Parenting and the Heart Beat of a Healthy Family

The Heartbeat of Your Home
By Julie Baumgardner, MS, CFLE

heartbeat of a healthy and happy familyIf someone asked you to describe the heartbeat of your home, how would you describe it – erratic, racing, consistent and steady, or always changing and unpredictable? Just as it is important for your heart to beat in a steady rhythm, research shows it is also important for the heartbeat of your home to be steady and strong.

The Warning Signs We know that high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and being overweight are all factors that contribute to heart disease. Research has shown that an unhealthy heartbeat in the home can be caused by lack of communication, over commitment, high levels of conflict, in-laws with unrealistic expectations, an unhealthy family of origin, failure to balance home and work, out of control finances, and a variety of other things.

One night, as I laid down to go to sleep, I noticed how quiet it was in the house. I thought to myself, I am so thankful that it is peaceful and I will be able to get a good night of much needed rest. It also occurred to me that many homes are not peaceful at bedtime or any other time of the day. The heartbeat of these homes is constantly racing and it’s only a matter of time before it just wears out.

If you peek into a home with a healthy heartbeat you will see a home where there is love, consistency, fellowship with one another, a sharing of feelings and ideas, respect, peace, problem solving, family meals, a safe place to fail – a sanctuary from the outside world.

When I talk with people about the characteristics of a healthy home, they all say, “That is what I want.” But, wanting a home atmosphere like that and actually having one are two different stories. Having a “heart-healthy” home doesn’t just happen on its own.

It is the same as wanting to have a healthy heart. In order to do so, doctors tell you to eat right, exercise, get adequate rest, know your family history in case heart disease runs in your family, refrain from putting unhealthy things in your body, maintain a weight that is good for your body, etc. The hard part of all this is it takes intentional, consistent effort on your part. Wishing for it won’t make it happen.

If it feels like your home has heart disease, instead of waiting for a heart attack to happen to jolt you into doing something different, make a decision now to change your lifestyle. It only takes one person doing something different to change a marriage or a family. Since it is the beginning of a new year, there is no better time to start.

Heart Rehab Set your priorities – If you could wave a magic wand and make some changes, what would they be? More time together as a family; fewer outside commitments; a less chaotic environment in your home; dinner as a family at least two times a week?

If you don’t set your priorities, someone will set them for you. You have to decide what is important to you and your family and begin to make changes. The magic happens when you put perimeters around what is important to you – you determine what you want to place emphasis on and the other things tend to go away.

Manage your time – Many people resign themselves to the idea that things are just crazy and there really isn’t any way to get a grasp on your family time. You can choose to buy into that notion or you can decide to bring things to a screeching halt and do an extreme makeover on your schedule. How you manage your time is a direct reflection of your priorities.

Are you working endless hours to keep up with the Jones? Many families have made the decision to downsize in order to work fewer hours and spend more time together as a family.

Just because the neighbor’s children are involved in music, soccer, and numerous other activities does not mean your children need to be. Adult peer pressure seems to be almost as great as the peer pressure our children feel. You know what is best for your children. If your family is stressed out all the time over all of the places you are supposed to be, that may be your sign that it is time to slow down. The reality may be that you want to be at your child’s event more than he/she does.

Mutual Respect
Families who live in a healthy heart environment show respect to one another. The definition of respect is the condition of being honored, esteemed or respected or well regarded. In a family this includes: listening to each other without interrupting, sharing feelings appropriately, being polite to one another, following the rules of the house, showing concern for family members, taking other family member’s feelings into consideration, taking care of your belongings, and not taking things that don’t belong to you without asking, nonviolence, trust and honesty.

Learn to be a great communicator
Watch what you say and how you say it. Once it is out of your mouth, you can’t take it back. The tongue can be as deadly as a real weapon. Avoid sarcasm and putdowns. Maintain eye contact with the person with whom you are communicating. Avoid yelling, the use of expletives and physical contact – all of these tend to shut down communication.

Look at Your Family History
Even though a family history of heart disease makes you more at risk, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will have heart disease. Taking precautionary measures can help you avoid these problems. Perhaps you grew up in a family that had an unhealthy heartbeat in the home. This does not mean you have to follow the same path. Undoing bad habits is challenging, but doable. The first step is recognizing and acknowledging the unhealthy behavior. There are many excellent resources to help you develop healthy habits and recognize unhealthy ones.

