How to Build a Strong Family Culture: A Step-by-Step Guide
Living on the passive income from my first company, I spend my time experimenting with ways to live life to its fullest. I am a dad, entrepreneur, and lifelong learner. This blog is where I share what I’m learning along the way, hopeful that it will help you on your path to becoming the most fulfilled YOU!
Ever wonder why biker gang members ride in packs, all sporting the same sleeveless leather jackets, riding the same brand of bike, and wearing the same "helmet" (aka their super cool hairdos)? These similarities represent biker gang culture. Their strong culture acts like social super glue, bonding group members together while encouraging similar (1) values, (2) behaviors, and (3) beliefs (the 3 components of culture).
As a parent, you can take advantage of this social super glue to bond your family together while helping your children adopt positive universal values, good behaviors, and constructive beliefs.
The Importance of Intentionally Creating a Positive Family Culture
Establishing a strong family culture is essential for 3 primary reasons: (1) As humans we need to belong, (2) Our children will find a group to belong to, and (3) A strong family culture makes parenting SO much easier
As Humans, We Need to Belong
When a group has a strong culture, the shared values, behaviors, and beliefs create a bond between group members, providing them with a sense of belonging. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests that humans have five primary needs:
Three of these primary needs are met through belonging to a group:
- Safety Needs. Belonging to a group provides a sense of safety. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ survival was dependent on their belonging to a strong, cohesive group. Otherwise, they would be in great danger of other tribes and large animals. Although we no longer hunt in packs, our survival instinct to belong to a group remains.
- Love Needs. Belonging to a group helps group members meet their need for love. When you truly belong to a group, you naturally feel acceptance and love.
- Esteem Needs. Our esteem needs are met when we feel respected and given a level of prestige. When our behaviors match the shared behaviors of the group, group members will view us in a positive light, meeting our need for esteem.
As you can tell, belonging to a group, especially one with a strong, positive culture, is an attractive prospect. Daniel Coyle did extensive research on such groups and related “that spending time inside these groups was almost physically addictive. I would extend my reporting trips, inventing excuses to stick around for another day or two. I found myself daydreaming about changing occupations so I could apply for a job with them. There was something irresistible about being around these groups that made me crave more connection."1
Our Children Will Find a Group to Belong to
Due to this deep need to belong, our children will find a group to belong to. If your family doesn’t have a strong culture for them to be a part of and hold onto, they will find another culture to adopt:
Everyone needs and wants to be part of a culture. Belonging to a culture offers people a sense of identity, feelings of connectedness, shared values, and support when faced with the challenges of life. Children will seek out a culture that is most present in their lives and that provides the most rewards. You can protect your children from popular culture by creating a “family-value culture” that has an equally powerful—but positive—influence on your children. A family-value culture that your children are raised in precedes the presence of popular culture and can fill the need for a culture in your children’s lives.2
If children are left to find a culture on their own, it will most likely run counter to your own values. This will result in two major issues:
- Failure to Adopt Important Universal Values. As parents, we understand the importance of values such as kindness, respect, peace, understanding, and acceptance, but popular culture and peer culture do not do a very good job instilling universal values such as these. Our primary job as parents is to raise children who exemplify such values and when they adopt the popular or peer culture, our job becomes nearly impossible.
- A Generation Gap. One of my deepest desires is that when my children become adults, they will consider me and my wife as their closest friends. That is unlikely to happen if they’ve adopted values that run counter to our own. This is the very definition of a generation gap: “the difference in opinions, values, etc., between younger people and older people.”3 If we want close relationships with our adult children, it is essential for us to establish shared values with our children through the creation of a strong family culture.
A Strong Family Culture Makes Parenting SO Much Easier
When you become part of a group with a strong culture, there is a huge pressure to conform. We often see this with kids and their friends in the negative form of “peer pressure.” But just imagine if your child belonged to a group of friends who shared values such as service, gratitude, and health. I think you’d be perfectly fine with a friend telling your child, “Hey man, were gonna have a rad party tonight. We’ll be running bingo at the senior center and then heading back to my place to write thank you notes to our parents while drinking kale smoothies like there’s no tomorrow. Everyone who’s anyone is gonna be there. You in?” As you can see, the pressure to conform to a culture can be a very good thing when the shared values are positive.
So, if you can create a strong family culture with shared values, behaviors, and beliefs that are wholesome and good, your child will feel a natural pressure to conform in the most positive way. In this way, the family culture essentially does your parenting job for you. No need to lecture your child, beg them to do the right thing, or threaten them to obey. With a strong family culture in place, they will want to do the right thing without any demands coming from parents. For this reason, I view the creation and maintenance of a strong family culture as the most essential role of a parent.
The First Step to Building a Strong Family Culture
As mentioned at the very beginning of this article, culture is composed of shared:
Values are exactly what they sound like. They are what people value. They are what people care about and prioritize. A person might value groups such as school, work, and/or family. A person might value possessions such as money, time, and/or awards. Or a person might value ideals such as gratitude, acceptance, love, peace, and/or joy.
Our values will in large measure dictate our behavior. For instance, if a man values family, he may choose to cancel a work meeting in order to spend quality time with his son. Oftentimes, when someone is on their deathbed, their biggest regret is that they allowed values such as work, money, and prestige to take on greater importance than values such as marriage, family, and even happiness. For this reason, I view values as the best indicator of our big-picture vision. They are the vast ocean that our family culture iceberg floats on:
If we can decide on our family’s values, then we can (1) decide what present-day visible behaviors those values should translate into and (2) decide what underlying, invisible beliefs would lend support to those behaviors. For instance, if you want gratitude to be one of your family’s values, then you might decide to have your family say what they are thankful for during dinner each night, and this practice might be upheld by the belief that everything we have is a gift.
Parents Should Decide on Family Values
Several books that I’ve read have suggested allowing children to have a participatory role in deciding on family values. I do not think that is a wise move since values are long-term and children are short-term by nature. Their frontal lobe, responsible for long-term planning, will not fully develop until the age of 25. Additionally, they have not lived long enough to understand the benefits and consequences of adopting certain values over others. And finally, children are only short-term residents in our home.
In contrast, we as the parents are long-term residents who will remain after all the children have left the nest. We also have the frontal lobes and experience required to think long-term. Most importantly, we are the leaders in the home, and “at its core, defining the culture is a leadership function. In fact, it’s one of the most important functions and responsibilities of a leader. Great leaders call out a compelling vision and then enlist people and marshal the resources to pursue and achieve that vision. They don’t ask the organization where it would like to go. They create the vision and then make it happen."4
“Defining the culture is a leadership function” - David Friedman
Thus, while you might involve your children in the discussion, I’d suggest that parents make the final decision on a family’s values.
3 Steps to Deciding on Family Values
The first thing you’ll want to do when deciding on family values is to make a big long list of every possible value you might want your family to adopt. If you are making this list with your spouse, try not to disagree with any of their ideas at this point. You want as many ideas on the table as possible. The following might help you generate ideas:
- Go through lists of values such as this one from CEOsage.
- "Close your eyes and picture your child loading the last of their belongings into a car. They’re moving out of your home. Who do you want them to be?"5
- Ask yourself, “What do I want my home to feel like to my children? What traits do I admire in others/other families? What traits bother me the most about others? What do I find myself repeating over and over?6
Come up with a long list of possible family values
2. Narrow it Down
Once you have a nice long list, narrow it down to only those values that you feel your family wouldn’t be able to live without. The number isn’t important. You might have 5, 15, or even 30. What’s important is that each value is deeply important to you (and your spouse). You don’t want anything essential to your family to slip through the cracks.
