I am not prone to waxing poetic about the newborn stage, as I would unequivocally take these wild toddler days over that unpredictable and bleary-eyed period of months where I felt like all I did was nurse and will sleep to happen. But one thing that is nice about the first months/ almost year of parenting is that every day is a clean slate. So you failed at everything – your baby has no memory of it. So you lost your cool and cry-yelled while your infant wailed and ate nothing but ice-cream straight from the freezer and didn’t put on clean clothes- they have no clue what is happening. You can get everything wrong almost every day for a very long period of time and your child has absolutely no clue that they are in the presence of a total failure.
But eventually, that ends. This past fall I became increasingly aware that Henry was mimicking my actions, anticipating repetition, awaiting routine. I realized, with a mixture of delight and horror, that everything in our home and our lives was seeping into his sponge-like brain and defining how he understood not just our family, but our world. And with that realization came a second one, even more terrifying: we were still winging it.
I like to think that family culture just happens, that the lessons and values inculcated in children stem from a cheery outflow of their parents’ balanced and ordered lives. I like to imagine that my children will glean all I want to teach them by osmosis and observation with a dash of rational reasoning – that they will hear me yell angrily at the driver who cut me off and internalize “mother prioritizes quality motor skills,” instead of “MOM IS LOSING IT!” But that isn’t how it works. What I awoke to last fall was the terrifying task of parenting, not in the sense of keeping Henry alive and fed, but the whole task of building a family culture that inspires the right values and habits, and admonishes the wrong. This, for the majority of people, doesn’t just “happen.”
And so, James and I started having conversations about the family culture we want to intentionally craft. We talked first about some of the disciplines we wanted our children to have learned by the time they leave our house, and then worked backwards to what habits need to happen now for that to happen. For example, I hope our kids choose to invest in meaningful church community once they are no longer dragged to services every week with us. That means establishing Sabbath rituals now, and talking about them as a gift and joy, not a task. It means making attendance an absolute priority and modeling involvement.
We talked about concrete goals that would stem from a larger family culture that communicates the value of people, both to our own family and to God. A family culture centered around time with each other, time spent investing in our faith, and time spent extending hospitality. I want our family culture to nurture creativity, independence, health, and adventure (helloooooo- playing outside in any weather!). That is the lofty bit, and it sure sounds pretty. But in reality, it has meant a lot of hard conversations about what this actually looks like, and how to get there. Imagining the family culture you want to intentionally cultivate involves a lot of careful thought, but implementing it is the bigger issue. I find there are two major obstacles.
First of all, we all live less-than-ideal lives. We imagine that our families would communicate our values if only our lives were more conducive to that. We could be patient if only our kids slept better, and they would sleep better if only we had more space and everything was quiet, and we would have more space if only we made more money, and we could make more money if only we lived in a cheaper city, and we would move if only the perfect career existed elsewhere… and so in, indefinitely. We imagine that we will start building intentional family culture once we have finished school, switched jobs, saved more money, moved, gotten past a big work deadline, made better friends… and that list goes on too, indefinitely.
But the truth is that I look at Henry and I realize that he is absorbing everything now. You can either create an intentional culture, or let life create it for you while you wait for things to change, but you can’t push pause on children soaking up the environments we place them in.
And the fact of the matter is that it is easy for me to imagine the things that block the family culture I want. I, like many people, have internalized the idea that family culture happens around the dinner table, and everyone being able to say good night to each other after hours where all phones were cast far from our sight, and lots of quality time having cookouts on summer evenings. This is not a reality in our lives. James works a job that demands really late hours. We do not eat dinner as a family most nights of the week. I do a lot of solo parenting on weekdays, and the concept of banning all phones from our hands while our kids are around is simply not currently possible for his work especially. We don’t have a yard to fill with friends on summer evenings. We are not unique in this city, as many of our friends share similar work schedules and difficulties. The first step of establishing our intentional family culture meant looking at what we can’t change, and finding a way to carve out space all the same. It meant, for instance, that we have made breakfast the family meal- even if James doesn’t actually like to eat breakfast and sometimes it is cups of coffee over Cheerio’s. I don’t hold breakfast to the same standard as dinner, and we eat simple food with no fuss- but we are there, all three of us, starting our day together with prayer and scripture and a moment to remind us of what our family values.
The second enemy to intentional family culture is simply letting our lives become consumed by other stuff. Once you reconcile the reality of your family logistics with the culture you want, you have to look at the more pernicious obstacle of daily frustrations and stress. Because the truth is that while we would probably all love to fill our days with intentional efforts in regards to raising our children – we’re tired and there are mountains of laundry and dishes and messes and tantrums and groceries and work and those things become the focus of our days because they are the focus of our energy.
Simply put, our family cannot uphold and teach what I want it to if our life is governed by stress, exhaustion, irritation, and anxiety — all of which are qualities that dominate more of our lives than we want to admit.
Over the past couple months, James and I have been having lots of conversations about how to proactively protect and promote our family culture, and a lot of them have actually been about really mundane household things and parenting practices that make our lives feel less out of control and more rooted in the values we want to teach. The daily success of intentional family culture is found in developing a laundry system, in scheduling grocery delivery, in figuring out a simple meal planning routine, in having set routines to when we clean and sleep and play. Yes, it is also found in bigger decisions, like some things we have decided about my career goals to make our family function the way we want. But I think we often let those big gestures obscure the million ways every day that we make decisions that either help or hurt our ability to have our families look the way we wish they could.
And so, I wanted to devote some posts to the unexciting and undramatic pillars of daily life that allow us to have the intentional family culture we want. Things like everyday life hacks, meal planning methods, picking your parenting hill to die on, and maybe even the much-debated topic of sleep training. My blogging as of late has not exactly been consistent, but these are things I’ve been mulling over lately and want to sort out. Obviously, this is a highly personal subject in the sense that every family can and should make different decisions about what makes them achieve their intentional family culture. But hopefully in the process of sharing really unlofty things that are working to make our lives easier in support of how we want our family to function, they shed a little light for you too.