Step number two is actually doing something different. Change takes time. In many cases the very things that worked well as coping mechanisms in your childhood, to help you survive an unhealthy home environment, work against you as an adult.

Establish Routines
Would you rather live in an environment where you never know what is happening from one moment to the next or one where you have some idea of what comes next? Most people do better with consistency in their lives.

I remember watching the movie Overboard with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Through a series of events, Goldie Hawn’s character, a rich young woman named Joanna, suffers amnesia. She is tricked into believing she is the mother of four young boys who have absolutely no order in their home. They were unruly at school and did whatever they wanted to at home. Just watching the chaos in that home made me tired. When Joanna had had enough of the craziness she began to establish routines in the home, which in turn brought order to their lives. While the boys rebelled at first, they eventually began to like what the order brought to their home. Even though the story is fiction, the reality is children and adults do better with established routines.

When everybody in your home knows the “family routines” life is much less crazy for everybody. If you don’t have a morning and evening routine for your family, consider putting one in place.

Family Expectations
Homes with a strong heartbeat have clear expectations for family members. Everybody knows what is acceptable and what won’t fly around the house. While all family members have input about rules and expectations, parents have the ultimate say. For example, your children may want to have a later bedtime, but this would mean no adult time so you as the parents make the decision to leave bedtime the same. Obviously, as children get older expectations change. The goal is to continue to have a home where the heartbeat is steady and consistent.

Be in healthy authority over your children Many of today’s parents want their children to like them. They work hard to be their child’s friend. Parenting experts will tell you that your children need you to be their parent. Research shows that parents are the most influential in the lives of children, which is why they have the ability to be the most effective teachers when it comes to teaching and enforcing limits and boundaries. You should not expect your child to thank you now for the time and energy you are investing in them or for the limits you are setting. You do it because you love them and you want the best for them in the future.

A healthy home has parents who are in healthy authority over their children. This means setting appropriate expectations and consequences and doing what is in the best interest of your children. It also means not being afraid when they get mad at you or say “You’re mean!” “I don’t love you.” Part of being a parent is understanding there will be times when your children don’t like you. Be the parent they need you to be. Don’t look for affirmation from your children. Develop a support network of parents who can help you keep perspective and stand strong.

Say I love you
Don’t just assume your family members know you love them. Tell them so. Those three little words – I love you are very powerful. Saying the words along with doing the things discussed above let family members know they are loved and valued.

Boundaries in the home
Every home needs boundaries as a way to protect and care for family members.
Setting healthy boundaries is a way for parents to show their children how much they care about their present and long-term wellbeing. While we are often good at setting boundaries such as don’t cross the street without a parent and don’t play with fire, there are other boundaries with which families sometimes struggle. For example, when friends come to visit, where are they allowed to be? Is it acceptable for in-laws just to drop in for a visit or do you expect them to call first? Are family members allowed to borrow things without asking?

Research has shown that children do better on playgrounds with fences. Why? Because they know exactly where the boundaries are. Families, including extended family members do better when they know exactly where the boundaries are. When boundaries aren’t clear, feelings tend to get hurt and actions are often misinterpreted.

A Rejuvenated Heart If your home has a heart problem, don’t wait for it to flat line before you make the decision to do something different. There are plenty of people who are now living the good life who experienced heart problems in the past. Some had to have a serious wake up call to get them to make changes. Others saw the warning signs and decided to make a turn around before things became worse. If you want the heart of your home to be healthy, it starts with you.

When your home has a healthy heartbeat, children grow to learn what healthy relationships look like and are more likely to seek out those types of relationships in the future. They understand how to problem solve, communicate effectively, and have healthy boundaries in life. Instead of always being on the go, family members value time together and gain strength from being connected to each other and knowing what is happening in the lives of each person.

While these things may sound like they take work, time and energy, it seems like doing these things on the front end is preferable to bypass surgery for your family down the road.

Here’s to a home with a healthy heart!

Summary: Heart healthy Homes consist of: Priorities
Expectations
Boundaries
Respect
Good Communication
Love
Routines and Rituals
Parents in healthy authority over their children

Biography
Julie Baumgardner is the Executive Director of First Things First, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to strengthening marriages and families. She can be reached at julieb@firstthings.org.

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October 15, 2007

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