Narrow down your list of family values to only those that are deeply important to you
3. Sleep on It
Once you’ve decided on a list of family values, I’d recommend giving yourself some time to think about it, a month if you can. Treat your family values with as much seriousness as the U.S. Constitution. Approach your values with “an ‘intention of permanence.’ In other words, we should put the amount of time and effort into getting it right that would be appropriate if we were expecting it to last forever. We’re not simply “getting something out there,” figuring we’ll adjust as we go."7 You want to make sure you’ve got the right values because they are the foundation upon which your strong family culture is going to be built.
Take as much time as needed to confirm for yourself that these are the family values you want your family culture to be built upon
Once you’ve established clear family values, you are ready to work on aligning the shared behaviors of your family with those values.
Define Family Principles
It is not always easy to know how to put values into action. In fact, according to Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development, children under the age of 11 may find it impossible to grasp abstract ideals such as acceptance, peace, or authenticity.8 For this reason, I believe it is important to write out a family principle for each family value. Principles are general guidelines that can be applied in a variety of situations. For instance, the family principle associated with the family value of kindness might be to “treat everyone equally.” I’d recommend making your family principles:
- General. Principles are general guidelines, so make sure to avoid getting too specific. For instance, “help with the dishes” is too narrow as it only applies to a single situation. “Be happy to help” is more general and can apply in a myriad of situations.
- Actionable. Your principles are meant to tell family members what to do, so phrase them as directions that have power to them. Instead of “We try to be grateful to everyone who helps us,” be bold and to the point: “Be grateful.”
- Concise. I’d recommend keeping your family principles to four words or less if possible.
To give you some ideas, here are our 16 family values and their associated principles:
Not only does writing out your family principles allow your family values to become more actionable, but it also helps clarify the true meaning of each of your family values. This is important because values can mean different things to different people. For instance, to one person, wisdom might mean working hard in school while to another it might mean pursuing knowledge outside of school. Writing out your family principles helps you avoid such misunderstandings.
Write a corresponding family principle for each of your family values.
Remember, culture is all about having shared values, behaviors, and beliefs, so if family members don’t have a shared understanding of what each value means, you will have a weak family culture. Clarity is key! For this reason, in addition to writing down your family principles, I’d recommend writing a 2-4 sentence description of each family principle. Remember to make them actionable, bold, and to the point. For instance, here are the descriptions for some of my family principles:
- Invite Peace. Invite peace into your heart and into our home. Instead of acting out your negative feelings, quietly seek to understand them until you are ready to reach out in kindness. Lift up the people around you, making our home a safe, comfortable space for each family member.
- Create Lasting Happiness. Be the master of your ship and create the most amazing, happy life for yourself. Avoid quick fixes, and put in the real work it takes to cultivate lasting happiness.
- Seek Truth Everywhere. Have a deep desire to gain the wisdom and knowledge that will make your life and the lives of those around you better. Learn from everything: your experiences, books, the experiences and teachings of others, introspection, nature, spiritual practices, history, research, and on and on.
Notice how we used lots of action words such as “invite”, “seek”, and “learn”. This helps us translate values into behaviors, something that family members can actually do.
Write a 2-4 sentence actionable description for each family principle
Be an Example!
When it comes to encouraging shared behaviors that are based on family values, the most important thing you can do is be an example. You need to be the living embodiment of your family’s values: "For the duration of your children’s early years, you are their most powerful influence and role model. Everything you say, feel, and do, sends your children subtle, yet influential, messages about your values. You must ask yourself whether you are 'walking the walk' on your values."9
You need to be the living embodiment of your family’s values.
Before ever introducing your family to your family’s principles, you need to make sure your behavior is in line with them to the best degree possible. Our children will easily be able to tell how real our family principles are based on how hard we are striving to live up to them. We don’t need to be perfect, but we do need to be putting forth our best effort. I’d recommend evaluating yourself against your family principles on a regular basis (yearly, monthly, or even weekly if needed). Read the description for each family principle, rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10, and for any scores below a 7, make a goal as to how you can get yourself to a 10.
Evaluate yourself against each of your family principles and decide on a regular time to follow up with yourself
Align the Family Schedule with Family Values
The way you spend your resources such as money, attention, and especially time is a reflection of what really matters to you. If you value football, you’ll set aside time to watch NFL games on a Sunday afternoon. If you value peace, you’ll set aside time for self-care practices such as yoga and meditation. For this reason, it is essential that you spend your time in a way that shows your children that you really do prioritize the family values.
It is also important to examine the family calendar and think about what it says about your family values: "The calendar doesn’t lie. You can say you have a certain purpose, but your schedule reveals what you really believe is important."10 Here are some important questions to consider:
- What were the last three activities you did together as a family and what values are being reinforced by those activities?
- Did your last three weekends get spent in a way that upheld or diminished your family values?
- What were the last three vacations you went on as a family and what does that say about what your family truly cares about?
Think deeply about these questions and be honest with yourself as you consider how you can better align your family’s schedule with your family values. It might mean watching less tv, attending less sporting events, or perhaps working less in the evenings and on weekends. Any sacrifice is worth it when it comes to creating a stronger family culture.
Discuss with the above 3 questions with your spouse and make plans to align the family calendar with your family values
Create Rituals that Reinforce Family Values
Rituals are one of the most defining and important traits of a culture. Remember, culture is defined as shared values, behaviors, and beliefs. What better way to ensure shared behaviors than to do those behaviors together at a specified time over and over again? Rituals are a surefire way to build a strong culture.
As cited earlier in this article, Daniel Coyle found that belonging to a strong culture was “physically addictive.”11 Similarly, we want our children to crave connection with our family, and rituals are the drug of choice. Think about your favorite holiday. What feelings do you get as you think of the things that are done every year on that holiday? What feelings do you get when you think about skipping that holiday? If you are like me, even just thinking about missing a holiday with my family fills me with sadness. I’m very much addicted to my favorite family rituals.
Family rituals are an essential ingredient for a strong family culture, and forming them should not be taken lightly. Creating meaningful rituals that reinforce our family values is no easy task: "Traditions are formed intentionally. They are not automatic, but require preparation, planning, and a combined effort."12
I like to think of there being two types of rituals: habits, which are repeated more than once a year, and traditions, which are done once a year or less.
Due to the supreme importance of and difficulty involved in creating meaningful family rituals, I’d like to carefully examine daily habits, weekly habits, holiday traditions, yearly traditions, and coming-of-age traditions.
Daily habits occur the most regularly, so I think it is essential to infuse family values into these rituals to the greatest degree possible. If family values only come to the surface during special occasions, then a strong family culture will struggle to take shape. In my opinion, mealtimes and bedtime are two of the most important daily rituals:
Receiving nourishment is a need shared amongst all humans, so it is rather easy to turn it into a shared behavior. And with everyone gathered around the table to eat, it is pretty easy to add-on some additional habits that are based on family values. This is a technique known as habit stacking in which you add a new habit onto an existing habit. Habit stacking allows you to develop a new habit far more quickly than if you were to do the new habit at a totally random time of the day. Attaching new habits to existing ones makes them stick.
So, what daily habits might you attach to mealtimes? In our family, we choose to do a prayer before each meal. This helps support our family value of spirituality and gratitude. When I say the prayer, instead of asking for lots of things, I try to say thanks for as many things as I can think of in order to emphasize gratitude as much as I can.
As I will discuss in more depth later, when it comes to a religious practice such as family prayer, I think it is important to consider whether or not it supports your family values. If it does, great! If not, it might be worth considering how you can alter it to bring it more in line with your family values. You might even consider dropping that specific religious practice altogether. In my opinion, doing a certain religious practice because it has always been done the same way for generations is not a good enough reason to keep doing it. There needs to be a deep purpose behind each of your family’s rituals, especially those that occur on a daily basis.
Think about each family value and decide on a daily habit your family could do during mealtimes to uphold that value
Bonus Tip: Make a Family Recipe Book!
Different cultures have meals that are unique to them, and eating those meals together acts as a bonding agent. There’s an underlying message: We all like this food, so we all belong together. Having some meals that are family favorites, meals that you regularly eat together, is a great way to strengthen your family culture. For this reason, my wife and I decided to create a family recipe book, in which we are compiling recipes that we want to become a staple in our home. And, like us, if one of your family values is health, then a family recipe book is the perfect way to show your family just how much you care about nourishing your body with the right food.
Bedtime is another ritual that is easy to stack habits onto. We read books with each of our kids one-on-one, brush teeth, and say “I love you” while giving good night kisses. This routine hits on some of our most important family values: wisdom, health, and love.
Think about each family value and decide on a daily habit your family could do during bedtime to uphold that value
The week is one of the best units of time for habits since there are already so many other events built around the week. Most people’s work schedules are consistent week after week, most people have some kind of weekend, and most people already have certain things they do on certain days of the week (i.e. trash day, chores day, church day, etc). This is beneficial because it provides us with the opportunity for habit stacking.
Additionally, it is far easier to remember habits that occur on a weekly basis than those that do not. Just imagine if trash day was every 10 days instead of every Wednesday. You’d likely have the hardest time remembering to put it out.
While there are many weekly habits you might create to support your family values, here are my family’s top three most important weekly habits: (1) weekly family meeting, (2) family night, and (3) family day.
1. Weekly Family Meeting
In my experience, the weekly family meeting has to be the single most important family habit. Creating and maintaining a strong family culture is no easy task. It requires careful attention and planning. The weekly family meeting is the perfect opportunity to make sure the nuts and bolts of your family culture are all in place.
For instance, you might use the family meeting to review how previous family activities and rituals went, and discuss plans for those that are coming up. This is essential because meaningful family rituals require careful planning. Trying to throw together a meaningful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on the fly is bound to end in disaster. The family meeting is key to preventing such stressful events as it gives you the space and time to prepare.
You might also use the family meeting to review your family principles and evaluate how well you are all putting them into action. This could easily lead into a discussion regarding the meaning and/or importance of one of your family values. It could also lead into discussing something happening in the family that runs counter to your family values, providing a safe space for the issue to get resolved. You may even use this as an opportunity to set some family goals for the upcoming week.
The weekly family meeting is also a great platform for taking care of the mundane yet crucial aspects of running a family such as reviewing the family budget, creating a meal plan and grocery list, assigning chores, coordinating schedules, or even going through the mail.
Now that our weekly family meeting is deeply ingrained in our family’s schedule, we’ve begun to stack habits onto it that support our family values. For instance, during the last family meeting of the month, we will think together about people who might have helped us during the previous month and write thank you cards to them (gratitude). In that same meeting, we’ll think about anyone we know who might be in need and think of ways to use our “random gifts” budget to help them out (generosity).
We currently treat our family meeting as one of the most important events of the week, and each family member avoids scheduling any activity that might conflict with its designated time. Whenever we previously skipped the family meeting, we could feel the difference in our home the following week. A weekly family meeting gets everyone on the same page, creating unity, which is what a strong family culture is all about.
If a weekly family meeting sounds too formal or time consuming for your family, you might consider habit stacking an abbreviated family meeting onto mealtime once a week. Find what works best for your family.
Discuss having a weekly family meeting with your spouse, and create an agenda that prepares the family for family rituals, takes care of family business, upholds the family values, and anything else important to your family
A weekly family meetings gets everyone on the same page, creating unity, which is what a strong family culture is all about.
2. Family Night
Having fun together on a regular basis is essential for family bonding. This is why we set aside the same night every week for “family night.” Our agenda is simple, we start with a prayer and a short devotional during which we usually watch and discuss a value-based YouTube video, and then we do some kind of family activity. It can be something big and exciting or something as simple as playing with playdoh together. The key is to make family night into something that every member of the family looks forward to.
3. Family Day
We've decided to designate Sunday as "family day." On family day, every member of the family frees up their schedule to spend the day in uninterrupted family time. We have special rules on this day meant to preserve everyone’s focus on the family. For instance, if someone wants to watch TV, it needs to be a show/movie that supports our family values. If someone wants to turn on music, it likewise needs to be music that supports our family values. Family day is set apart as a special time for each family member to bathe in our family culture. It sends a clear message to every member of the family that family really is the first priority in our home.
Think about each family value and decide on some weekly habits your family could implement to uphold that value
Holiday traditions are wonderful opportunities to create shared behaviors around your family values. Most family members will already associate holidays with good feelings, so by stacking value-based habits onto these holidays, you can help family members associate family values with those good feelings.
Many of the major US holidays have been overcome by materialism and other less-than-ideal values, but I believe we can still use them in a way that upholds our own family values. Some people might suggest throwing out some of these holidays altogether in order to avoid some of their negative aspects, but I view this as throwing the baby out with the bath water. In fact, I find that major holidays celebrated by everyone else in the country are the most important to utilize for our own purposes. Think about it this way, are you ever going to forget when Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas are if everyone else is celebrating them? I doubt it. Also, when family members see that everyone around them is celebrating gratitude on the same day, it can help reinforce for them the deep importance of that family value. The key is to eliminate or downplay the negative aspects of major holidays, augment the positive aspects, and habit stack new rituals that support your family values.
For instance, leading up to Christmas, we try to do some kind of “secret santa” service project in which we choose someone to do an anonymous act of kindness for (service). And instead of writing to Santa Claus to ask him for presents, the day after Christmas we are planning to write letters to Santa and others who gave us gifts (gratitude). We are hopeful that these new family-value habits can take some of the focus away from the materialism while keeping us focused on our own family values.
Think about each holiday and consider how your family might downplay its negative aspects, augment its positive aspects, and habit stack new rituals onto it that support your family values
Bonus Tip: Do a Family Reunion/Retreat
One of my favorite yearly traditions for creating a strong family culture is doing a family reunion/retreat. Since we don’t have married adult children who live away from us yet, our family retreats simply consist of me, my wife, and our two kiddos. We’ve decided to do it the weekend after New Year’s since most people have school/work off around that time of year, and it’s a great time for setting new yearly goals as a family. We plan on doing a family reunion/retreat at the same place and time, year after year.
I like to think of family reunions like a high school’s spirit week, but instead of school spirit, the goal is to develop family pride. Each activity should highlight the quirky traits that make your family what it is. For instance, I have the fondest memories of a family reunion growing up in which there was a family talent show and my cousins and I formed a boy band to perform Justin Bieber’s song “Baby.” The experience created a bond between everyone who was there, and it has stuck with me. In line with creating family pride during family reunions, you might also design and wear family t-shirts, watch a family slideshow, or have a family dance party. And don’t forget to stack on some value-based habits!
Strong cultures throughout history are known for having unique coming-of-age traditions.13 Jews have Bat Mitzvahs, Christians have baptism and first communion, and Americans have the sweet 16. If your cultural heritage/religion already has some coming-of-age traditions, instead of feeling the need to invent your own, I’d recommend simply infusing the ceremonies with your own family values. For instance, responsibility is one of our family values, and we plan on having each of our kids buy their first car with their own money. For this reason, we might make a ritual out of shopping for their first car together to celebrate their maturity.
Make plans to infuse coming-of-age traditions with your family values
Birthdays are a coming-of-age tradition that happen on a yearly basis and are a perfect opportunity to create shared behaviors around family values. In addition to the standard cake, ice cream, and presents, I’d recommend thinking of some value-based habits that you might stack on. For instance, if one of your family values is laughter/silliness, you might go the extra effort to buy trick candles that don’t blow out, or you might sing happy birthday in the wackiest way possible. If health is a family value, you might try to replace the cake with something healthier such as muffins. Or if wisdom is a family value, you could have each family member share one piece of advice for the upcoming year to the birthday boy/girl. There are an infinite number of ways to inject family values into a birthday celebration.
Make plans to infuse birthdays with your family values
Align Your Discipline with Your Family Values
What and how you discipline your children is a hugely important building block of family culture. Discipline is a way to modify behaviors; thus, if used well, discipline can help us get more of the shared behaviors we want as part of our family culture. Discipline can also help us weed out behaviors that run counter to the family culture we are striving for.
Discipline can be described simply as our reactions to behavior. A reaction might be as strong as putting a child in time out, or as simple as giving a child a disapproving look. No response at all is also an example of a reaction, and it may be one of the most important because “what you’re willing to tolerate is the true measure of your culture."14 Think about it, if one of your kids doesn’t do their share of the family chores, and you don’t react at all, you are sending the message to the whole family that responsibility isn't important. Yikes!
Discipline also includes positive reactions to behaviors that are in line with family values. In fact, the more positive your discipline, the better because “a child who feels good, does good.”15 I believe that a simple thank you is one of the most effective disciplining tools in our parenting toolbelt: “There’s a strong scientific support that [thanking] ignites cooperative behavior… This is because thank-yous aren’t only expressions of gratitude; they’re crucial belonging cues that generate a contagious sense of safety, connection, and motivation.”16
Make a plan to alter your discipline to be more in line with your family values
Bonus Tip: Write Down Value-based Family Rules
Having clear family rules is a very effective way to augment shared behaviors that support family values and eliminate behaviors that counteract family values. Like most families, when my wife and I decided on our first set of family rules, almost all of them related to the values of safety and cleanliness. While such rules are important, I think it is also important to make rules that relate to your most central family values.
For instance, if you have a family value of generosity, you might have a rule related to sharing. If one of your values is peace, you might make the rule that there is no yelling in the house. If your family values include health, you could make a rule that everyone is only allowed one dessert per day. While it may not be possible to fully enforce these kinds of value-based rules, simply having the rule sends a message to the family regarding what matters to your family. And as mentioned before, clarity is key for a strong family culture, so make sure everyone knows the family rules. To this end, it may help to write them down and post them somewhere that everyone will see them.
Write down and post your family rules, being sure to include rules that support your family values
Align Your Home Environment with Your Family Values
The environment of a group both reflects and influences the culture of that group. Your home environment can become your greatest ally in building a strong family culture because it can be used to: (1) shape family behavior, (2) remind members of family values, and (3) develop family pride.
1. Shape Family Behavior
Human behavior, especially group behavior, is often a product of the environment. For instance, a recent study done on the effect of plate size on eating behavior revealed that one’s environmental cues are often more powerful than one’s own education and will power:
“Chinese Buffet Diners with large plates served 52% more, ate 45% more, and wasted 135% more food than those with smaller plates. Moreover, education does not appear effective in reducing such biases. Even a 60-minute, interactive, multimedia warning on the dangers of using large plates had seemingly no impact on 209 health conference attendees, who subsequently served nearly twice as much food when given a large buffet plate 2 hours later.”17
I find these results mind-blowing! Full-grown adults can be more influenced by their environment than by their own understanding and will power: “Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. We tend to believe our habits are a product of our motivation, talent, and effort. Certainly, these qualities matter. But the surprising thing is, especially over a long time period, your personal characteristics tend to get overpowered by your environment.”18
Full-grown adults can be more influenced by their environment than by their own understanding and will power.
If this is true for adults, how much more true this must be for our children. As already mentioned, the part of our children’s brains responsible for reasoning and will power, the frontal lobe, is not fully developed until they reach age 25. For this reason, they will be far more influenced by gut reactions to their environment.
Do you ever find yourself telling your children the same thing day after day? “Stop playing with the silverware!”, “put your backpack away!”, or “stop eating so much junk food.” When we find ourselves sounding like a broken record, I think it is important for us to remember that the environment (that we are responsible for designing) is more often to blame than our children’s logic and will power. Telling our child the same instructions over and over again is a futile attempt to educate our children. In such situations, we need to point the finger at ourselves, take responsibility, and change the environment.
For instance, if your toddler keeps getting into stuff that you don’t want them to touch, do some baby proofing! If your son keeps leaving his backpack around the house, install a new hook next to the garage at his eye level to remind him to hang it up. If your kids are eating too much junk food, stop buying it, or put it on the very top shelf of the pantry. There are so many options for influencing your children’s behavior through simple alterations to your home environment.
Write down a few goals for altering your home environment in a way that makes value-based behaviors more likely and value-opposing behaviors less likely
2. Remind Members of Family Values
Many families attempting to create a stronger family culture may write a family mission statement and maybe write down their top 5 family values and then end up forgetting all about it. This is not effective. To truly create a strong family culture, we need to be reminded of our family values over and over and over again. Visual reminders placed strategically around the house can be very powerful in this regard: "If our culture is authentic, the more we see images and reminders of it all around us, the better. You might think of it simply as internal advertising."19
For example, in our family, we’ve decided to prominently display a gratitude jar with a cute pen and paper to remind and make it easy for family members to write down what they are thankful for. We’ll then read all the gratitude notes from the previous week at the beginning of family night. It’s currently one of my favorite family rituals.
As I will discuss in more detail later in this article, as part of our effort to build a strong family culture, we have a family book collection. Each book in the collection is sorted into one of 16 categories with each category being one of our family values. To remind everyone in the family of our values on a regular basis, we decided to display our book collection where everyone will see it several times a day, constantly reminding them of our family values.
As a final example, because one of our values is goofiness, we decided to make a quote wall where we post notes on which we’ve written something funny that one of us said. It’s always fun to reread some of the hilarious things we’ve collected on there.
When you create a physical representation of a family value and display it prominently, everyone in the family gets the message that the family value is important. It’s not just a wishy-washy, abstract idea hidden in the depths of one or both parents’ hearts. It’s a physical reality.
"We can’t expect our children to mine the depths of our hearts and then live out the things we value most. And, odds are in this fast paced frenzied world, we aren’t even living out our deepest values. But that can change. And it doesn’t have to be hard, we just have to put our values front and center."20
Think about each family value and make plans to display a physical reminder of that value somewhere in your home
3. Develop Family Pride
When I was a kid, I loved watching basketball. Because of this, the decorations in my bedroom consisted entirely of posters of my favorite players and flags with my favorite teams’ logos. Such decorum is a testament to one’s team spirit.
Similarly, we can demonstrate and amplify family pride by displaying pictures of our family and family members throughout the house. The walls of our home should scream “Our family rocks!!!”
Bonus Tip: Put Your Family History on Display
In addition to displaying pictures of your nuclear family, it is also wise to consider displaying pictures of grandparents and ancestors. You might also display any family relics that have been passed down. You should consider putting up anything with a family history story that you might be able to share with your children, especially when the story relates to one of your family values.
Studies show that the more your children know about their family history, the more they will feel a sense of belonging to the family, improving their emotional health: “Adolescents who report knowing more stories about their familial past show higher levels of emotional well-being, and also higher levels of identity achievement, even when controlling for general level of family functioning.”21
Look around your home and make plans for adding more pictures of your family and/or decor that help develop family pride
Before jumping into the third and final component of culture, let’s remind ourselves of the big picture. Remember that culture is the shared values, behaviors, and beliefs of a group. Values are what matter to a group and behaviors are the visible representation of those values. Setting an example, altering the family calendar, creating and maintaining rituals, using effective discipline, and altering the home environment are the major ways we discussed regarding how to get more of the shared behaviors we are looking for in our family culture.
When it comes to building a strong family culture, I view behavior as the low-hanging fruit, easy to influence and measure. It’s our best indicator regarding whether or not we have a strong family culture.
Beliefs are equally important, yet much more difficult to affect and practically impossible to measure. For this reason, they deserve careful consideration, which we will give them in the final section of this article.
Beliefs are crucial because they reveal people’s true motivations. You might be getting the value-based behaviors you want out of your children, but they may be performing them for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps their only motivation for doing the right thing is to avoid a hard-handed punishment. In such a scenario, as soon as the child is out of eyesight, their moral behavior will go out the window. The real goal of parenting is to raise children who will do the right thing for the right reason, children who will continue their ethical behavior no matter who is watching. This is why beliefs are so essential to creating an authentically strong culture.
There are two primary means by which our children will adopt beliefs: (1) formal learning, and (2) informal learning.
Formal learning is used more often, but is far less effective than informal learning. Like adults, children are resistant to being told what to believe. It is a built-in natural instinct that helps preserve their individuality. For instance, if my 3-year-old Joseph says that a blue plate is green, there is a zero percent chance that I will be able to convince him that it is actually blue. No matter how much evidence I might be able to present, Joseph will remain adamant in his view that the plate is green.
When we force formal teaching upon our children, most often we are wasting our breath: "Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."22 And not only are children resistant to formal teaching, but they can also be damaged by it: “When we teach without being asked we are saying in effect, ‘You’re not smart enough to know that you should know this, and not smart enough to learn it.”23
Particularly when it comes to learning values, formal teaching just doesn’t do the trick. As Thomas Aquinas so wisely said, "I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it." Emotion makes learning memorable and meaningful. We want our children to feel, deep down, the true meaning of our family values. One way for them to feel them is to experience them by putting them into action as already discussed in the previous section on behavior. Another way to experience them is through informal learning.
Informal learning is gaining knowledge through any avenue outside of formal learning. The three main avenues for informal learning I want to discuss are (1) discussions, (2) conversations, and (3) media.
Due to our culture’s view that learning happens at school, we often get caught in a trap thinking that learning can only happen when someone acts like a teacher, standing in front of a group and telling them what to believe. As already mentioned, such formal teaching is ineffective, especially in the parent-child relationship. If we want our children to feel comfortable sharing things with us, we need to avoid setting ourselves up as their superior as in a teacher-student relationship. Rather than thinking of ourselves as teachers, it is far better to view ourselves as facilitators. Our role is to facilitate informal learning, and a great way to do this is by leading family discussions.
Certain rituals create a perfect space for such discussions. For instance, mealtimes are a great chance to get a discussion going. As parents it is our job to ask sincere, effective questions to get good discussions rolling. We are all familiar with the stereotypical parent-child conversation:
Parent: “How was your day?”
To avoid this situation, you’ll need to come up with more engaging questions. You might ask, “What was the best and worst part of your day?” or “How was your day on a scale of 1 to 10? Why?” Questions such as this cause kids to think deeper and share deeper. We want to help our kids open up to us on a regular basis, so that they feel comfortable sharing the really personal, important stuff with us.
Another ritual that provides a space for discussions is the weekly family meeting. The more you can involve the kids in discussing family plans, the better. They need to feel like they are an actively participating member of the family. Instead of making statements about how things are going to be, invite family members to share their thoughts as to how they’d like things to be. For instance, when discussing the family meal plan, even though you know your family likely needs to start buying more milk, you might ask, “how does everyone feel about the amount of milk we are buying?” This is a question that even the youngest of family members could feel confident answering.
We want to help our kids open up to us on a regular basis, so that they feel comfortable sharing the really personal, important stuff with us.
It is also important to create a space for discussing family values. We try to do this at the beginning of family night by watching a short value-related YouTube video and then get a discussion rolling using questions such as “What was your favorite part of that video?”, “What’s one thing you learned from that video?”, or “What does this video say about [insert relevant family value]?” This way, the learning is coming from the child instead of being forced on them. Remember, our job is to be facilitators, not teachers.
Make plans for adding a discussion onto at least one of your existing family traditions
Bonus Tip: Create and Discuss a Family Purpose Statement
Creating a family mission statement is a great way to enhance family unity. While your family values answer the question as to what is important to your family, the family mission statement answers the question of what your family’s purpose is. Why live together as a family instead of separately as individuals? Discussing the family purpose statement is an opportunity for everyone to discuss their assumptions about how a family works and why it should work that way. It makes something that is normally subconscious part of the collective consciousness of the group. It becomes a central shared belief, strengthening the family culture.
A family mission statement can be written however you’d like as long as it accurately describes your family’s purpose. For us, we’ve written our family mission statement as follows:
• Better Together •
Life is better when we are together. We have more fun, feel happier, and feel greater peace. We never want to feel distant from one another, physically and especially emotionally.
We become better by being together. We help each other grow through what we learn and experience together. We motivate each other to improve.
The world is better because we are together. Working together, we impact the world in a positive way. We are a positive force, spreading light wherever we go.
After creating a family mission statement, you might consider discussing it on a regular basis as a family as a means to remind everyone why they are together and maintain a sense of unity around this crucial subject.
Decide on a time for your family to discuss and write a family mission statement
Similar to discussions, conversations can also provide you with opportunities to help your children informally learn and internalize family values. Conversations are basically an exchange of beliefs between two people. The more we do this with our children, the more shared beliefs we will develop.
I think it is important to consider that the word conversation typically implies that the two people participating are on equal ground. When a parent starts talking down to their child, the exchange is no longer a conversation but rather a lecture, scolding, sermon, or admonishment. Such dialogues will not be effective in helping our children internalize and think positively of family values.
Opportunities for conversations abound if we are willing to take advantage of them: "Your family’s daily life is filled with value lessons waiting to be taught. Having your antenna up for these opportunities allows you to spot them immediately and use them to teach your children about values."24 In addition to spontaneous conversations, I believe it is also important to carve out regular times in the family schedule that create space for one-on-one conversations with each family member. Special time, one-on-one interviews, and bedtime are three examples of rituals you might use to create such a space.
Once per month, I carve out a 2-hour period of uninterrupted quality time for each of my children. During this time, we just have fun together doing whatever they want to do. I might plan something, but if they want to do something else, I go with it. My goal is simply to make special time their favorite time of the month. Special time is not the time to pry about homework, chores, or anything “not fun”. This is your chance to develop a close, intimate bond with your child.
When my kids get older, I plan on having one-on-one interviews with them on a regular basis. These interviews will be check-ins during which we discuss their goals, challenges, and successes. It is also a good time to discuss sensitive topics such as puberty, bullying, etc. It is important to have time set aside during these interviews for your children to share anything on their mind.
When conducting such interviews, I think it is important to remember that you are not your child’s manager/boss. You are their consultant. Consultants don’t reprimand, bribe, threaten, micromanage, give unsolicited advice, nag, blame, or give orders. A good consultant helps their client formulate their own goals, create a detailed plan to reach those goals, think through issues, share and come to an understanding of their feelings, and recognize their own progress.
Because we are the “all wise” parent, it can be easy to slip into manager mode, but we need to remember that having a deep, intimate relationship with our children is far more important than their current progress/accomplishments. If you are more worried about or putting more effort into something than your child, it’s a good indicator that you are slipping out of consulting mode into manager mode. A good consultant lets their client own the process and the end result. A consult simply provides support at the beginning and end.
Most parents of young children will read to their children as part of the bedtime routine. I believe that this practice (or something similar to it) should be carried out as long as possible. On a daily basis, it provides an opportunity for intimate one-on-one time during which value-based conversations can be had. At the very least, I’d recommend saying an individual goodnight to each child if possible.
