked the suggestion and that summer they took the money and went to Yellowstone National Park.

With the money spent, the saving started all over in order to do the postponed remodeling the next year. When it came time to hire the contractor the family’s conversation drifted to how much they had enjoyed the trip to Yellowstone and the inevitable suggestion surfaced: “Why not put off the bathroom for just one more year and take another family trip?” They all agreed.

This scene was repeated every year from 1940 until 1950 when the youngest son was killed in Korea. On the night before his final battle he wrote a letter to his parents. The letter arrived months after the family had been notified of his death. There was a special emotion as Mom and Dad sat in their living room to read to each other their son’s last words.

In this touching letter the young soldier expressed a premonition that he might soon die. He thanked his folks for their love and the many happy experiences of growing up, especially recalling the annual family trips they all shared. Long silence followed the reading as both quietly wept. The silence was broken when the dad asked, “Honey, could you imagine a son writing home on the night before he died and saying how glad he was for a fancy new bathroom?”

In the next two weeks I encourage you to invest some focused time with your family. There are a lot of options: go to church together, ride bikes, go fishing, play Frisbee at a local park, take one of them to Cracker Barrel for a huge breakfast, plan your next vacation.

Key #3: Power of Nourishing Love

Welcome to another installment of 7 Keys to Building Strong Families. If you’ve been following this column you know that so far we’ve talked about the first two: Key #1 says: What your kids see you do as they grow up is what you’ll likely see them do when they’ve grown up. With Key #2 we learned that: Healthy parents don’t find time, they make time.

Today we come to Key #3 which says: Learn how to say “I Love You!” in more than one way. The basis for this key comes from the book of Ephesians in the New Testament. In chapter 5 the apostle Paul gives some wise counsel to husbands and wives. He tells us that two key activities in a loving relationship are learning to cherish and nourish the other person. Many people know what it means to love or cherish somebody. The challenge is to learn how to go beyond cherishing the one you love and discover how to nourish them.

Cherish is the easy part. When you cherish something it means that you value and care about it. It is important to you. However, you may not express it. That’s where nourish comes in.

Nourish is an action term that looks at what I actually do. It involves going beyond the attitude to action. The attitude of cherishing and the activity of nourishing are two of the key dimensions of love. A healthy loving relationship needs both. However, most people find it easier to cherish than to nourish. It’s easier to feel love than it is to effectively and creatively express love. What does it mean to nourish and how can we do it?

In the mid-seventies I moved from Southern California to Central Nebraska. I didn’t have very much furniture so the large old farmhouse I rented seemed rather bare. So I went to a nursery and purchased about ten different plants. Plants enrich the air, add warmth and character are attractive and are cheaper than furniture.

As I picked out each plant the clerk explained to me the uniqueness of that plant. Things like when to prune and fertilize and how much water and light each plant liked. Unfortunately for me and the plants, I didn’t listen to her. On my way out the door I picked up some fertilizer spikes and took my plants home. The package said that you should use one spike for an eight inch pot.

I decided to really nourish my plants so I put in three spikes rather than one. Knowing that plants need water I gave those plants more water than any plant deserved. One of my favorite hymns is “Like A River Glorious” and that’s the way I watered those plants. I knew that in no time those plants would be growing.

Can you guess what happened? In several weeks all of my plants were dead. I couldn’t believe it. I gave my plants what I thought they needed and I gave them a lot of it. My intention had been to nourish them, but I ended up killing them. What had I done wrong?

I returned to the nursery and told the clerk what I had done. At first she thought I was kidding and started laughing. I let her know that I wasn’t kidding and that I didn’t think it was funny. Especially with the price of plants.

She explained to me that I had treated all the plants as if they were the same. I had not given the plants what they needed. I gave them what I thought they needed. She repeated that each plant is different. What may nourish one plant can kill another plant. It is important to learn the unique needs of each plant and treat it accordingly.

