Families are systems and the members of a family are both individuals and part of a whole; they interact and play off one another. When you think about your family that way, you can see that if one part is skewed a little bit, it will throw the whole system off balance. Since we are all skewed a bit, our family systems can get kind of crazy.
When you think about your family that way, you can also see that it’s the entire family parenting the children, not just one or two individuals. Many times one finds themselves parenting the way they were parented and don't know any better. Understanding family roles, history, relationships, and secrets can be helpful to straighten your family system up a bit and become better parents in turn.
Look at the roles people fill in your family. It’s ideal to do this before you have kids, because you can readjust roles easier then, but you can still do it even if you have grandkids. Remember, we’re talking about the entire family parenting the children.
What is your family’s history, including parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins? Are there a lot of divorces, affairs, addiction, early deaths? What’s the religious history of your family? How about social or financial status? As you look at your family’s history, you may see patterns that alert you to potential problems that could come up in your family.
What are relationships like in your family, and are they close, or distant? What about the relationships between parents and their parents and siblings? What about the relationship between parents? Step family parenting, gay family parenting, single parent family parenting and traditional family parenting are all different, and bring different relationships into the system. It’s helpful to evaluate those relationships. What part does each member of the family play in parenting the children?
This is a big one, and some people need counseling to sort out family secrets. Family secrets are secrets that are never told, but intuitively known, and wind up being passed from generation to generation. Family secrets are poisonous. A common family secret is incest, and until someone breaks the silence and talks about Uncle Jim and what he did, incest will happen in future generations, too. Family parenting means revealing all the secrets so that they lose their power.
When you think about the entire family parenting the children, you discover that you have resources you didn’t know you had, too. When you are undone by parenting, you can turn to other members of the system, and you will know the appropriate members to turn to.
If you learn that Grandma grew up in a remote area without friends, you understand that she’s not cold; she’s unskilled in relationships. You know you can turn to her for practical help, but not for support when you’re having a rough day. On the other hand, once sweet Uncle Jim’s secret is exposed, you know it’s not safe to leave the children with him.
The concept of family as a system is a valuable tool for parents. It helps them see potential problems, identify family resources and make their family a good one.