Make goals to create a space for each of your children to have one-on-one conversations with you
In addition to discussions and conversations, our children will informally learn from media. Media (in the form of books, movies, videos, music and more) has a huge influence on the beliefs and behavior of our family members. Media represents the voice of the world, telling our children what is normal behavior and what is important. If the wrong media is being propagated in our homes, it can become close to impossible to create shared values, behaviors, and beliefs, destroying any possibility of building a strong family culture.
Obviously, you cannot control every means by which your child might access media. However, it is crucial to control what media we make available and put on display in our homes. When a certain message from the media is available in our home, we are effectively giving it our seal of approval, giving the whole family the idea that “we approve this message.” We don’t want to do that for messages that run counter to our family values. In this way, the media in our home can become our family culture’s worst nightmare.
When a certain message from the media is available in our home, we are effectively giving it our seal of approval, giving the whole family the idea that “we approve this message.”
On the other hand, media can also be our greatest ally when used to propagate beliefs that are in line with our family values. We live in the information age with more books, movies, videos, and music to choose from than any other generation in history. Out of this mountain of media, we can find many gold nuggets that support our family values. Making value-based media easily accessible in our homes and creating discussions around it is one of the best ways for our children to informally learn and internalize our family values. To this end, I’d like to share some key tips regarding four of the most important forms of media: books, movies, videos, and music.
Other forms of media involve screens, which are not recommended for children under 18 months25, so books are our best option for the informal learning of family values from an early age.
Books are also great because while reading, we can easily pause to make a comment or create a discussion that helps highlight one of our family values. For instance, if I’m reading a book with my toddler and the main character thanks his friend, I might say something like, “Awww… That’s so nice. He’s such a grateful person, huh?” Or maybe if the main character is upset because another character won’t share their toys with him, I might say, “Ohhh… He’s sad. Why is he so sad?” This can easily lead into a value-based conversation. Such conversations are easier to have in the middle of a book than when you are in the middle of a video or movie. For this reason, books are my favorite form of media for instilling good value-based beliefs.
Unfortunately, many children’s books fail to teach kids much of anything with regards to important universal values. In fact, many children’s stories send potentially negative messages such as females being helpless but beautiful princesses. Despite this, I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to find a plethora of children’s books that teach our family values in an entertaining way. Modern authors seem to be making extra effort to create such books, of whom some of my favorites are Peter Reynolds, Dr. Suess (not really modern, but he was ahead of his time), Todd Parr, Oliver Jeffers, Eric Litwin, and Trace Moroney.
For parents of small children, I think one of the best investments you can make in both their education and ethics is to create a Family Book Collection. Having a special bookshelf dedicated to only books that support your family values gives your children a visual representation of your family’s values from an early age. A family book collection can be as simple as a small bookshelf with just 10-20 value-based books.
For us, because we have two young children and are planning to have more, we decided to go all in on ours. We bought a bookshelf with 16 cubbies, one for each family value, and we labelled each book with our family value and its associated family principle. Our kiddos love this bookshelf!
Here are some important tips to consider when it comes to choosing good books for your collection. Good books are:
- Value-based. When I am searching, I try to find books that demonstrate the positive benefits of behaviors found in the description of our family principles. To find such books, a great place to start is to simply search “books about [insert one of your family values]” on Google. I’ve also found this list of book categories from Bookroo to be a helpful place to start. When I’ve discovered a book title that sounds like a good fit, I’ll either borrow it from the local library or find a read-through of it on YouTube. This way I can test it out before buying it for the collection.
- Concise. Children have short attention spans, so the fewer the words, the better. My one exception to this rule is Dr. Suess books since the words are so fun that it makes up for the wordiness.
- Interesting for All Ages. The books in your collection are meant to be read over and over and over again. Repetition is key to learning. So, if you find a book boring, you won’t be motivated to read it repeatedly. Make sure to only buy books that you truly enjoy.
- Story-based. Children learn best through stories, not lectures. Sometimes when an author is trying to teach a valuable lesson, they can start to get preachy. Remember, we want our children to feel our values rather than simply know them. They are more likely to feel them when they are wrapped up in a story.
- Good Enough. You will never find a book that perfectly presents a family value in the exact way you would. That’s okay. Even if it barely meets the above criteria, go ahead and get it. Down the road you might find better books and simply remove some of the first books you bought. Your collection will likely develop and change over time. What remains constant, however, are the values being taught.
For some ideas and as a starting point, feel free to check out this list of value-based books currently in our family book collection.
Bonus Tip: Include Some Books Covering Sensitive but Important Topics
Having “the talk” with your kids doesn’t need to be awkward or some big thing. It is far better to talk conversationally about sensitive topics such as sex, dating, bullying, peer pressure, and others. Rather than trying to formally teach your kids about such topics, you may find it easier to read a book about it together. I think it is a great way to do it since you can find books on these topics that are geared towards different ages, allowing you to slowly build your child’s understanding of that topic.
Bonus Tip: Have a Principle of the Week (POW)!
To ensure that each family value gets some attention, we’ve decided to put extra emphasis on one value/principle each week by having a Principle of the Week (the “POW!”). This way, every 16 weeks, each of our family values gets the spotlight at least once. We highlight the POW by reading one book from its shelf before naptime/bedtime, watching a video related to it for the family night devotional, and putting a quote related to it on display on top of our family bookshelf.
Bonus Tip: Create a Family Quote Collection
Speaking of quotes, we decided to create a Family Quote Collection, which is currently just a Google Doc filled with quotes that my wife and I like that relate to our family values. We rotate through these quotes as part of the quote of the week, and at some point we are hoping to print them out for our kids to start interacting with. It supports our family value of wisdom while acting as a reservoir of shared beliefs.
Make plans to start building out your family’s value-based book collection
Growing up, there were certain movies that everyone in my family knew inside and out. We’d watch them over and over again to the point that we were quoting them all the time. “He’s only mostly dead!” from Princess Bride was commonly heard around our home. Or “The important thing, kid, is that you're doing something you like to do.” from American Dreamer. Or even “It's Wingardium LeviOsa, not LevioSA” from Harry Potter.
These movies formed a pool of shared beliefs between me, my siblings, and my parents, strengthening our family culture. Just imagine how powerful it would be if the pool of shared beliefs was composed primarily of value-based movies. Your family’s collective consciousness would be laden with important values that glue you all together. The movies that you watch regularly as a family require careful consideration. For us, that meant creating a list of movies that compose our Family Movie Collection (see our growing list here).
The great news is that despite all the junky movies being produced these days, there are many gold nuggets that are clean, entertaining, and value-based. In particular, I’ve found that Pixar films are perfect in this regard because most of them are fun to watch no matter your age. It is essential to find movies that everyone will want to watch again and again.
Movies can create a great space for value-based discussions. In most families, keeping chatter to a minimum is usually preferred, but you might be able to get away with a few value-related comments during the movie. For instance, if one character calls another character a name, I might simply remark, “that wasn’t very nice.”
After the movie can be a great time for a laid-back family discussion. It can be as simple as asking, “What was everyone’s favorite part of the movie?” And then when sharing your favorite part, being sure to highlight one or two of your family values that were present in the film.
If your family loves movies, you might consider starting some family traditions around your movie collection. You could designate Sunday night as family movie night, and everyone can gather around to watch a movie from the family collection. You might even consider choosing a movie that matches up with your family’s Principle of the Week (POW) as discussed previously.
