Have you ever met one of those families that just seem to have it all together? Maybe you knew such a family growing up and loved hanging out over at their house – there was such a great atmosphere there that you kind of felt like you were coming home whenever you stopped over. The parents were happy. The kids were all well-adjusted and generally did the right thing. Everyone in the family seemed to genuinely love, respect, and care about each other. They all truly enjoyed each other’s company and had a blast doing things together. Sure, they had problems and struggles like any other family, but they supported each other and rallied together to take care of whatever they were going through. Maybe you joked about them being so good it was creepy – perhaps they were perfect aliens from another planet — but you envied them nonetheless.
These days you’re the dad, and you’re heading a household of your own. Things in your home might be a bit chaotic. Perhaps your kids don’t get along, maybe there’s tension in your marriage, or maybe you just feel like your home life isn’t quite in the shape you want it to be. You think of that fun, warm family of your youth and want what they had, but you don’t know how to go about it. In twenty-two years of school, no one ever offered you a single course in parenting. Maybe you hope it will just happen as the years go by.
As a young dad, I find myself in this position. I want to create a close-knit, fun-loving family and raise children with upstanding character. So I’ve asked the parents of the families I admire what their “secret” is to creating such a tight family bond. They all pretty much say the same thing:
They’re intentional about creating and fostering a positive family culture.
We typically don’t think of families as having a culture. Countries and communities have cultures, but not families. Right?
Well, in recent decades, organizational experts have argued that cultures not only develop in large societies like countries and cities, but also smaller ones, like corporations and non-profits. Sociologists and family experts say that even individual families have their own cultures.
What’s more, research has found that family culture plays a more important role in shaping a child than parenting styles, and the type of culture a family develops strongly predicts their happiness.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, we need to take a look at what exactly we mean by “family culture.”
What Makes a Family Culture?
To understand what family culture is, I think it’s instructive to see how business management experts define business culture. MIT professor Edgar Schein describes it thusly:
“Culture is a way of working together toward common goals that have been followed so frequently and so successfully that people don’t even think about trying to do things another way. If a culture has formed, people will autonomously do what they need to do to be successful.”
A culture is, in short, a way a group of people think, feel, judge, and act. You can probably sense the culture at the business or organization you work for. Is morale low and does everyone sort of half-ass it and just do the bare minimum? Or is there an unspoken expectation that people always go above and beyond the call of duty and take pride in doing so? Does the employee identify with the company and its vision, or just see it as a temporary gig? Before making any decision, do employees only consider short-term profits or do they also take into account long-term success and even other intangibles like social and environmental impact? What an employee instinctively does – even when the boss isn’t looking — will depend on the business’s culture.
Some businesses have become famous for their positive cultures. Online shoe retailer Zappos has a culture that encourages above-and-beyond customer service. Everything the company does is geared towards “wowing” the customer. To ensure that they only hire employees that will fit into that culture, Zappos has a long and extensive hiring process to weed out folks who aren’t willing to put the customer first. If you’re lucky enough to get a job offer, they will actually offer you $3,000 to NOT take the job. Zappos would rather lose $3,000 in the short-term than hire someone who’s not fully on board with their distinct business culture. The effort in crafting a customer-first culture paid off handsomely for Zappos, as it was acquired by Amazon in 2009 for nearly $1.2 billion.
A business culture like Zappos’ just doesn’t happen. It takes a lot of work. As Forbes writer Mike Myatt argues, business culture is created either by design or by default. Culture created by default tends to produce mediocre results because humans have a natural tendency to take the path of least resistance. If a business wants a culture of excellence, its leader must intentionally create that culture and work hard to maintain it.
As it goes with businesses, so it goes with families. It may seem a little off-putting at first to apply business principles to what we think of as the ethereal, spontaneous bonds of blood kin. But there are definitely parallels between the two organizations that can be instructive, even if the aims and definition of success for each entity differs.
Every family has a distinct way they work together to solve problems, achieve goals, and relate to one another. And just as business culture is created by default or through intentionality, so too is a family’s culture.
Family cultures created by default are just like their business culture counterparts: mediocre. Parents haven’t thought through what kind of values they want to impart to their kids, and just figure that those values, as well as close bonds between family members, will just happen as the years go by. They then wonder why their kids didn’t turn out the way they had vaguely imagined and hoped for, but never articulated or planned out.
Understand this: A family culture happens whether you’re consciously creating it or not. It’s up to you and your wife to determine whether that culture is of your choosing. If you want a positive family culture, you must commit yourself to years of constant planning and teaching. A culture isn’t something that’s created overnight; it requires daily investment. But the payoff is definitely worth it.
The 3 Pillars of Family Culture
So how do you go about creating a family culture? Organizational experts have pinpointed three main aspects: