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How Does a Father Protect His Family?


[This folio is excerpted from Father, the Family Protector by James B. Stenson, available from Scepter Publishers or online booksellers such as Amazon.com.]

How does a man act to protect his wife and children?

Let’s approach this question by first examining a man’s masculinity, the distinctive character of any normal adult male.

Men are different from women. They are wired differently, think differently. They have instincts and attitudes and physical strengths that empower them for tough-minded, sacrificial service to those people who count most in their lives, starting with their families.

All the special features of an adult male’s personality, developed from boyhood–his muscles, will power, stamina, competitive drive, aggressiveness and assertiveness, mathematical and abstractive powers of mind, love for strategic planning and manipulating physical reality, strong sense of fairness and ethical conduct–all coordinate toward a single great purpose in life: protection.

Nature, it seems, endows men with the physical and mental powers they need to protect their loved ones. The instinct to protect from harm lies at the core of a man’s masculinity, and it is an immensely powerful force.


I once witnessed this protective instinct dramatically in action.

One warm Sunday afternoon a few years ago, I was strolling with a friend near the Boston Public Garden in Boston’s elegant Back Bay neighborhood. My friend and I stopped at a pedestrian light and waited with a few other people to cross Commonwealth Avenue. Cars whizzed by, true to the pattern of that city’s notoriously frantic traffic.

Across the street, an elderly lady was walking slowly alongside two young girls, about six or seven years old. I would guess they were her granddaughters or grandnieces. She was blind. In one hand she carried a red and white cane while her other held the leash of a German shepherd seeing-eye dog. One of the little girls was stroking and patting the back of the huge, friendly animal.

Suddenly–chaos. From down the block hurtled a large mongrel street dog, barking and snarling loudly, spoiling for a fight. Swiftly he lunged at the German shepherd, who sprang back at him in snarling, furious rage. The two dogs pounced and snapped with bared teeth at each other, growling and barking ferociously in an all-out serious fight. The noise was loud and shocking.

What happened next was even worse. The blind woman wildly thrashed her cane back and forth trying to scare away the attacker, while the two children screamed hysterically. The little girls stood transfixed, absolutely horrified, loudly shrieking and sobbing in terror. The street echoed with the children’s terrified screams mixed with wild, furious barks and growls.

Something in that sudden, frightening sound–kids screaming and dogs wildly barking–electrified everyone within earshot. My friend and I dashed across the street to help the lady and the little girls. As we did, we saw other men running at full speed from every direction.

A taxi screeched to a halt, and the driver and his passenger leaped out. Other cars slammed their brakes, and men, leaving their car doors open, dashed out to help. Doors flew open in the townhouses nearby and men ran down stairs into the street. One professorial looking man had evidently been reading the newspaper. He held his glasses in one hand and his paper in the other; he quickly pocketed the glasses and rolled up his newspaper to use it as a kind of club as he ran toward the dogs.

In seconds a group of 12 or 15 men, including a couple of college youths, pulled the screaming kids and the woman back to safety, while the others belted the dogs with jackets and rolled-up papers, anything at hand, to separate them and chase off the attacker. (A brave thing to do, for it’s dangerous to meddle in a dogfight.) The mongrel quickly broke off and ran away. All the men then turned to calm down the children and assure them everything was OK. A woman, the professor’s wife I assume, beckoned from a townhouse doorway and gently led the blind lady with her dog and the kids inside to rest up. People stepped back into cars and drove off, while pedestrians drifted away.

What happened in this rescue was something primitive and powerful, a force thousands of years old. Each adult male within earshot heard a sound that reached deep inside his male instincts and jolted him into enraged defensive action–“Children being attacked by beasts!…Save the children!…Repel the beasts!” Men dropped what they were doing and, heedless of their own safety, flung themselves forward to protect the kids.

That’s my point here. Men are hard-wired–in their minds, muscles, and tough aggressiveness–to protect women and children from harm. This incident, though dramatic and violent, underscores what a man does in countless subtle ways in family life. He is there to ward off harm.


This fatherly protection works in several different important ways.

First of all, a family man devotes his manly powers to protect his wife from anyone who would threaten her. It seems to be a natural instinct among males, to protect the women in their lives–wife, mother, sisters, daughters–from outsiders’ aggression. For instance, if a man were standing next to his wife in a crowd and some male stranger turned to speak loudly and angrily toward her, the husband would instantly rise in rage to her defense. Adrenaline would rush through his blood, his muscles would tighten, and his first impulse would be to rearrange the aggressor’s face. No self-respecting man would stand by and let anyone treat his wife with disrespect. He would take swift action to defend her.

Peace, it is said, is the condition we enjoy when other people just leave us alone. Throughout history, the father of a family would protectively stand in the doorway of his home and say, as it were, to the whole world: “Leave us alone…. Leave my family alone.”