I purchased more plants but this time I followed all the instructions carefully. Guess what? My plants grew and blossomed and flourished. Why? Because this time I had truly nourished them.

Many families act like I did when I went to the nursery for the first time. Sometimes we think we know our spouse or children better than we really do. We believe that we can nourish our loved ones by giving them what we think they need. Often this involves our giving them what we would like and assuming that if we like it, they should too. When they don’t respond with enthusiasm and gratitude we become frustrated, disappointed and discouraged.

Quality nourishment involves stopping, looking, listening and studying that special person. Nourish means investing the time to learn the love language of those you love and to love them in ways that are meaningful to them. Often what says love to you, what excites you, what brings you great joy is different than what says love to your spouse or your child.

Most of us have good intentions. However, good intentions aren’t enough. If we want to grow healthy relationships we must go beyond good intentions. We must learn how to create the kind of environment that can help love grow.

The Bible tells us that this is exactly what Christ did for us. He didn’t just cherish us. He went beyond warm feelings and good intentions to come to earth die on the cross, rise again, and in doing so give us what we really need. God invented love. He designed us with the ability to give and receive love. In the next two weeks, pick one person in your family and practice nourishing them.

Key #4: Cultivating an Encouraging Environment

1. What you kids see you do as they grow up is what you’ll likely see them do when they’ve grown up.

2. Healthy parents don’t find time, they make time.

3. Healthy parents know how to say “I Love You” in more than one way.

When I was a little boy I spent many a Saturday morning watching cowboy shows where I would frequently hear Roy Rogers or Gene Autry sing “Home on the Range.” Do you remember the words to the chorus?

Home, home on the range

Where the deer and the antelope play

Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word

And the skies are not cloudy all day

It’s sad to say that many of our homes today aren’t like the home on the range. Rather than seldom hearing a discouraging word, many of us live in homes where seldom is heard an ENCOURAGING word.

It’s so easy for us when we’re tired, weary and stressed-out to become more negative and critical and only notice what’s wrong or what someone has failed to do. A lack of encouragement leads to discouragement and depression which is the number one mental health problem of our time.

In my last article I talked about the power of creative expressions of love. This week I’m going to give you another practical, proven idea to take your important relationships to the next level.

Key #4 says: A healthy home cultivates an encouraging environment.

Do you remember the last time you were criticized, minimized or put down? When was the last time you worked hard to do a good job and the only thing that was noticed was what you didn’t do or what you didn’t do that was good enough? How did you feel? Did you feel better about yourself? How did you feel towards the person criticizing you? Were you encouraged? Were you motivated to do better? Or did you feel like giving up?

An encouraging environment is one in which we spend more time building and encouraging our loved ones than we do scolding and correcting them. It’s one in which we honor them by speaking respectfully to them.

An encouraging environment is one where our emphasis is on catching those we love doing good rather than catching them making mistakes. We invest more energy in praising them for being successful than in criticizing and castigating them for falling short of our expectations.

Several months ago I criticized one of my boys for not making his bed. I didn’t yell but my tone of voice told him that I was disappointed. Later that day my wife Carrie said, “Gary, you criticized Andrew for not making his bed this morning and he didn’t. But he has made it every day for the past several days. Have you noticed it and praised him for following through?”

I’m embarrassed to say that my answer was no. But within minutes I went to him, acknowledged his hard work and told him how much I appreciated it. His smile and “Thanks Dad” let me know I had encouraged him.

An encouraging environment is one in which we respond to our children’s pleasant as well as painful emotions. Without intending to many of us primarily respond to our children or spouses when their emotions are inappropriate or out of control. What many kids learn is that if I want any attention the only way I will get it is if I’m either in a crisis or create a crisis.

An encouraging environment is one where it is safe for any family member to make mistakes. In fact it is not only safe but our kids begin to learn that God can use our failures to help us grow. They learn that Romans 8:28 is really true, that God can cause “all things to work together for good.” They learn that one of the best questions to ask after making a mistake is “What can I learn from this?” and not “How can I hide this so I won’t get in trouble.”