Make plans to start building out your family’s value-based movie collection
Much like movies, children and even adults enjoy watching the same video over and over again. When done as a family, this adds to the shared beliefs that make up the family culture. For this reason, we’ve decided to create Family YouTube Playlists that are filled with short videos that share messages in line with our family culture (check out our current playlists here). And as previously mentioned, we’ll watch one of these videos as part of the devotional that starts off family night. And after watching a video, we try to have a short discussion about it.
Make plans to start building out your family’s value-based video collection
Music has always been a powerful tool for the transmission of culture from one generation to the next. For instance, the Native Americans used music to tell the value-based stories of their culture. This is powerful because music evokes deep emotions which can help people gain a deeper understanding of values.
All music sends a message to the listener, so if we can soak our family in music that sends messages in line with our family values, we can positively influence our family. Understanding this led us to create Family Spotify Playlists with each playlist corresponding to one of our family values (check out our current playlists here). As with our other media collections, we try to add only those songs that every member of the family will enjoy listening to over and over for years to come.
Make plans to start building out your family’s value-based music collection
Obstacles to Maintaining a Strong Family Culture
Now that you understand how to establish a strong family culture, it is important for you to be aware of some of the common obstacles that could easily thwart your efforts. Here are the three most common obstacles you will encounter in your quest for a strong family culture: (1) Lack of Family Resources, (2) Lack of Consistency, and (3) Influence of Other Cultures.
1. Lack of Family Resources
Building a strong family culture requires time and money. In order to develop shared values, behaviors, and beliefs with family members, you have to spend a lot of time with your family. And it has to be more than just being in the same room, it requires focused, meaningful time. You can’t multitask and build a strong family culture at the same time. You may need to make some personal sacrifices.
You can’t multitask and build a strong family culture at the same time.
For me, making time with my family more focused and meaningful has meant giving up bad habits such as constantly checking my phone. In order to make this happen, I’ve had to get rid of all social media apps and email apps from my phone. This way, I’m no longer tempted to check them. Another potential distraction can be all the work that needs to be done at home such as chores. At times, we’ve made the decision to hire someone to do most of our chores for us so that we can be more focused when we are with our kids.
This brings me to the obstacle of money. You may be thinking, “Hire someone to do chores for me? How could I possibly have the money for that?” It simply comes down to opportunity cost. If you earn even just $20 an hour, you can afford to hire someone to do chores for you.
Opportunity cost is what you are giving up in order to do something else. If you can earn $20/hour, then each hour you spend doing chores at home has an opportunity cost of $20.
Consider this, instead of spending 2 hours doing chores, you could spend 1 hour working for $20 and 1 hour having focused, meaningful time with your children. Then you could pay someone at close to $10/hour to do 2 hours of chores for you with the $20 you earned. This is exactly what my wife and I did while still in college, and it worked wonderfully.
Now, if you have a mountain of school loans and a house to pay off, it can be easy to want to work the full two hours for an extra $40 and spend another 2 hours doing your own chores. This is not logical for two reasons:
- Why not spend all four hours working for $80 and then spend $20 for someone else to do your chores. Then you’d have a net profit of $60 instead of $40.
- When you do chores instead of spending quality time with your kids, your opportunity cost is much more than $20. Time with your children is worth more than gold. Someone else can do your chores, but there is no one else in the whole world who can have meaningful time with your children like you can. You and your spouse are the only ones who can make a strong family culture happen. Please don’t give up if up for the false premise that you don’t have the time or money. Nothing could be more remorseful than that.
Make plans to overcome any obstacles holding you back from having focused, meaningful family time
2. Lack of Consistency
Consistency is an essential ingredient in building a strong family culture. In order for everyone in the family to develop a shared value, it needs to be hit on again and again. To develop shared behaviors, those behaviors need to be performed over and over. And to develop shared beliefs, those beliefs need to be reiterated time and time again. When values, behaviors and beliefs are constantly changing, a strong culture will never take shape, leaving family members without something reliable to hold onto. This will lead your children to look for another source to meet their need to belong to a strong culture.
3. Influence of Other Cultures
When our children don’t feel a strong sense of belonging to our family culture, they will find another culture to belong to. Another culture becomes their primary culture, and our family culture becomes secondary. As discussed at the beginning of this article, this is not a happy prospect.
But even when our children’s primary culture is our family culture, other cultures will still have an influential role as secondary cultures. It is important to be aware of the negative influence they can have, so that we can minimize the harm. It is also equally important to recognize the positive influence they can have so we can maximize the benefits. There are four secondary cultures that I want to examine with you: (1) peer culture, (2) extended family culture, (3) religious culture, and (4) popular culture.
1. Peer Culture
When it comes to destroying family culture, the peer culture is the most common culprit. In the US, it has become the norm for the peer culture to become a child’s primary culture. This is a recent phenomenon in human history and the effects are horrifying. If we think back to our days as hunter-gatherers, children spent most of their day under the care and supervision of their parents or relatives. Boys watched and learned from their dads, and girls watched and learned from their moms. Not only did this parent-child mentoring allow children to learn their role in society, but it also had the added side benefit of children learning and adopting the culture of their parents.
This parent-child mentoring and spending the majoring of one’s time with one’s family continued up until only recently with the advent of public schooling. Looking back just one century reveals how rapidly things have changed. Back then, boys would work with their dads on the farm, and girls would work in the home with their moms. Leaving home to hang out with one’s peers was barely part of the equation: “According to statistics from the US Department of Education, the school year in 1869–70 was about 132 days long (today it’s more like 180), but most students only went about 78 days a year.”26 And “At the turn of the century, only 51 percent of children age five to 19 even went to school… In 1900, only 11 percent of high school-age children were enrolled in school at all.”27
Now, it is considered normal for children to spend the majority of their day and the majority of the year away from home, spending the majority of their time in the world of peer culture. And things are only getting worse. A new US program called the “Time Collaborative” is currently testing out extending the school day by 90 minutes.28 In addition to school, most kids have an evening schedule loaded with sports team practices and other extracurriculars where they get a second helping of peer culture.
Peer culture has replaced family culture as the primary culture with devastating consequences. Instead of looking to their parents for their values, children are looking to the peer culture, defined by sex, drugs, and self-absorption. Children long to fit in and belong to this culture, resulting in low self-esteem and loneliness. Perhaps this helps explain why “five to eight times as many young people today have scores above the cutoff for likely diagnosis of a clinically significant anxiety disorder or major depression than fifty or more years ago.”29
Understanding the pervasive influence of peer culture is essential in maintaining a strong family culture. While it may not be possible to eliminate the negative influence of peer culture on your children, it is important to do what you can to minimize any harmful effects. In many cases, this simply comes down to increasing the amount of quality time your children have soaking in your strong family culture and minimizing the amount of time they have absorbing peer culture. While you may not be able to decrease the length of the school day, you can decrease the amount of after-school activities that are taking over your family’s life. Spending the afternoon/evening shuttling your kids from one activity to the next doesn’t leave much room for developing shared values, behaviors, and beliefs.
The topic of minimizing the pervasive influence of peer culture deserves careful consideration, so I’d highly recommend reading the book Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, which provides a far-more detailed analysis of this topic than I am able to give it in this article. I’d highly recommend this book to every parent.
Make plans to minimize the negative influence and maximize the positive influence of peer culture
2. Extended Family Culture
Your family of origin and your spouse’s family of origin both have their own unique family culture. The culture you grew up in had a huge influence in shaping you and your values and it could also do the same for your children. For this reason, it is important to understand it as best as possible. I’d recommend discussing the following questions with your spouse:
- What did my family members do on the weekends? What family values does this reflect?
- When my family did things together, what kinds of things would we do? What family values does this reflect?
- What habits did we have in my family? What family values does this reflect?
- What traditions did we have in my family? What family values does this reflect?
- What did my family do on holidays? What family values does this reflect?
- What behaviors received negative discipline in my family? What family values does this reflect?
- What behaviors received positive discipline in my family? What family values does this reflect?
- What books are found in my parents' home? What family values does this reflect?
- What were some of my family’s favorite movies? What family values does this reflect?
- What example do your parents set? What family values do you see in their behavior?
As you consider and discuss these questions, you may come to realize that what you thought your family valued, and what they actually value (as evidenced by their behaviors) are two different things. It may be hard to accept, but the values that are visible represent the reality of the family culture you grew up in.
If your family of origin’s values represent those that contrast with the ones you are seeking to establish in your own family, you will need to double your efforts to build a strong family culture of your own choosing. You can escape the culture you grew up in, but it will take great and sincere effort on your part: “If the example we have received from our parents was not good, it is our responsibility to break the cycle. . . . Each person can learn a better way and in so doing bless the lives of family members now and teach correct traditions for the generations that follow.”30
If your parents and siblings are a negative influence on you, you may need some distance. If they are a negative influence on your children, you will need to establish and maintain boundaries. This can be extremely painful and hard, but it is worth it. Your and your family’s lifelong happiness is at stake.
If, on the other hand, you find that your family of origin’s values mesh quite nicely with your own, awesome! Your parents and siblings will likely be a positive influence on your own family’s culture. Spending time with such extended family members can only help. They can be a major part of what Dr. Jim Taylor calls a “community-value culture”:
Fortunately, you aren’t alone in your battle against harmful social influences. Siblings and extended family members, friends, teachers, coaches, and clergy can all have a significant influence over what your children come to value. To ensure that you maximize the influence of positive others on your children, I encourage you to actively create a “community-value culture” that supports your family-value culture.31
Discuss the questions listed above with your spouse, and make plans to minimize the negative influence and maximize the positive influence of your extended family cultures
3. Religious Culture
Religious culture deserves careful attention since most religious cultures are very strong. Religions explicitly teach, and in most cases demand (i.e. the ten commandments), certain values, behaviors, and beliefs. In many cases, this can be a good thing since most religions seek to instill good values, behaviors, and beliefs. In this way, our religion can support our family culture, making it stronger.
I firmly believe that almost all religions have good intentions. They are sincerely seeking to improve the lives of their membership. However, this doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes or miss the mark on occasion. For this reason, I think it is important to approach one’s own religion with an open mind, seeking to maximize its positive influence on one’s family and minimize its potentially negative influence. Here are two ways in which your religion, while having good intentions may be impeding your efforts to build a strong family culture:
1. Taking Over Your Family Life
Most major religions honor the important nature of the family unit in their teachings and theology. In practice, however, some religions ask too much of families, especially of their time. In my own religion, families are asked to attend 2 hours of church on Sundays, teenagers (who are already overscheduled) are asked to attend an hour of seminary before school each morning, and youth and their volunteer leaders are asked to attend 1-2 hours of midweek activities. Additionally, many men and women are asked to devote an extra 1 to 20 hours per week acting in a volunteer leadership position. For some families, this might be manageable and add to their family culture. For others, this level of time commitment is too much. I think it would be wise to consider limiting your family’s involvement to the degree that your family has the time it needs to build its own strong culture independent of the religious culture. I believe God wants a high-functioning family more than he wants a high-functioning congregation.
2. Dictating a Family’s Culture
Religions have their own strong culture rich with values, behavioral norms, rituals, religious media (i.e. holy books), and much more. For this reason, many families simply adopt their religious culture as their family culture. Afterall, why go to the trouble of crafting your own unique family culture, when your religion provides you with a pre-packaged, ready-to-implement culture?
To me, it all comes down to the fact that at least one of your children will, more likely than not, leave the religion they grew up in. In fact, 44-percent of US adults no longer belong to their childhood religion.32 When someone leaves their religious faith, many times they will turn against it, adopting opposite values, behaviors, and beliefs. If the culture of one’s family of origin and that family’s religious culture are one in the same, for the person leaving the religion behind, it can feel like they are leaving their family behind.
I am of the firm belief that religions can bring families closer together and strengthen them, but only if religion remains in its proper place: supporting not controlling or defining families. When you put in the effort to create your own unique family culture with your religion playing a supporting role, if one of your children leaves your religion, they will be far less likely to feel distanced. They can rest assured, knowing that their family is much more than its religious leanings.
Make plans to minimize the negative influence and maximize the positive influence of your religion's culture
4. Popular Culture
Popular culture is exactly what it sounds like, it is the shared values, beliefs, and behaviors that are popular. It can include what is popular in your neighborhood, town, region (i.e. the deep south), and country.
Popular culture has a great potential to influence us in both positive and negative ways. The American values of independence, directness, equality, efficiency, responsibility, and achievement might fit right into the strong family culture you are hoping to build. On the other hand, you might want to limit the influence of American values such as materialism, individuality, or competition. As with everything we’ve discussed in this article, the goal is to accentuate the positive and limit the negative.
Make plans to minimize the negative influence and maximize the positive influence of popular culture
At the close of this article, I hope you are convinced that your family culture plays a HUGE role in shaping your children. It affects every aspect of what makes them who they are: their values, beliefs, and behaviors.
And now that you understand its powerful influence, you can shape it into something positive, something that will guide your children towards goodness, happiness, and light. Their future is as bright as your family culture.
We've covered a heck-ton of information in this article, so you are likely feeling overwhelmed by all the things you need to do to start building your strong family culture. Please recognize that building a strong family culture requires careful thought and time for reflection. It is best to take it one deliberate step at a time.
For this reason, I’d encourage you to simply work on one action item from this article at a time, starting at the top and working your way to the bottom. If all you can do this week/month/year is decide on family values, that’s a great place to start. Any effort invested into building a strong family culture will result in exponentially larger rewards in the end. Remember, your family is worth any sacrifice.
- The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle
- "Create a Family-value Culture" by Dr. Jim Taylor
- ”Generation Gap” by Merriam Webster
- Culture by Design by David Friedman
- Creating Your Family Culture: Step by Step Guide by CreateFamilyCulture.com
- "Family Values: How To Live Out What Matters Most" by A Mother Far From Home
- Culture by Design by David Friedman
- ”The Four Stages of Cognitive Development” by Verywell Mind
- "Create a Family-value Culture" by Dr. Jim Taylor
- Belonging and Becoming: Creating a Thriving Family Culture by Mark and Lisa Scandrette
- The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle
- Traditions Worth Keeping by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- ”13 Amazing Coming of Age Traditions From Around the World” by Global Citizen
- Culture by Design by David Friedman
- Discipline Without Distress by Judy Arnall
- The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle
- Portion Size Me Study by Brian Wansink and Koert Van Ittersum
- ”Motivation is Overvalued. Environment Often Matters More.” by James Clear
- Culture by Design by David Friedman
- "Family Values: How To Live Out What Matters Most" by A Mother Far From Home
- ”The Power of Family History in Adolescent Identity and Well-being” by Robyn Fivush, Ph.D.; Marshall Duke, Ph.D.; and Jennifer G. Bohanek, Ph.D.
- The Republic by Plato
- How Children Learn by John Holt
- "Create a Family-value Culture" by Dr. Jim Taylor
- ”American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use” by American Academy of Pediatrics
- ”How School Was Different in The 1800s” by Ancestry
- ”This Is What School Was Like 100 Years Ago” by Reader’s Digest
- ”Longer School Days Coming for Thousands of Students Next Year” by Public School Review
- Free to Learn by Peter Gray
- ”How Will Our Children Remember Us” by Robert D. Hales
- "Create a Family-value Culture" by Dr. Jim Taylor
- "Faith in Flux” by Pew Research Center