Related to this physical protection, here’s another aspect of a man’s protectiveness, one that fathers today often fail to understand. A man permits no one to threaten or upset his wife–and this includes their own children. A hugely important part of a father’s job is to defend his wife against their children’s rudeness, insolent disobedience, and impulsive aggression. This protection counts most to his wife when the kids are small (under 7) and later when they enter adolescence. A man will permit no one to disrespect his wife, including–and even especially–at home.

A man also defends his family through what he earns in his work. That is, he doesn’t just provide for his family; he protects them from poverty. He shelters them, takes care of their needs for a roof, food, and clothing. While Dad has a job, the family feels secure. Even in a two-income home, it seems, children sense that Dad is the main provider, and therefore the family’s main protector.

Moreover, he protects his children from forces that threaten them here and now: drugs, bullies, criminals, unjust aggressors of all types, and potential disasters arising from their inexperience and impulsive mistakes (like dashing out into traffic or playing with matches).

For instance, if a father glanced out his living room window and spotted a male stranger chatting with his small daughter, coyly beckoning to her, he would swiftly lunge into defensive action. He’d race out the door, stride aggressively toward the stranger, then confront the man and demand to know what he wanted. With muscles taut, he would stand between his daughter and this potential aggressor, physically shielding her from harm.

Another example: When his teenage daughter is being picked up for a date, a father goes out of his way to size up the young man she’s going out with. He wants to meet him–insists on meeting him–to look him in the eye and intuitively size up his intentions and his worth. A father senses a duty to assess any young male who approaches his daughter. An unspoken message seems to pass between them: “She’s my daughter. Treat her nicely, kid, or else….”

But most of all–and this is crucially important–a father protects his children by strengthening them so they can later protect themselves. In the lives of his children, he asserts loving leadership toward responsible, competent adulthood.

It is a father’s mission, the challenge that brings out the best in him, to form in his children the powers and attitudes they will need to succeed in life, to strengthen them so they in turn can later protect themselves and their own loved ones. So, in his children’s eyes a great father is a lifelong leader and teacher. His protective, empowering lessons about right and wrong live on in the inner lives of his children, long after they’ve left home for good, and indeed long after he has passed to his eternal reward. A great father never stops being a father, for he lives on as a great man in the hearts of his children.

So how does a man protect his children long-term? What sort of lifelong strengths does a smart, effective father teach?

  • A father strengthens his children’s competence. He forms lifelong healthy attitudes to work, along with serious habits of work. Without a father’s leadership in this arena, his kids can have trouble grasping the connection between effort and results, between standards and achievement. If he fails here, his children may never outgrow the dominant attitude of childhood–that life is play–and remain stuck in a permanent adolescence. This can later destroy them, their careers, and their families.
  • He teaches respect for rightful authority. He insists that his children respect and obey him and their mother. His wife sets most of the moral tone for the household–what’s right and wrong in family life–and he enforces it. Being smart and far-seeing, he knows that when children fail to respect their parents, they can later clash with all other forms of rightful authority–teachers, employers, the law, God’s law, and their own conscience.
  • A father teaches his children ethics and gives final form to their lifelong conscience. That is, he shows his sons and daughters how to comport themselves justly and honorably in the world outside the home. In his children’s eyes, he is an expert on fair dealings and personal integrity in the workplace and community. He shows his kids how their mother’s moral teachings carry over later to life outside the home: telling the truth, keeping one’s word, putting duty first, deferring to others’ rights and feelings. By his example and correction at home, he shows how responsible adults respect each others’ rights and assert their own.
  • A father builds healthy self-confidence in children. His presence around the home as a physically strong man leads his children (daughters especially) to feel safe, securely protected, and therefore self-confident. As a father, he corrects and encourages, and he helps his children to learn from their mistakes. In this way, he leads his children to form a realistic sense of their strengths and limitations. Youngsters who receive this protective fatherly love, along with self-knowledge and experience with problem-solving at home, eventually form a lifelong self-confidence.
  • A father leads his children to adult-level sound judgment and shrewdness. He helps them to use their brains like responsible adults: to frame questions and answers logically, to think ahead and foresee consequences, to assess people’s character and values, and to know malarkey when they see it.
  • A father provides an attractive example of responsible masculinity. He acts as a model for his sons’ growth into manhood. And he conveys to his daughters (most often unconsciously) the traits they should look for in judging the character of men their age, especially suitors for marriage. In countless subtle ways, Dad forms a pattern for manly character in each of his sons and, indirectly, for the kind of man each daughter will someday marry. (This may explain why great fathers so often get along well with their sons-in-law.)

Advice for Fathers


Sometimes negative guidelines are at least as helpful as positive ones, often more so. It’s often useful for a father to know what not to do–that is, what to avoid–in a complicated family situation.
I used to ask veteran fathers (men whose children had grown and gone) what warnings or other “negative know-how” they’d pass on to younger Dads. In paraphrase, here are some bits of hard-earned fatherly wisdom they shared with me….

  • Don’t neglect your wife. She needs what we all need: understanding, affection, gratitude, support, and appreciation. For sure, she doesn’t get these from the kids when they’re small. So if she doesn’t get them from her husband either, then she doesn’t get them at all. You can tell you’re neglecting your wife if she starts complaining about small things around the house, one after another, circling around and around the central problem: your apparent unconcern for her. Wake up. Pay attention. Listen to her opinion, help her out, tell her she’s great, hug and kiss her from time to time–all this goes a long way.
  • Don’t underestimate your children. Have high ambitions for their swift, step-by-step growth into maturity. We all tend to become what we think about, and kids tend to become what their parents expect of them. Even when they sometimes let you down and you have to correct them, make them understand that you see this as just a blip along the way. You have no doubt, none whatever, that they’ll someday grow into excellent men and women. You’re proud of them, confident in them. Always will be.
  • Don’t treat teenagers like large children. Think of them, and treat them, as near-adults. Pull them up, fine-tune their consciences, welcome them to adult reality. Show them how to balance a checkbook, pursue a job, work professionally, please their bosses, deal respectfully with the opposite sex. Show them how to buy good clothes, take care of their wardrobe, and dress well. When they complain, “Why don’t you trust me?” teach them that you distinguish between integrity and judgment. You trust their integrity and sense of family honor, their honesty and good intentions–always have, always will. But what you must have reservations about for now, in good conscience, is their inexperienced judgment; that is, you cannot let them hurt themselves through their naïve blunders. When they start thinking like responsible adults, then you’ll trust them right across the board–in judgment as well as integrity.
  • Don’t ever tell your teens that the high-school years are the best part of their lives. This isn’t true. Adolescence is, in fact, one of life’s toughest times: teens have to cope with blunders and glandular upheavals, surfing up and down learning curves. Tell your adolescent children, and above all show them, that every stage of life is interesting, challenging, and enjoyable for anyone with a sporting, adventurous spirit. Teens who’ve been well brought up have a great life ahead of them, like the life they see in you. (Think about it: How many older teens and young adults are tempted to suicide because they believe what they’ve been told: the best part of life is behind them?)
  • Don’t let your children weasel out of commitments. Don’t let them take back their word on a whim. Before they make promises or otherwise commit themselves to a course of action, press them to think consequences through and understand their terms, because you will hold them to their word. If they want to buy a pet, make them first commit themselves to feeding and caring for it–then hold them to that. If they accept an invitation to a party (after first checking with you and your wife), they’re obligated to be there even if something more alluring turns up. If they want to take guitar lessons, make them promise to persevere, no matter what, for six months or a year or whatever seems reasonable.
  • When you’re correcting your children and they petulantly ask “Why?”–don’t argue with them. If they’re looking for an explanation, give it once only. If they persist with “Why?” then they’re looking for an argument, not an explanation. Close off the matter. In other words, they must take your “no” as an answer, but you don’t take theirs. You can dialogue with your kids about many issues, but there’s no “dialogue” about your rights as a father.
  • Don’t let your kids dress in such a way as to bring shame to the family. Nobody has a right to do this.
  • Don’t miss small opportunities to talk with your kids. Listen politely and respectfully. You can talk with them while driving, doing dishes and other chores together, walking and biking, working on hobbies you share, tucking them into bed. If you cut down on tube-watching, you’ll find slivers and chunks of time here and there in family life. Make the time, and never forget you haven’t much of it left–for your kids will grow up with incredible swiftness.
  • Don’t shout at your kids so often. It’s a waste of breath. If one of your children needs a talking to, take him or her out for a walk or a soda–and say what you have to say in a calm, serious way. Don’t forget to listen, either–for your kids’ view of things, though mostly wrong, may still have a point. A couple of heart-to-heart talks are better than a dozen explosions.
  • Don’t get trapped into blazing arguments, especially with your teens, and most especially if you have a temper. Words can wound and take a long time to heal. If tempers are flaring, put off the discussion till later–that evening or the next day–when you’ve both cooled down. If you go too far, be the first to apologize.
  • Don’t forget to praise your children, and be specific about it. Kids need a pat on the back from time to time. We all do. Give praise for effort, not just success. Teach the kids this adult-life lesson: because success depends on effort, then effort is more important than success. You always appreciate when your children try.
  • Come down to your children’s level, but don’t stay there. Kids are kids, and you have to come down to their level to take them by the hand. But your long-term goal is to bring them up to your own level–to lead them, patiently over time, to think and act like mature grown-ups. So live like a grown-up. Enjoy being an adult on top of life, and let them see what this means. If they see you enjoy living as a confident, productive adult, they’ll have a life to look forward to.

[This folio is excerpted from my book Father, the Family Protector (Princeton, NJ: Scepter Publishers, 2004.]



Danger Signs: Families Headed for Trouble

[The folio below is excerpted from my book Compass: A Handbook on Parent Leadership, available from Amazon.com or Scepterpublishers.org.]

Kids in trouble

Clearly, something is seriously wrong in today’s society. For some reasons, large numbers of parents around us are failing to form character in their children.

We look around in our workplaces and neighborhoods and see young people in their 20’s who are immature and irresolute, soft and irresponsible, uneasy about themselves and their futures. They may be technically skilled in some field and hold down decently paying jobs, but their personal lives and marriages are a wreck. In their conduct and attitudes, these young people seem permanently stuck in adolescence, that dangerous mixture of adult powers and childlike irresponsibility. Some are crippled or destroyed by substance abuse. But even if they remain drug-free (what a strange term!), many see their professional work as mere ego gratification or (an adolescent attitude) just drudgery endured for the sake of “spending money.” Great numbers of them live as heartless narcissists, caring little or nothing about their parents or their children, if they choose to have any. They retain within themselves, sometimes tragically, the flawed attitudes and habits of childhood. For some reason, they never quite grew up.

It’s clear, certainly, that many young people like this were wounded by a childhood spent in dysfunctional families: drug and alcohol dependency, physical and sexual abuse, hopeless poverty.

But what is striking today, and more to our point here, is the huge percentage of seriously troubled youths from normal families. It seems that in our society the distinction between normal and dysfunctional has blurred. Or, to put it another way, some sort of subtle dysfunction is corroding large numbers of typical, middle-class homes.

We see this the results of this all around us. Children today grow up in busy families where father and mother live together, life is comfortable and physically secure, everyone enjoys the bountiful pleasures of a prosperous suburban lifestyle. Yet later on in adolescence and young adulthood, their lives are ravaged by alcohol and other drugs, grievous and ongoing marital discord, childish irresponsibility, lack of ideals or even goals in life, professional aimlessness and instability, reckless pleasure pursuit, trouble with the law, shapeless self-doubt and self-loathing, even murder and suicide.

Consider this disturbing fact: The suicide rate among young people in the United States is directly proportional to family income. It is kids from our wealthy and middle-income suburbs, not our poorest inner-city neighborhoods, who most often take their own lives.

What is going wrong in our supposedly normal middle-class families today that could account for these problems? What is happening at home–or not happening–such that children grow older without growing up, that they arrive at adulthood without enough judgment and will and conscience to set their lives straight?

Let’s approach the problem this way:

Normal American families seem to fall into two broad categories. One we could call the self-absorbed consumerist family; the second is the character-forming sporting adventure family.

In the self-absorbed family, parents do not set out, on purpose, to form character in their children. They treat family life like a picnic, a passive pleasure-centered experience, and their kids often meet with later trouble.

In the sporting adventure family, by contrast, parents do set out to form character, and they work at this for years. As a result, their family life becomes an ideal-driven adventure, a great sport, and their kids largely turn out well. Why is this?

Let’s look at the self-absorbed family first. In the following chapters [of Compass: A Handbook on Parent Leadership], we’ll contrast it with life in the sporting adventure family–where things, it seems, are done right, where the parents direct themselves and their children with a moral compass, where character is imparted for life.

Consumerist parents are self-absorbed and unconcerned with growth in character strengths (i.e., virtues), whether for themselves or their children. So they make family life mostly a steady series of pleasant diversions. Life for parents and kids centers around leisurely enjoyment, fun-filled entertainment–a seamless array of sports, abundant food and drink, t.v. shows, computer games, movies, music, parties, shopping.

Boredom, it seems, is the consumerist family’s enemy, to be shunned at all costs. So children in families like this are kept relentlessly busy, constantly amused. The parents’ rules in the house, if any, aim mainly at damage control: keeping squabbles and hassles to a minimum, keeping the kids out of trouble, keeping the kids from wrecking the place.

Consequently, in consumerist homes children are steadily apprenticed through childhood as consumers, not producers. Every day, they avidly practice living as self-absorbed enjoyers and shoppers.

Not surprisingly, youngsters from such picnic-like homes see life as mostly play, a lifetime entitlement to happy amusement. The life of grown-up work (as they dimly understand it) is solely for piling up “spending money”–we work in order to spend, we produce in order to consume. Who can blame them for this life-outlook? After all, this is all they experience in family life; and, as we’ve seen, children learn character mostly from personal example and repeated experience.