How can you begin to create an encouraging environment in your home? Get out a pad and pencil. Write down the name of your spouse and your kids. Now ask yourself the following questions and write your responses under each person’s name. What are their strengths? What do they do well? What says love to them? What makes them laugh? What makes them beam? What gives them joy? What is it about them that you are thankful for? What are three good things that they have done in the past week?

Now, how many times during the last week have you given them a specific compliment or thanked them for something positive? When is the last time you “caught” them being healthy and let them know how much you appreciated it? When is the last time you gave them an inexpensive gift just for the fun of it?

Here’s how simple this can be. Several years ago when my son Andrew was five I went into his room, as I do almost every night, to chat and to pray with him. This evening I decided to make up a song about all the things I appreciated and loved about him and started singing to him. The words didn’t rhyme, the tune changed with every new verse and my voice didn’t sound that good. After a couple of minutes I ran out of things to sing. As I started to pray with him Andrew looked up at me, took my hand and said, “Sing to me some more daddy, sing to me some more.” He loved to hear me share what I liked and appreciated about him. That’s the only time in my life someone has asked me to keep on singing.

For the next seven days set aside a couple of minutes each day to encourage each person on your list. At first they may not notice, but after a few days you will discover the power of an encouraging word.

Key #5: The Gift of Healthy Anger 

1. What your kids see you do as they grow up is what you’ll likely see them do when they’ve grown up.

2. Healthy parents don’t find time, they make time.

3. Healthy parents know how to say “I Love You” in more than on way.

4. A healthy home cultivates an encouraging environment.

What do you think of when you hear the word anger? For over 20 years I’ve led workshops dealing with emotions. Whenever I ask for a word association to anger the responses are invariably 99% negative. Why is it that of all the emotions anger has such a bad reputation? Why do so many people have a totally negative view of anger? Is all anger bad? Can this unwelcome and potentially destructive emotion be considered a gift rather than a time-bomb

One reader wrote: “For many years I’ve struggled my anger. I can go along for a while and it doesn’t bother me and then, all of a sudden, I loose my temper and say and do things I’m usually sorry for. I’m not the only one in my family with a “anger problem.” My father has a reputation for being “hot-headed.” He doesn’t get angry very often but when he does, watch out. Dr. Oliver, here’s my question: Is there any place for anger in a healthy family?”

My answer is a qualified yes. In fact, the 5th key to building strong families recognizes that “A healthy home is where people express anger in HEALTHY ways.” Most people view anger only as a problem, something negative to be avoided. They’ve only seen the painful and destructive side of uncontrolled anger.

The surprising truth is that when a person understands anger and learns how to express it in healthy ways, it can be an ally and actually lead to increased trust, greater intimacy and stronger relationships. As a clinical psychologist and family therapist I’ve spent hundreds of hours with people stuck in their effort to grow, or digging out of the fallout from the painful effects of uncontrolled anger that was ultimately caused by their unwillingness to learn how to deal with their anger.

There are several reasons why it is important for us to understand the emotion of anger:

1. Anger Is A Fact Of Life:

Everyone experiences some form of anger. Webster defines anger as “emotional excitement induced by intense displeasure.” Anger is a strong feeling of irritation or displeasure. Anger provides physical and emotional that prepares our mind and our body to act. It is up to us whether we use that energy in constructive ways or abuse ourselves and others.

2. Anger Is A Frequently Experienced Emotion:

The emotion of anger is experienced much more frequently than most people would like to admit. When we begrudge, disdain others or when we are annoyed, repulsed, irritated, frustrated, offended or cross we are probably experiencing some form of anger. Dr. Henrie Weisinger has demonstrated in several research studies that most people experience the emotion of anger a minimum of 8-10 times a day.

3. Anger Is One Of The Most Powerful Emotions:

Healthy anger can provide tremendous energy to right wrongs and change things for the good. If we have been hurt or wronged it is easy for us to experience anger. The next step is that our human nature wants revenge. When we allow our anger to be in control it can easily distort our perspective, block our ability to love and thus limit our ability to see things clearly. There are enormous benefits in allowing ourselves to experience and express anger appropriately. There are also potentially devastating consequences in allowing ourselves to be controlled by our anger.

4. Unhealthy Anger Has Tremendous Potential For Harm:

Not only is anger an uncomfortable emotional state, it is also a potentially dangerous one. Uncontrolled anger can lead to destructive actions such as emotional, verbal or even physical abuse and violence. Most of us have only learned unhealthy ways to deal with our anger. When we stuff, repress, suppress, deny or ignore it we become a walking Mt. St. Helens ready to explode. When we “let it all out” and dump on those around us we can weaken trust, destroy relationships and reputations

5. Healthy Anger Has Tremendous Potential For Good:

Since we usually hear examples of uncontrolled anger it’s easy to forget that anger can have a good side. Anger is always a secondary emotion cause by a primary emotion such as fear, hurt or frustration. Anger can be a signal, an alarm, a warning sign that something is wrong, that a boundary is being violated, that we are in danger, that there has been an injustice.

Remember that anger is energy and we can choose whether we are going to spend it or invest it. While we may have minimal control over when we experience anger, we have almost total control over how we choose to express that anger. As you choose to harness and direct that anger-energy in healthy, positive and constructive ways, you will discover one of the most powerful sources of motivation available to mankind.

Do you or someone you love struggle with unhealthy anger? Over the past 30 years I’ve seen literally thousands of people change their anger patterns. You can choose to learn creative ways to invest your anger-energy, develop more effective anger management skills, and learn how to approach anger from a Biblical perspective.

If you’d like to learn more about how to make your anger work for you, I’ve written several books that you will find helpful. If you’re a man, pick up a copy of Real Men Have Feelings Too. Women will find Good Women Get Angry a good resource and children will enjoy the story Hip Hop and His Famous Face. If the problem is affecting your important relationships feel free to call one of our CMFS Relationships Center staff at (479)524-7444.

The energy of anger, when wisely invested, can provide greater focus and intensity and lead to greater productivity. Martin Luther said: “When I am angry I can write, pray and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations are gone.”

Key #6: Nurturing Quality Communication

1. What you kids see you do as they grow up is what you’ll likely see them do when they’ve grown up.

2. Healthy parents don’t find time, they make time.

3. Healthy parents know how to say “I Love You” in more than on way.

4. A healthy home cultivates an encouraging environment.

5. A healthy home is where people express anger in healthy ways.

Over the past 30 years I’ve counseled over a thousand engaged couples. When I’m asked, “What’s the most critical issue of marriage that we need to focus on?” my answer is simple. Apart from nurturing a vital and growing relationship with Jesus Christ the most critical issue is the 6th key to building strong families: In a healthy home people have learned how to listen, ask questions and nurture quality communication.

As goes the communication so goes the relationship. Without communication there is no relationship. Of course this principle applies to all of our relationships: parent and child, brother and sister, pastor and congregation, employer and employee as well as friend and friend.

A ten-year study revealed that happily married couples differ from unhappily married couples in that they talk more to each other, convey feelings that they understand what is being said to them, have a wider range of subjects available to them, preserve communication channels and keep them open, show more sensitivity to each others feelings and realize the importance of nonverbal aspects of communication.

How can something that seems so simple as talking be so difficult? One reason is that many people don’t understand the complexities of clear communication. If you want to increase the quality of your communication here are several simple things to keep in mind.

First of all, remember that quality communication takes time. Not necessarily a lot of time. Yet on a regular basis we need to make time for quality conversation. Most of us communicate on the run and have a lot of things on our mind. That’s not a problem if we’re discussing insignificant issues. But it can become a major problem if, for at least one of us, the issue is significant.

