Dr. Stephen Covey's wife Sandra wrote the foreword to his very helpful 1997 book on families titled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families. Good values transcend time, as does this outstanding book and the lesson relayed in her forward.
Mrs. Covey shares a heartfelt story about one of her daughters:
"I remember an experience I had when our oldest daughter, Cynthia, was three years old. We had just moved into our first house . . . I loved decorating and worked hard to make it charming and attractive.
"My literary club was meeting there, and I had spent hours cleaning so that every room looked perfect. I was anxious to show my friends around, hoping they would be impressed. I put Cynthia down for the night and thought she would be sleeping when they peeked in to see her—noticing, of course, her darling room with the bright yellow tied quilt and matching curtains and the cute, colorful animals I had made and hung on the walls.
"But when I opened the door to show off my daughter and her room, I discovered to my dismay that she had hopped out of bed, pulled all of her toys out of her toy chest, and scattered them all over the floor . . . She had dumped out her Tinker Toys, puzzles, and crayon box—and she was still going at it! Her room was a disaster. It looked as if a tornado had hit it. In the midst of all this, she looked up with a mischievous smile on her face and said sweetly, ‘Hi Mummy!'
"I was furious that she had disobeyed me and gotten out of bed; I was upset that her room was all messed up and that no one could see how cute it was decorated; and I was annoyed that she had put me in this embarrassing situation in front of my friends.
"I spoke sharply to her, spontaneously spanked her little bottom, and put her back to bed with a warning not to get up again. Her lower lip started to quiver. She looked shocked at my response, and her eyes filled with tears. She started sobbing, not understanding what she had done wrong.
"I closed the door and immediately felt terrible for overreacting. I was ashamed at my behavior, realizing that it was my pride—not her actions—that had set me off. I was angry at myself for such an immature response and shallowness. I was sure I had ruined her for life. Years later I asked her if she remembered the incident, and I breathed a sigh of relief when she said no" (pp. 4-5).
Mrs. Covey went on to say that life's tests refine parents and that parents too often lose their temper, misunderstand, judge before understanding, fail to listen carefully, and generally act unwisely.
Parents learn from their mistakes. Sensitive and understanding parents apologize, grow up, take on good values, recognize children's growth stages, overreact less, roll with the punches, learn to laugh at themselves, have fewer rules, enjoy life more and, finally, realize that rearing children takes attentive and rigorous work, both physically and emotionally.
Another thoughtful book about happy families, Dr. Phil McGraw's Family First (2004), is an excellent "how to" on making your family a high priority. In the epilogue, he helps those of us who are parents face reality: "Your children go out into the world every day. Whether it's their first day in kindergarten or at a new school after you've moved, their first time to compete in a spelling bee or dance contest, they take their experiences of home with them . . .
"Have they been parented in a way that will cause them to go into the world feeling confident, worthy, special, safe and secure? . . . Or will they go into the world with self-doubt, feelings of inferiority and guilt or shame because their private reality, their home, is flawed and ugly? . . .
"You have within your grasp the ability to make sure . . . those questions [are] answered in the right way" (p. 275).
What about you? If your family relationship is deteriorating because of society's downward moral spiral and how modern technology devours time and attention, and you want to shore up or restore a good family relationship, you can. It begins, of course, with having God and His revealed morality as the foundation of your life—giving a proper outlook and direction. Beyond that, we'll look at five keys that can open the rewarding doors to a happy or at least a happier family.
1. Interact with your children.
Do you visit with your children? Do you discuss their thoughts and feelings with them? Do you care enough about your children to share with them your plan for their success in life?
Have you ever heard parents refer to sweet little children as rug rats, curtain climbers or similar terms? How many parents feel their children are in their way, restricting them from having fun or from pursuing their own personal dreams and ambitions?
These are debilitating and childish thoughts that cut across the rich tapestry of happy family relationships. Rather than acting out our frustrations on our children, why not contribute to their health and welfare through sensitive and encouraging interactions?
Our children are our future. If you and I want to secure our future, then we must invest in that future. The best investment you and I can make with our children is ourselves—devoting our time and energies to them, caring for them and pointing them toward a bright future.
The ongoing problem of selfishness, common to parents and all human beings to different degrees, can be overcome. But it takes understanding of our selfish human nature, a deep desire to overcome it, and a plan that works. Let me share a small part of a plan that worked in my life.
When my wife and I were raising our children, we cultivated a family environment that was undergirded by love. Often we lived in a two-story house. If you were in our house in those days, you would have heard all four of us shouting unexpectedly to each other, sometimes at once and certainly unannounced, "We love you kids (or mom and dad)!" The immediate response: "We love you too!"
