The other day, I asked my children a Very Important Question.
"Do you think we have a happy family?"
(Insert holding breath.)
After several interminable seconds, my offspring--one teen daughter and one tween daughter--got back to me. Actually, they looked at me incredulously.
Then they both said, "Of course. Why would you even ask?"
That's a relief.
I asked the question because I wanted to know my girls' take on the topic. I mean, I think we're pretty happy. But I wanted my daughters' off-the-cuff perspective: no time to think about it, no mulling it over, no hedging. Just "yes" or "no."
Listen, we are such a normal family, I can't even talk about it. We try to love each other, but sometimes we don't even like each other. We fight. We snap. We have total meltdowns. (And by "we," I mostly mean "me.")
But if my adolescent daughters can unequivocally answer the question, "Do you think we have a happy family?" with a ready "yes," something we're doing must be working, by the grace of God.
Here are six habits our family has put into practice, by the grace of God. (A recurring theme, BTW.) Some have been deliberate choices, while others we've just fallen into, by the grace... If these aren't already part of your family's modus operandi, give one or two a try and see if they take.
1. Tradition! Tevye's tribe had it right in Fiddler on the Roof: traditions help keep life in balance, and we are big into them around here. We have family pizza night and Sunday-night "party" (snack food in front of the TV). We have our annual at-home Christmas Eve service planned and hosted by our girls. We have our vacation in a cottage on a lake for a week, during which we do the same things every year. We have our last-day-of-school ritual of "What Time Is It?" from High School Musical 2 blasting at top volume out the front door when the girls get off the bus.
These traditions anchor us. They give us something constant and consistent to anticipate. They bring us together and hold us there. They smooth the rough edges of life. Not long ago, when we sat down for our pizza-night practice, my 16-year-old sighed with contentment and said, "I love family pizza night. I look forward to it all week." When your teenager makes a comment like that, you know you've got something worth keeping. (FYI, if you need a go-to dough recipe, here's my favorite from the inimitable Alton Brown.)
2. The Faith Hub. I grew up in a church-going family. We prayed before meals. We went to church camp, Sunday School, and vacation Bible school. I am beyond thankful for this foundation of faith, and I'm so grateful to my parents for giving it to me. But looking back, I can see that God was a spoke on the wheel of life more than He was the hub.
Making God central in our life is something my husband and I have tried to be deliberate about doing. I know we have failed over and over again. But we have worked to weave faith into the fabric of our family life rather than just having it be a fringe element. We try to pray even if we're not sitting down to a meal. Going to church on Sunday mornings is not a decision we have to make every week: it's just happening, most of the time. We talk about the Bible. We worship and serve together (by the grace...). We don't do these things to put ourselves out there as pious. We do them because we want our girls to know this sometimes-wonderful but often-messed-up world is not as good as life gets, and it is not their ultimate home.
One of my favorite quotes is by Karen L. Tornberg in The Best Things Ever Said About Parenting: "To some this world may seem like no place to bring up a child. And in some respects they are right. But we take that risk anyway with the comforting knowledge that it is not for this world that we prepare them." In a culture of constant change, we want to give our daughters the security of an unchanging God and the hope of knowing there is more to this life than what they can see.
3. The Low Bar. Our family has very humble standards for what is "good" and "exciting" and "worth looking forward to." This is because my husband and I have intentionally established a low threshold for expectations. If a trip to Disney World is the base standard, disappointment over "normal" life is sure to follow. But if a ride on the penny pony at the grocery store is the bar for satisfaction, pretty much anything can be billed as thrilling. As demonstrated in #1, above, we've done such a good job at this that my girls think having homemade pizza on the floor while we watch Tiny House Hunting is something to plan a week around. Score one for the low bar.
4. Selective Scheduling. In comparison to many families with children the ages of our girls, we are an under-achieving (and possibly lazy) family. Overall, our daughters do the following: school, band, dance, church, home, family, friends. Also, their hair. Which, to be fair, must be counted as an activity. We don't do travel-this or competitive-level that. I am NOT saying there is anything wrong with those activities. But being home together is crucial to our little family's happiness and our level of contentment with life at large. So we keep a pretty tight reign on our schedule, because it's hard to be home together if we're never home. Or together.