Since good communication doesn’t just happen, smart families set aside a regular time each week for focused communication. Put it on your calendar. Take the phone off the hook. Unless you are a physician there are probably no life-or-death calls. During the week make a list of things you want or need to tell those you love about your work, things that God is teaching you, frustrations and concerns, plans for the future, the next weeks schedule and anything else.

A second principle is that quality communication involves more than words. Many assume that if we just use the right words others will understand what we mean. Communication can be difficult because often what we intend to say and what the other person thinks we meant can be substantially different.

Dr. Albert Mehrabian spent years studying the components of communication. He found that often the actual words we say only account for 7% of how someone interprets our message. Our tone of voice accounts for 38% and other non-verbals such as body posture, gestures, eye contact and facial expressions account for 55%.

Most people focus on the 7% and often ignore the other 93%. When one of these components contradicts the other a mixed-message is sent. Confusion and frustration replaces clear communication.

A third practical idea is to purpose in your heart to pursue excellence in listening. Most people don’t understand that one of the most important aspects of quality communication is listening. That’s right! Quality communication involves much more than talking.

One writer stated that most conversations are dialogues of the deaf. Ecclesiastes 3:7 states that there is a time to keep silent and Proverbs 10:14 tells us that only a fool ignores that fact. Proverbs 21:11 says, “The wise man learns by listening.” In Proverbs 18:13 we read, “What a shame–yet, how stupid!–to decide before knowing the facts.”

David Augsburger writes, “Love is listening. Love is the opening of your life to another. Through sincere interest, simple attention, sensitive listening, compassionate understanding and honest sharing . . . an open ear is the only believable sign of an open heart. You learn to understand life–you learn to live–as you learn to listen.”

Make your number one objective to understand the other person. Studies have shown that most people can listen five times as fast as someone can speak. This means that during a conversation it is easy for our minds to wander. If it’s an important conversation take some notes. Learn to ask questions that clarify the issue. Cultivate the ability to restate the person’s message in your own words.

My fourth simple suggestion is to remember that quality communication involves small talk. Small talk isn’t always insignificant talk. There are some whose first question is “What’s the bottom line?” Only focusing on the bottom line makes about as much sense as looking only at the last sentence of a love-letter, watching the last 10 minutes of a movie or arriving at church to hear only the last five minutes of the pastor’s message.

God loves you. He sent His only begotten Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross and save you from your sins. God designed you to be in relationship with Himself and with others. He tells us that without communication there is no relationship.

From the beginning of time God has made time in His busy schedule to communicate with us. For centuries He has carefully protected His infallible written communication to us. God repeatedly asks us to make time to communicate with him. He has promised to make time to listen to us. Day or night He is there wanting us to talk with Him and waiting for us to listen to Him. If communication is that important to God it makes sense that it needs to be equally important to us.

Key #7a: Conflict: Pathway to Intimacy (Part 1)

I’d been to London several times as a single student but this was the first time Carrie and I had been there together. We were on our way to Amsterdam to begin a two-week tour of Europe and had two days to spend in London. That was the good news.

The bad news is we arrived just three days before the royal wedding was to take place. London was jammed with people from all over the world. But even more interesting was the uncharacteristic spirit of enthusiasm and optimism in the air. People had been captivated by the magical courtship and romance of Prince Charles and Lady Diana and were excited about the wedding.

Three days later they walked down the isle and stood in front of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He looked Prince Charles and Lady Diana in the eyes and in a warm yet solemn voice said,

“Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made, the prince and princess on their wedding day. But fairy tales usually end at this point with the simple phrase “They lived happily ever after.” This may be because fairy tales regard marriage as an anticlimax after the romance of courtship. This is not the Christian view. Our faith sees the wedding day not as a place of arrival but the place where the adventure begins.”

Unfortunately, far too many people see their wedding day as a place of arrival and not as the place where the real adventure begins. Marriage is a relationship that demands flexibility, adjustments and change. Unless a husband and wife commit themselves to mutual growth and learn how to deal with the inevitable conflicts that arise in every relationship, they will eventually grow apart and never achieve the intimacy and trust they both desire. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened to Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

If you’ve been following this column you know that we’re in a series of articles on 7 Keys To Building Strong Families. In case you missed some of the earlier articles here are the first 6 “keys”:

1. What you kids see you do as they grow up is what you’ll likely see them do when they’ve grown up.

2. Healthy parents don’t find time, they make time.

3. Healthy parents know how to say “I Love You” in more than on way.

4. A healthy home cultivates an encouraging environment.

5. A healthy home is where people express anger in healthy ways.

6. A healthy home is where people make time to listen, ask questions and nurture quality communication.

The 7th and final “key” involves learning the value of healthy conflict resolution. I know that conflict isn’t a popular topic. In fact, most of us see conflict as a rude and unwelcome interruption in our lives rather than a normal and necessary part of being in relationships. Unresolved conflict is one of the main problems that plague marriages and families.

What do you think of when you hear the word conflict? Is your first reaction positive or negative? What do you feel like after you have experienced a conflict with someone you love? Most of us haven’t learned the value of conflict. We misunderstand its potential and may interpret it as an attack.

Conflict is the process we go through and the price we pay for intimacy. Conflict is a necessary and potentially valuable part of the growth process. When we avoid healthy conflict we avoid growth. Unfortunately, the opposite of growth is stagnation, deterioration and the discouragement that comes from remaining stuck.

Why do we have conflict? Because we are all different. And we are all different because God chose to make us different. In I Corinthians 12-14 and numerous other passages, it is clear that God designed differences. In fact, the strength of a marriage and family is largely related to the diversity of the individuals that make up those relationships.

Don’t miss this next point! Marriages and families are NOT destroyed by differences. They are destroyed by the immature, irresponsible and unhealthy ways we choose to respond to those differences. They are destroyed by our inability or unwillingness to take them to God and allow Him to teach us how to learn and grow from them.

In Romans 15 we are encouraged to “be of the same mind,” to “accept one another” and to “admonish one another.” This is especially applicable in marriage. Relationships involve people coming together. However, in that process we find that our differences can lead to disagreements that at times result in conflict.

Our differences-when understood, appreciated-can be used of God to help us, in the words of Proverbs, to “sharpen” one another. What do you get when iron rubs against iron? Heat. Sparks fly. But if the pieces are rubbed together in the right way, they inevitably sharpen each other.

This process of rubbing lives together day after day, month after month, year after year, becomes God’s change agent-His refining tool to make us better people, to rub off the rough edges of our personalities, to give us understanding hearts, to teach us acceptance, to help us change. This change will occur if we choose to learn from each other. But if we remain rigid, we will thwart one of the great purposes of marriage.

When we experience conflict we are faced with an important decision: How will we choose to interpret conflict. We can choose to interpret it positively or negatively. Our choice will to a great degree determine whether our love relationships will deepen and grow or whether we will stay stuck and stagnate.

Key #7b: Conflict: Pathway to Intimacy (Part 2)

I don’t even remember what the disagreement was about, but I do remember that it wasn’t pleasant. My wife Carrie felt strongly about her perspective and I felt strongly about mine. We did the usual disagreement dance that most couples have perfected. I tried to help her see that I was right and she tried to help me see that she was right.

When was the last time you were in that kind of situation? Yesterday? Last week? What did it feel like? Did it end on a positive note or a negative note? How did you feel? Were you drained and discouraged or did you part feeling understood and encouraged? Well, back to my story.

Right in the middle of our argument, Carrie played a dirty trick on me. In mid-stream she changed strategies. Instead of trying to convince me of how right she was and how wrong I was she started to really listen to me. Then she began asking a few questions to help her better understand what I meant. She stopped reacting to how I was talking and focused her attention on trying to understand what I was talking about.

What does it feel like when you know someone is listening to you? When you know that, while they may disagree with you, they are sincerely trying to understand you? As Carrie and I continued to talk I felt my frustration and defensiveness disappear. I found myself wanting to understand her position. I began asking her questions. I stopped reacting to how she was talking and began responding to what she was talking about.

While this conversation took place many years ago, it transformed the way we deal with conflict. This week I continue the 7th “key” to building strong families: Understand the value of healthy conflict resolution. Conflict is one of the uglies of life. Most couples don’t “do” conflict very well. None of us enjoy it. Most of us will do whatever we can to avoid it.

In over 30 years of working with couples and families I’ve noticed that relationally healthy people don’t avoid, suppress, repress, deny or ignore conflict. They see it as an opportunity to listen, understand and grow. Once we change how we see conflict it becomes easier for us to exchange our defensive and combative posture for a creative one.

No one wins in a world where we don’t speak the truth in love, where conflict is denied or avoided. No one grows where the truth is absent, where no one is pushed to be and do the best. Without conflict we remain relatively shallow. Intimacy can never develop. You will never become all that God has made you to be. The next time you are engaged in a conflict keep these seven principles in mind.

1. Conflict is inevitable. An occupational hazard of being human is that if you are in any relationship for any length of time you will experience conflict.

2. Most conflict isn’t dealt with in healthy ways because most of us don’t know how. When faced with conflict we personalize it, interpret it as an attack or to see only one solution . . . ours.

3. Healthy conflict provides opportunities for growth and intimacy.

4. Unresolved conflicts interfere with growth and satisfying relationships. Problems don’t magically disappear. They go underground and grow into other problems. The more you deny, hide from, overlook, and avoid conflict the greater the problem will become.

5. Conflict isn’t good or bad, right or wrong . . . conflict simply is. It is how we choose to respond to conflict that creates the problem or produces the growth.

6. Constructive conflict involves a commitment to serve, encourage and be vulnerable to one another.

7. Constructive conflict involves a commitment to stop, look and listen, then, maybe, speak.

The biggest mistake couples and parents make when dealing with conflict is the same mistake I made in my conflict with Carrie. We try to show the other person where THEY are wrong and WE are right. How many times in your life has that helped?

The next time conflict stares you in the face try these three simple steps. First of all, make your primary goal to understand the other person. Take a few minutes to acknowledge, discuss and define the conflict and then listen. Proverbs 17:27, 28 says that, “He who restrains his words has knowledge, And he who has a cool spirit is a person of understanding. Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise.”

Step two is to ask yourself, “What is MY contribution to the problem?” Most of us find it easier to identify the other person’s contribution to the problem, how “they” need to change and what “they” could do different, rather than our own.

The third step is to commit yourself to understand what the issue looks like through their eyes. Proverbs 25:12 tells us that, “It is badge of honor to accept valid criticism.” Listen to what the other person has to say. Even if you think that 90% of what they’re saying isn’t valid, listen for the 10% that might be true. Look for even the 1% that God could use in your life to help you deepen and mature.

Proverbs 12:18 tells us that, “The tongue of the wise brings healing.” If you’d like to learn more about healthy conflict read chapter 10 of How To Bring Out The Best In Your Spouse by H. Norman Wright any myself AND take some time to study the book of Proverbs. You’ll be amazed at how much practical wisdom and insight is in this little book.

7 Keys to Building Strong Families (Conclusion)

Columnist Robert S. Welch has writes, “In a country supposedly bent on the pursuit of excellence, it’s ironic that we often settle for “fair”–even “poor” when it comes to the family. If half our major businesses or schools failed, we’d be in a panic. But when half of all first marriages end in divorce, too many of us accept it as some sort of scheduled stopover on the flight to fulfillment.”

As executive director of the Center for Marriage and Family Studies at John Brown University and CMFS Relationships Center, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with pastors, counselors and community leaders and hear of their concern for and a commitment to building stronger marriages and families here in Northwest Arkansas.

I’m especially grateful to the Benton County Daily Record for the privilege of contributing to this column. I think that most people value their family relationships and want to have a healthy and happy home. With that desire in mind I’ve shared with you what I consider to be seven “keys” to building strong families. In case you missed one of them here they are one more time:

1. What your kids see you do as they grow up is what you’ll likely see them do when they’ve grown up.

2. Healthy parents don’t find time, they make time.

3. Healthy parents know how to say “I Love You” in more than one way.

4. A healthy home cultivates an encouraging environment.

5. A healthy home is where people express anger in healthy ways.

6. A healthy home is where people make time to listen, ask questions and nurture quality communication.

7. In a healthy home members understand the value of constructive conflict.

I hope that reading my articles has reminded you that while great marriages and families are possible, they don’t just happen. Healthy relationships take time, effort, energy and intentional focus. When it comes to building strong and healthy relationships it’s easier said than done. Many of us suffer from the tyranny of good intentions. We mean to do well, we want to take time but somehow we allow other things to crowd it out. We become anesthetized by our busyness.

Some have said that life is what happens while we are getting ready for tomorrow. In Luke 16 Jesus said that the person who is faithful in the little things will be faithful in the big things. I have several friends who have coached sports at the university level and played as professionals. One of the things they constantly emphasize is the importance of the basics. The fundamentals.

Several years ago I saw an advertisement for a course by Claude W. Olney that could help students get better grades. Several television celebrities were interviewed and shared how it helped their children significantly increase their school performance. As I read through the parents’ manual I found a tool that I have found helpful for evaluating my performance as a parent and, in my last article, I’d like to share it with you.

A Report Card for Parents

A B C D F 1. Do I praise my child at least once a day?

A B C D F 2. Do I treat my child as a worthwhile member of our family?

A B C D F 3. Am I available when my child wishes to talk to me?

A B C D F 4. Do I include my child in family plans and decisions?

A B C D F 5. Do I set reasonable guidelines and insist that my child follow them?

A B C D F 6. Do I treat my child the way I treat my best friends?

A B C D F 7. Do I treat my children equally?

A B C D F 8. If I tell my child to do something, do I frequently take the time to help them understand why instead of saying: “because I said so!”?

A B C D F 9. Do I set a good example for my child?

A B C D F 10. Do I think positive thoughts about my child and encourage achievements?

A B C D F 11. Do I take an interest in my child’s education and attend PTA meetings?

A B C D F 12. Do I occasionally give my child a hug or friendly pat on the back?

A B C D F 13. Do I encourage attendance at weekly religious services?

A B C D F 14. Do I spend time each day looking over my child’s school work with him?

A B C D F 15. Do I send my child off to school each day with a kind word of encouragement?

A B C D F 16. Does my child see me pray?

A B C D F 17. Does my child see me reading the Bible?

A B C D F 18. Does my child hear me apologize when I am wrong?

A B C D F 19. Do I talk to my child about my emotions?

How did you do? Did this help you identify any areas in which you can make an improvement? As you read through this you probably noticed that several of the questions also apply to a marriage relationship. Are there one or two things you could do for your spouse that would help you get a “better grade?”

God designed us to be in relationship with others. God wants those relationships to be rich, rewarding and fulfilling. God invented marriages and families. What you may find hard to do on your own, you will find easier with His help. Many local churches have special programs on marriages and families that you would find enjoyable and helpful. I hope you’ll contact your local Bible-teaching church and take advantage of what they have to offer.

I hope these articles have given you some encouragement, some practical suggestions and a reminder of the significant resources you can find in the Bible to help you strengthen your important relationships.

Taken with Permission from Gary Oliver, Ph.D.

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