This would have sounded strange to the uninitiated, but to us, we anticipated and luxuriated in hearing those words. And we did this often. This might not be your way of interacting with your children, but I've heard worse things in homes I've visited, which made me hurt for the entire family and especially the children.
2. Set a good example.
Action talks, blathering walks—or, as we more commonly hear it, actions speak louder than words. Talk is cheap if it's not accompanied by actions that matter. Children learn right ways faster and better from parents who model good character than from those who merely preach about it.
There was a time when parents actually lived by good values and talked less. Today's parents are so pressed for time, money and holding their jobs that they feel they have precious little time for their children. That's both a sad commentary on our times and a lack of doing what is vital—setting a good example.
Let's break it down. God provided a man and a woman with the chemistry to come together, what we call infatuation. God did this to perpetuate the human race. Infatuation that helps bring a man and woman together precedes responsibility to parent a family.
After a number of months of marriage, the new wears off, the honeymoon is over, infatuation disappears, and what's left is the reality of making life work on a day-by-day basis as husband and wife. Suddenly, two lovebirds can become demanding and fighting parents. If this continues, they immerse their defenseless children in their own selfish indulgences, arguing, fighting, cursing and generally modeling a negative approach to life.
If you're a parent, are you expecting something of your child that you're not living up to yourself? Do you monitor your own behavior, especially the words you use, in front of your child? Do you use foul language or tell dirty jokes in front of your child? Remember this: Whatever you say or do is precisely what will be imprinted on your child.
Small children look on their parents as "gods" in a sense—seeing them as ultimate authority, as providers, protectors and caregivers, and as their source of learning. Your little ones will follow your example; you are their hero or heroine as they grow up. If you smoke, your child will likely take up the habit. If you do drugs, your child will likely do drugs. If you laugh at or tell jokes that disparage marriage or family relationships, your child will replicate your actions.
Dr. Stephen Covey wrote about this in pointing out that most people get caught up in their circle of concern, automatically diminishing their circle of influence. He explained that if we, as parents, are motivated more by our concerns, who's right or who's wrong, than by our influence, the example we're setting for our children, then we can expect to see inferior conduct in our children (pp. 40-41).
Successful parents are those who realize that what they dislike about their children may be easily traceable to them. When parents look at things this way, humility suddenly washes over them and they begin to change their attitudes, adopting values that make parents pleased with their children.
If you set a good example for your child and follow the other keys here, it will greatly help your child to have a happy and secure life and to grow up to wisely raise his or her own family to be secure and happy.
3. Watch over and protect your children.
When our children were young, my wife and I watched over them like a hawk. Someone once derided me for doing this, asserting that I wasn't allowing them to learn lessons the hard way and that I was overly protective. But this person didn't understand our circumstances.
She lived in a small town you could drive through in five minutes on a busy day. We, on the other hand, lived in a sprawling megalopolis of more than 11 million people, where burglaries, muggings, gangs and kidnappings were pervasive.
When we went shopping, whether in a supermarket or toy store, we stayed with and watched over our kids. We wanted them to grow up safely and one day have their own family. We took nothing for granted. Anyone who watches the nightly news can appreciate this concern.
How do some parents watch over their children today? Many children must walk home from school to an empty home, their parents still at work. The kids are on their own, and some parents see nothing wrong with the situation. What if there are sex offenders in the neighborhood? What if there are drug pushers or human traffickers cruising the neighborhood waiting to take advantage of helpless, hapless children who have their noses buried in their iPhones while texting their friends?
Here's where knowing the purpose of marriage and families can be very helpful, especially if you happen to be a parent who takes parenting lightly. If a father and mother view their kids as being in the way and they can't wait until the day they are on their own, then such parents aren't aware of one of God's main purposes for marriage—to produce and rear godly children, serving as stewards of God (see Malachi 2:15). God is a family, and He is building His family right here on earth—yes, with you, if you allow it (Hebrews 2:10).
Every day, media stories speak of children who are abducted, and few are found alive. This is a sickening commentary on our society, but it's reality. So if you desire to see your children grow up to have their own families, be sure you watch over and protect them assiduously.
God holds us accountable for our children. We have them for only a few years, but God will have them forever. Take your God-given responsibility seriously and don't go the way of the world.
Watch over and protect your children, both outside and inside your home. Know what they're viewing on TV and set guidelines. Know what they're doing on the Internet and set guidelines here too.
Young peoples' minds don't typically mature until their early 20s. We generally have our children until age 18. Understand your responsibility for your children before Almighty God and strive to be good stewards and guardians of these precious young lives He has entrusted to your care.
4. Train your children.
We train animals, especially dogs, but we assume we can't or shouldn't train our children to do the right things. How strange is that thought? The Bible says that we are to "bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4; see also Proverbs 22:6).
When we train our children in the way of God, they in turn will honor us, and when they do, they will be blessed by God. As the Fifth Commandment states: "Honor your father and mother, as the Lord your God commanded you. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the Lord your God is giving you" (Deuteronomy 5:16, New Living Translation).
Please understand and consider that God views parents as stewards of future sons and daughters of God. This means that the blessings and joys that come from having children, training them up with godly values, and rejoicing in their later accomplishments aren't the end of training our children. In the bigger picture of life, parents raising children are stewards of future gods for God (compare Psalm 82:6).
Some parents simply let their children "grow up," which is to say they don't teach and train them in good moral values.
Consequently the children don't really grow up or become responsible and mature adults. Some parents, themselves, have never grown up, which means the entire household is filled with children.
Other parents do understand and appreciate their duties in setting a healthy example for their children and for teaching and training them in living the right way. We call such parents mature. No, they're not perfect. Perfection belongs to God. But these parents, mature enough to know they aren't perfect, are motivated to strive toward perfection, completeness or full maturity. God instructs us to "Be[come] perfect [complete or mature], therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48, New International Version).
Teach and train your children in the ways of the Lord. My wife and I discussed the importance of training our children in God's ways. When they were 6 months old, we would place them on the bed and pray to God in front of them. We wanted them to grow up hearing God's loving will for humankind. As they got older, we would have them kneel and pray with us beside the bed, asking them to pray a short prayer sandwiched between their mom's prayer and my prayer. We believe that God blessed us in this, for now they teach their children God's holy ways.
Here's God's command to us to teach His ways to our children: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength. The commandments I give you today must be in your hearts. Make sure your children learn them. Talk about them when you are at home. Talk about them when you walk along the road. Speak about them when you go to bed. And speak about them when you get up" (Deuteronomy 6:5-7, New International Reader's Version).
As our children got older and they wanted to watch certain TV shows, we sat and watched with them. If, during a TV program, something wasn't according to God's ways, we would mention it to them and ask them if they could tell us what was wrong with what they saw and heard. This helped them learn to evaluate what they watched on television and not just accept anything the media presented.
We discussed with them the fact that media is a business and that what is shown on TV generally plays to people's physical senses in order to sell products and ideas to them. Now that our children are parents, they are teaching their children the same principles.
5. Love your children unconditionally
How many times have I heard parents say to me that they could no longer love their children because the children got hooked on drugs or alcohol? This should make us recoil. How in the world can we give life to our children and not love them unconditionally?
Sometimes I've found that some parents give up on their children out of selfishness. In some cases, their children didn't measure up to them, their self-concept, or their idea of their children's profession. At other times, parents give up on their children because they don't understand the worsening downward pulls of our modern society and the effects of those pulls on their children.
Some parents either don't think about what children are exposed to at school or don't care. Like the proverbial ostrich that allegedly buries its head in the sand, they ignore the deleterious effects of social media, television and other environmental factors.
Again, personally, my wife and I determined early on—and we reminded our children of this—that we would love them unconditionally. We didn't want them to guess about our relationship with them, so we made it abundantly clear that we were in their corner while they were at home, when they left home, and for the rest of their and our lives.
When children know that their parents love them unconditionally, they live happier and healthier lives. This is precisely the lesson God gives us. Read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and the takeaway is that God loves weak human beings—all the way to the death of His Son, Jesus Christ (John 3:16-17). If God loves us so much that He gave His only begotten Son to die for us, can we not at least love our children enough to live for them, to model God's way for them?
God shows that once we're committed to Him, having surrendered our will to His, He is unconditionally committed to us. Even when we sin or perhaps stray from Him for a while, He never forgets us, and He always works to bring us back to Him (see Luke 15:11-32; Philippians 1:6). God the Father and Jesus Christ are our sterling examples in unconditional love.
Love your children unconditionally; it will pay off big for you and exponentially bigger for them and their children. They will be more apt to follow your example of unconditional love and pass this divine attitude on to their children.
If, then, you apply the five keys we've covered here to having a happier family, you can help make your family secure, service-oriented and successful.
This leads us into the ultimate purpose of the family, a lesson that transcends time and cultures. To help you better understand, be sure to read the companion article "The Ultimate Purpose of the Family."