5. Home as Safe Zone (Or: We Welcome Weird). The truth is that none of us can just be who we necessarily feel like being all the time. The same goes for only doing what we feel like doing or saying what we feel like saying. We can't. For the good of others, we have to practice self-control and self-sacrifice.
But living beyond ourselves is a lot of work. Which is okay: most things worth doing are. At home, though, I know that I am accepted and treasured in spite of myself. And I want my husband and daughters to know that grace, too. I want our home to be a safe, secure refuge where joys are doubled and sorrows are halved (quartered?). I want it to be a place where we can unload and be refreshed.
So at our house, it is okay to be grumpy sometimes. It is okay to be introverted. It is okay to not always be okay. And we do not automatically try to "fix" grumpy, introverted, or un-okay.
We welcome weird. Okay, some of us welcome weird more than others. Some of us ARE weirder than others (and by "some of us," I mostly mean "me"). Whatever. Weird is welcome in this house, and that's all there is to it.
We also welcome (or at least accept as part of life on this earth) sad, moody, complicated, worried, angry, frustrated, and confused. If there is something to be done about these, we try to do it. But sometimes these emotions and experiences need to run their course, and we try to make our house a safe place for them to do that.
6. Oh, and About That Chocolate-Covered Popcorn (CCP). I think every family needs an "if all else fails" coping mechanism, and in our famly, CCP is it. If you're picturing plain popcorn drizzled perfunctorily with melted chocolate or, heaven forbid, "chocolate confectionery coating" (repeat after me: bad, bad, bad), think again. This is more like popcorn entirely encased in gooey, chewy chocolate, and honestly, I don't want to see the family problem this sweet standby can't help at least a little. Here's what you need to know if you want to make CCP one of your family's happiest habits.
(New and improved! Now you can print this!)
14-16 cups plain popped popcorn (I use an air-popper and make 1 ½ batches)
½ cup sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
¼ cup butter (no substitutions), cut into chunks
2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla
Nonstick cooking spray
Looking for more habits to up your family-happiness quotient? Here are some great ideas from other mamas...
Talk to each other. Are you thinking "about what?"? (I once dated a guy whose family did not speak to each other at the dinner table, and while nothing--nothing--makes me lose my appetite, this came close.) Click over to Faith Along the Way, where you can download a whole set of printable Family Conversation Cards.
Bucket lists and days of fun. I'm thinking Holly at While I'm Waiting has a very happy family if only based on the creative--but doable--ideas she puts up on her blog.
Find out how much your kids know about you. (Other than your name, of course: "Mom. MOM! MOMMMMM!!!!!!!!!) Find 23 Questions for a Kid Perspective on Your Parenting at Joy in My Kitchen.
Play a game. I mean, besides than the ever-popular "Find the Remote" or "Can We All Pretend to Get Along for Five Minutes?" Whether you've got toddlers or teens or someone in between, check out this "Big List of Favorite Games For Families" by Jen at Being Confident of This.
Embrace the joy and the jungle. This "Day in the Life" from Jennifer of Mommy Tries hilariously captures what one wise mom recognizes as "the essence of life with small children in all its chaos and glory--which is where the happiness resides (or resides-slash-hides, as we all know to be more accurately the case)."
Watch a movie together. After you've had plenty of deep conversations and checked some items off your bucket list and played games and made it through a gloriously chaotic day, hunker down and cue up the DVD player. Mustache and Princess Mom has a great list of 10 kids' movies to get you started.
If you're living in tween/teen land, as we are, my focus group chimed in with National Treasure (both), For Richer or Poorer, Cheaper By the Dozen (both), Father of the Bride (both), McFarland USA, Akeelah and the Bee, and Glory Road. I also was unwilling to marry my husband if he did not show at least satisfactory appreciation for The Man From Snowy River, and now our girls are fans, too. In the non-movie-but-fun-for-all-to-watch genre, we tend toward anything from Tim Hawkins, HGTV, and Food Network. What can I say? We like to laugh, and we like to eat.
Now it's your turn! What's your #1 secret to a happy family? Tell me in a comment, by email, or over on Facebook. I'll be eating my CCP and waiting for your wisdom.
Happily linked with Fellowship Friday, Thoughtful Spot Weekly Blog Hop, and Works for Me Wednesday!