Linda Lewis Griffith

Putting family before self

I recently had the honor of attending a 90th birthday celebration. I delighted in watching the vigorous and stately matriarch interact with her children, grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. It was a privilege to witness a functioning family in action.

While functioning families are as unique as the people who comprise them, they share specific characteristics. First, individual members value a unit that is greater than the individuals themselves. They recognize that the interests of the family sometimes supersede their own and they are willing to work to make that familial organization thrive.

Well-functioning families adapt to the various personalities within the group. Each clan is made up of separate folks with traits, abilities and preferences all their own. Some members are easygoing; others are more emotionally fragile, rigid or opinionated. The larger families become through marriages and the arrival of children, the more flexibility and adaptation is required. A group’s willingness to accommodate these variations determines how well it operates.

Each member of the family has at least one role. Individuals are defined by their relationships to each other, such as matriarch, parent, grandchild or uncle. Members frequently wear multiple hats: a woman may be a mother to her own children, a sister to her siblings, an aunt to her nieces and nephews, and a sister-in-law to her siblings’ spouses.

Each role necessitates specific behaviors within the family unit. Parents are responsible for raising their children. Adult children assist their parents. Sons- and daughters-in-law need to get along with their spouses’ families. Members of functioning families identify their specific roles and enact them as best they can.

Finally, functioning families value spending time together as a group. If they live nearby they may have dinners at one anothers’ homes, go on vacations or cheer younger members from the sidelines. If they’re separated by many miles, they buy plane tickets or travel long distances by car to be together. They make reunions a high priority. They visit for birthdays or Thanksgiving. They’re always present for weddings and important milestones.

Yes, family gatherings can be costly and the logistics daunting. Still, the effort clearly tells other members, “You are so important to me. I want us to be together as a family.”

Of course, even the most functional families have rifts, disagreements and struggles. Two sisters-in-laws may not get along. Parents may disapprove of an adult child’s choices. One sibling may perceive himself as the designated outcast.

But being functional doesn’t mean an absence of personal dramas. Rather, functional families manage in spite of these very same issues. Members work to heal interpersonal bruises. They rise above petty differences. They don’t harbor unrealistic expectations about how people should behave. They orchestrate situations in which everyone can have a good time.

Today as I honor functioning families, I challenge each of you to assess your clan. Celebrate the areas in which your group is emotionally healthy. Address problems that crop up again and again. You can’t control the entire battalion. But you can be an inspiration with your efforts and caring attitude.

Tips for building a family team

Want to create a functioning family? Try these suggestions:

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit