Leo Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, begins with the oft-quoted statement: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” With the caveat that no family is “100% happy,” there would appear to be a fair amount of truth in Tolstoy’s statement. While the variety that comes with serving the “unhappy” may have appeal to some, it is the movement to greater happiness, or perhaps more appropriately, greater functionality, in families that I find more satisfying — and think that most clear-thinking families also wish to pursue.
So what traits do functional, happy families share? Let me offer a short list of observations from my work with families over the years, and invite you to add to it:
- Functional families are made up of members of high character
- Marriage is valued — perhaps valued more highly than parenting (particularly interested in your reaction to this point)
- Parenting that is supportive of high character is valued
- Members know each other’s stories
- There are family rituals that are shared and valued
- Friendships are important, but family is always first
- Conflicts are resolved with a sense that the relationship between family members who are at odds do not have the option of “opting out” of the family
- Communication is strong (i.e., everything doesn’t go through just one family member), and practiced across generations
- Senior members are respected, not marginalized
- Junior members are encouraged and expected to achieve independent of family resources and affiliation
- Family members genuinely like each other
- The family has a sense of humor that is generally playful and positive
This isn’t a complete list, of course. There are studies and expert opinions that are supportive of at least most of the above — but this collection is based primarily on personal observation of what I believe have been the highest-functioning families that I’ve been exposed to personally and professionally.
So what do you think? How else are happy families all alike? And if they’re not all alike, how might they differ?