Every Thursday night for a couple of years, my daughter and I had dinner with a girlfriend and her family. With seven people around the table, it was pretty chaotic – but that was one of the things I loved about it.
My daughter was a preschooler back then, and I could see her taking it all in: the jabbing of elbows; the noisy conversation; and the great relationship between my friend and her husband. I loved it that she got to see what a ‘real’ family looked like.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t consider the two of us a family. It’s just that the ‘sense’ of family can sometimes be missing when the family unit is so small or where one parent is absent.
Senior writer and presenter with Parents Inc. John Cowan says deliberately creating a sense of family builds identity and security, regardless of whether you are parenting together or on your own.
“Feeling like they’re part of a team makes kids feel secure and that they’re part of something bigger than themselves,” he says.
Getting involved with other families is a great way for single parents to do that. Not everyone will have such obliging friends as mine, but it might just be a case of asking. I explained to my girlfriend why I’d like to come over for dinner on a regular basis and what I wanted my daughter to get out of it, and she – bless her heart – was only too happy to include us. These days another family often includes us on bush-walks or beach outings.
Extended family, marae or church involvement can also provide the same sense of family culture.
Another way to build family ties is to have lots of celebrations – special events, birthdays, rites of passage, holidays and children’s achievements. It could be as simple as a candle on the table or dinner on a special red plate. A friend and I have already discussed how we’ll have a girls’ weekend away when our daughters turn 12 or 13, a deliberate ‘coming of age’ celebration.
John Cowan says celebration and tradition are keys to creating a strong sense of family:
“You might be having Christmas by yourself with just one or two children, but you can still make it a special event for them. Have decorations, ceremonies and lots of fun.”
Family traditions can be things like fish and chips on the first Friday of the month, a favourite camping spot or weekly family meetings.
Looking at photo albums with children and talking about ancestors and past events can give children a sense of belonging. And think twice before discarding wedding photos after a divorce, says John.
“Your children are a product of that union, even when it doesn’t exist anymore, so it is significant to them.”
What we say
The words we say are critical, too. Phrases like, “In our family, we always say hello when we meet someone” or “This is not a hitting family” are helpful, non-confrontational ways of guiding pre-schooler behaviour – but they’re also reinforcing the idea that ‘we are a family.’
A book that totally inspires me is Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families (published by Simon & Schuster). Covey says one of the best ways to build a strong family is to create a family mission statement – about what your family stands for and how you want it to be. As Covey says, vision is greater than baggage.
To be effective, a mission statement needs to be developed over time – and with input from everyone old enough to contribute. One example in the book is:
“Our family mission is to be kind, respectful and supportive of each other, to be honest and open with each other, to keep a spiritual feeling in the home, to love each other unconditionally… and to make this house a place we want to come home to.”
What about when children feel a sense of loss or talk about how they’re not a ‘real family’?
John Cowan says don’t invalidate their feelings by saying it’s not true.
“When children do feel a sense of loss or feel disadvantaged socially or financially, don’t try to talk them out of it. Empathise with them.
“To be honest, the odds are stacked against kids from single-parent families. But there is no ‘automatic doom’. The reality is that many single-parent families do raise great kids and give their children a fantastic sense of family. The hope we give, is that although it will be hard work, it can be done.”
The Seven Habits of….
Steven Covey has been hugely successful with this series of books. Read more about them here, and look out in particular for The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families.