Sooner or later, of course, any picnic dwindles down into boredom; people get up and amble on to more alluring diversions.

And the same happens in the picnic-like consumerist family. Starting in their middle-school years, an appalling number of self-absorbed kids grow bored with juvenile amusements and avidly turn to novel kinds of powerfully pleasurable sensations: alcohol, drugs, the erotic and increasingly violent rock culture, vandalism, reckless driving, recreational sex. Kids raised to see life as play will treat the automobile as a toy, and so will be prone to kill or cripple. Because their life has centered on things, they’re disposed to put things ahead of people–to treat people as objects, mere tools and toys for their use or amusement. Related to this, they see sex as a toy, a high-powered form of recreation, and so fall headlong into promiscuity, cohabitational “relationships,” unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and disastrous marriages. This is no exaggeration. It happens literally every day.

The consumerist family: a composite picture

It’s worth our while here to look more closely at the consumerist family’s typical traits. What follows below is a composite picture of those unfortunate normal homes where children are poised for later trouble. That is, if you looked back to the childhood of many troubled adolescents and young adults, as described above, what traits of their family lives would you see over and over again with striking regularity?

Even with plenty of variations in detail, this is the pattern of consumerist families. Let’s look at the parents first, then the children.

Parents Headed for Trouble

  • Consumerist parents live divided lives. They live as producers at work but consumers at home. In fact, to their children they seem to work only in order to consume. Their home, far removed as it is from the real-life world of responsible adult achievement and ethical interpersonal dealings, is a place arrayed with entertainment gadgets, a site devoted to comfort, relaxation, and amusement. But this universe of comfortable delight is all that their children see–and for children, “seeing is believing.” This cocoon of pleasant escapism wholly envelopes children and shapes their sole experience with life. It becomes the ambiance within which they fashion their deepest attitudes and habits, indeed their whole outlook on life: “Life is all about pleasure.”
  • Being self-absorbed and centered mainly on the present, consumerist parents seldom think about their children’s futures–that is, what sort of men and women their children will grow up to become. Their time horizon stretches, at most, only a few months or couple of years ahead. Almost never do they picture their children as grown men and women in their late 20’s with job and family responsibilities of their own. When the parents do think of their kids’ futures, they think in terms of career, not character. They think of what their children will do, not what they will be.
  • The parents seem to expect–in fact, utterly take for granted–that their children will naturally grow up OK as long as they’re kept busily amused and shielded (more or less) from outside influences. In other words, they think that adult-level ethics, conscience, and sound judgment will just gradually form in their children in a natural and unaided way, along with the children’s physical stature. When the parents think of character at all, they think it’s something to be maintained in children, not formed from scratch.
  • The parents come down to the children’s level, as indeed all parents should–but (and here’s the point) they stay there. By their own evident devotion to a “hassle-free” existence at home, off the job, they neglect to raise their children to grown-up levels of responsible thinking and acting. They do little to prepare the children for later life and lead them toward responsible service. Indeed, their children seem to have no concept what “adulthood” means–except for what they see in movies and t.v. dramas. The parents seem clueless that they have a job to do, an action to take, a change to make in their children’s minds, hearts, and wills: to strengthen each child’s conscience and character for life.
  • Both parents give in readily to children’s wishes and “feelings,” even when they judge that this might be a mistake. Very often in family life they permit what they disapprove of. That is, they let children’s pleas and whining override their parental misgivings. The parents are moved by their children’s smiles, not their welfare, and so they will give in on many issues to avoid a confrontational “scene.” Unwittingly, through their example of giving in, these parents teach their children to let strong desires, or even whims, routinely override judgments of conscience. So the children fail to distinguish between wants and needs; to the children, wants are needs. As a result, “feelings,” not conscience, become a guide for action. (So, what happens later when the kids are tempted by the powerfully pleasurable sensations of drugs, alcohol, promiscuous sex? What is there to hold them back?)
  • The father is a weak moral figure in the home. He does not teach right from wrong in a confident, purposeful way, and he does nothing to prepare his older children for their later lives outside the home, especially in moral matters. He defers “children’s things” to his wife. To his kids, he appears mostly as an amiable, somewhat dull figure, even a sort of older sibling. In family life, the kids see him wrapped up entirely in his own leisure activities (like watching t.v., playing sports) and minor repairs. Since they never see him work, they have no idea how he earns his living, or even what this term means. Moreover, he seldom shows much outward respect and gratitude toward his wife–so she, too, seems a weak figure to the children.
  • Parents are minimal in the practice of religion. Though the family may attend a house of worship from time to time, even regularly, this is done as thoughtless social routine. Family life includes little or no prayer, not before meals or at any other time. So children never witness their parents living a sense of responsibility toward God or some strong internalized ethic. “God” is just a word (sometimes an expletive), not a person, certainly not a friend. In the children’s eyes, parents do not seem answerable to anyone or anything, except a relentlessly busy calendar.
  • Parents watch television indiscriminately and they allow “adult entertainment” into the home. Though they may restrict, more or less, their children’s access to inappropriate material, they are driving home a powerful message: “When you’re old enough, anything goes.” Consequently, to the children, the right-wrong dichotomy becomes strictly a matter of age: “Whatever’s wrong for kids is OK for grown-ups, so just wait till I turn 14!”

Children Headed for Trouble

  • At first glance most children from consumerist homes don’t seem seriously troubled at all. Typically they’re cheery and well scrubbed, pleasant and smiling, often very active–but only for things they enjoy. They’re habituated to pleasant sensations. They like to be liked, and in fact they expect to be liked no matter what they do. Since they’re used to treating adults (including their parents) as equals, they appear naïvely lacking in respectful good manners. With some troubled exceptions here and there, they seem entirely carefree. Indeed most of them really are carefree, for now.
  • Children have a low tolerance for discomfort or even inconvenience. They are horrified by physical pain, however slight, or even the threat of it. They successfully plead and badger and stall their way out of unpleasant commitments and “hassles”–promises and previous agreements, music lessons, homework, chores, appointments, deadlines.
  • Children believe that just about anything may be done for a laugh. If a prank or ridiculing remark toward someone amuses them and their peers, they blithely indulge in it no matter who gets hurt. They think their entitlement to fun must shove aside other people’s rights and feelings. Indeed, the existence of other people’s rights and feelings almost never enters their minds. Their outlook on life remains unchanged from infancy: “Me first!”
  • Children enjoy an abundance of spending money and leisure time. As a fixed habit, they overindulge in soft drinks, sweets, and junk food. They spend countless hours wholly absorbed in electronic sensations (computer games, television, the Internet) and other types of amusement. They are generally free to consume whatever they want whenever they want it, and this they do.
  • Kids show little or no respect for people outside the family: guests, their parents’ friends, teachers, salespeople, the elderly. They seldom, if ever, display good manners in public. Please and thank you are missing from their speech. On birthdays or holidays, children rip through a mound of presents, but they neglect to write or call to say “thank you” to relatives–and see no reason to. In some instances, children may be superficially pleasant to people (as long as this costs them nothing) but have zero concern for others’ needs or interests.
  • Ironically, for all the parents’ efforts to provide a pleasant home, the children hold little or no respect for them. The kids view their parents as “nice,” and they’ll admit they “like” Mom and Dad most of the time. But they simply do not esteem their parents as strong, and therefore emulable, people. When asked whom they do admire, they rattle off a long list of entertainment figures, especially comedians and rock performers.
  • Children know next to nothing about their parents’ personal histories, and nothing at all about grandparents and forebears. So they have no sense of family history and moral continuity, that is, how they are the latest in a long line of mutually loving people who struggled, often heroically, to serve each other and stick together through good times and bad.
  • The children have no heroes in their lives, no real people or historical or literary figures who surpassed themselves in service to others and, by fulfilling duties, accomplished great deeds. In the absence of heroes to imitate, the kids admire and pattern themselves after coarsely freakish media “celebrities” and make-believe cartoonish figures. (As someone wise once said, “If kids have no heroes, they’ll follow after clowns.”)
  • Children don’t care about causing embarrassment to the family. Often they don’t even understand what that might mean, for they have no framework for grasping what’s shameful. They are unmoved by any cultivated sense of “family honor.” If children’s dress and public behavior cause shame to the parents, that’s just too bad.
  • Children complain and whine about situations that can’t be helped: bad weather, reasonable delays, physical discomfort, moderately heavy workloads, personality differences, and the like. Their most common word of complaint is “boring.” Since their lives at home are micromanaged rather than directed, they’re accustomed to having their problems solved by oversolicitous grown-ups. They’ve found through experience that if they hold out long enough, someone will eventually step in to make their troubles go away. Consequently they learn to escape problems, not solve them. They learn to shun discomfort, not endure it.
  • Children have no serious hobbies except television watching, computer games, surfing the Web, and listening to music (mostly rhythmic noise). Their lives seem entirely plugged in to electronic devices and they don’t know what to do without them. Their thinking is dominated by the entertainment culture; in some senses, they believe in it. They know the words to dozens of songs and commercials, but they know nothing of the Ten Commandments.
  • Children (even older ones and teens) tend to form opinions by impulse and vague impressions. They are scarcely ever pressed to rely on reasons and factual evidence for their judgments. Thus they’re easily swayed by flattery, emotional appeals, and peer-group pressures. They fail to recognize claptrap–as in advertising, pop culture, and politics–when they see it. They follow the crowd wherever it goes. They loosely sense that something is “cool,” but they cannot express why.
  • Children never ask the question “Why?” except to defy directions from rightful authority. They are intellectually dull, even inert, showing little curiosity about life outside their family-school-playground universe. In school, moreover, they’re often incorrigibly poor spellers and sloppy writers. That is, they are careless in work and do not take correction seriously. For them, nearly all enjoyment comes from escapist amusement, not from work well done, serious accomplishment, fulfillment of duty, serving others, or personal goals achieved through purposeful effort. If a task isn’t “fun,” they’re not interested.
  • Children have little sense of time. Since they hardly ever have to wait for something they want, much less earn it, they have unrealistic expectations about the time needed to complete a task. They estimate either too much or too little. Consequently, large tasks are put off too long or small jobs appear mountainous. Even older children approaching high-school age have virtually no concept of deadline or of working steadily within a self-imposed time frame. The children seem to drift along in a free-floating, ever-present now–and this state of mind continues well into adolescence and even young adulthood.
  • Throughout high school and college, they view school as one last fling at life, not a preparation for it. Graduation looms as a poignantly sad event, for they see the best part of life as behind them, not ahead. What lies ahead is trouble–the “hassles” (as they put it) of real-life work, responsible commitments, day-to-day routine, budgets and bills, two-week vacations, sharply diminished freedom, and a decline in their standard of living. So who looks forward to this? Who can endure it? Why grow up?

As explained already, this picture of a family headed for trouble is just a composite sketch, not a comprehensive description. Certainly there are gradations among families; some families will show some of these characteristics, but not all of them. Nonetheless, over and over again, the features listed here show up in the personal histories of troubled adolescents and young adults who have come–we must stress this again–from apparently normal homes.

[So, what can parents do to turn things around and give health to their family life? See Compass: A Handbook on Parent Leadership by James B. Stenson, available through bookstores or at Amazon.com.]



Family Rules: The Power of “We…”

The word “We…” is a powerful force in family life. It’s what anchors children’s loyalty to their parents and brothers and sisters–and forges a lifelong bond to their parents’ convictions of right and wrong. It empowers children’s inner voice of conscience for life.

Family loyalty saves many teens and young adults from disaster. Well raised young people will shun drugs and drunkenness and reckless driving, not only because these are wrong, but because, if caught, the teens would disgrace their family. Fear of causing their family shame can steel the will of young people, lead them to shrug off peer pressures, say “no” to selfish impulses, and live rightly.

How does this loyalty come about? Through the power of “We….”

Every healthy family lives by a set of rules in the home, some high standards for attitudes and conduct directed toward the welfare of others. When children live by these standards every day for years, they gradually–with fits and starts along the way–internalize powers of judgment, ethical responsibility, gutsy perseverance, and consideration for others. Active family rules form the framework for their growth in character.

Why does a healthy family have rules? For one reason: because it has a job to do, a service mission to carry out. A consumerist family, by contrast, has no job at all–for consumption is a static pastime, not an achievement–and so it has no reason to lay down standards for performance.

If we look at the parental job from a professional point of view–that is, the way things work in any serious business enterprise–here’s what we see….

Every serious enterprise–whether a business, a non-profit service, a society and its government, or a family–has three basic elements that distinguish it from a loose and pointless or amateurish operation, :

  • First, a mission. This is some long-term goal of service, a task carried out for the betterment of others.
  • Secondly, a responsible chain of command. In any group, some people assume the burden of responsibility and consequently hold the authority to lead; they teach and direct others to carry out the institution’s mission and deliver its service. In this way, responsible leaders direct those who work with them, not just under them–for, as we’ve seen before, a real leader has joiners, not followers.
  • Third, a set of performance standards. These are clear directional rules by which those in charge show others what’s expected of them, the ways they most effectively contribute to the overall mission. In business this includes a job description and some sort of protocol that sets standards for acceptable performance–office rules, by-laws, contractual obligations, and the like.

Here’s the point. Because every healthy family is a serious service enterprise, it displays all three elements outlined here: mission, leadership, and performance standards.

On the other hand, since the consumerist family is going noplace–has no real directed mission–then the parents are weak leaders (lead where?) and the family’s rules, if any, act only as ad hoc bandages to keep hassles and damage to a minimum.

Obviously a father and mother take on a serious mission in family life. Since they assume this huge responsibility, Dad and Mom have the right and duty to lead. All children need leadership, and if both parents do not lead them to do right, then someone else may lead them to do wrong.

In my many conversations with great parents and their children, I used to probe from time to time to learn what rules each healthy family lived by.

Here is what I noticed….

All the rules, directly or implicitly, began with the word “We…,” not “You…”
For instance, the rule for chores was not “You kids must clean your room,” but rather “We all pitch in to keep this house in decent shape.” Not “You must call if you’re late,” but instead “We call if we’re going to be late.” It wasn’t “You have to put toys away,” but “We all return things where they belong.”

In other words, the parents lived by the rules themselves, the same ones they imposed on their children. The parents lived at home like responsible, considerate adults, and they insisted their kids do the same. Like any other real leaders, Dad and Mom demanded as much of themselves as of their children. They practiced what they preached and led the way by their personal example. Consequently, every day, their children witnessed the parents’ convictions alive in ongoing action. (And so, later as teenagers, they could never justly accuse their parents of hypocrisy.)

Abiding by these rules led the children–or forced them–to practice each of the virtues. Repeatedly, every day, Dad and Mom encouraged their children to live rightly: to take responsibility, manage their own affairs, work conscientiously, discern right from wrong, respect their parents’ authority, and consider the needs and rights of others. Right living permeated the whole spirit of the family–and seeped its way inside the kids little by little, day by day. An old maxim says, “As the day goes, so goes one’s life.” Whatever the children practice every day–for good or for ill–will be the way they live later.

In a sense, the dynamic by which children learned the virtues through these rules seemed to follow the wise adage: What children hear, they mostly forget. What they see, they mostly remember. What they do, they understand and internalize.

All the rules seemed to fall into five distinct but interconnected categories:

–We respect the rights and sensibilities of others.
–We all contribute to making our home a clean, orderly, civilized place to live.
–We give people information they need to carry out their responsibilities.
–We use electronic media only to promote family welfare, never to work
against it.
–We love and honor our Creator above all things; we thank Him for His
blessings and ask His help for our needs and those of others.

For whatever use they may be to you, I list these rules for you here. Once again let me stress, what I lay out below is descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, I am describing what I’ve seen work in one great family after another. I do not presume to dogmatize about details here, or insist that every family should adopt these standards wholesale. I couldn’t rightly do that even if

I wanted to.

Let me stress, too, that practically no family lives by each and every one of these rules. I have simply listed all of them here for your thoughtful judgment.
It’s up to you to weigh each one and judge what’s best for you and your children. It’s your family, and therefore your call.
Here they are….

1) We respect the rights and sensibilities of others.

  • We say to everyone, when appropriate: please, thank you, excuse me, I’m sorry, I give my word of honor.
  • We do not insult people with words or affront them with rudeness.
  • We do not tattletale or gossip about people or otherwise negatively criticize people behind their backs. (Though if someone we know is getting involved with drugs, then for their sake we report it to whoever can help them in time.)
  • We keep our family’s affairs within the family. No “airing dirty laundry in public.”
  • We make no disparaging remarks of a racist, sexist, ethnic, or religious nature, not even as a joke. We have no place in our home for humor that hurts.
  • We do not use profanity or vulgar language.
  • We never ridicule or belittle anyone who tries.
  • We do not interrupt; we wait our turn to speak. We do not distract people when they’re speaking with someone, either in person or on the phone. If there’s an urgent situation and we must interrupt, then we first say, “Excuse me, please….”
  • We respect people’s right to presumption of innocence. Before forming a negative judgment, we listen first to their side of things.
  • We never lie to each other. Unless we have rock-solid evidence to the contrary, we presume other family members tell the truth.
  • We do not argue back when we are corrected.
  • We do not make promises unless we commit ourselves to carry them out. If we can’t keep a promise for reasons beyond our control, then we make a sincere apology.
  • We respect each other’s property and right to privacy. We knock before entering a closed room; we ask permission before borrowing something.
  • We do not bicker or quarrel during meals.
  • If we must get up from the table at meals, we first say, “Excuse me, please….”
  • We greet adult friends of our family with good manners, a warm greeting, a friendly handshake and look in the eye. We give our guests the best of what we have. (But children do not talk with adult strangers without parents’ OK.)
  • We show special respect to older people. We offer to give them a seat, hold doors for them, let them go first in line.
  • We celebrate each other’s accomplishments. But win or lose, we appreciate each other’s earnest best efforts.
  • We practice good telephone manners and thus bring honor to our family. We keep use of the telephone under reasonable control:
    — No calls during dinner or homework or after 10:00 p.m.
    — No outgoing calls after 9:30 p.m. (except for emergencies)
    — Calls generally limited to 15 minutes.

2) We all contribute to making our home a clean, orderly, civilized place to live.

  • We do not enter the house with wet or muddy footwear; if we track in a mess, we clean it up right away.
  • We do not bring “outdoor” activities indoors: no ball-playing, running and chasing, missile throwing, rough wrestling, or excessive shouting. Males in the family wear no hats or caps indoors.
  • We open and close doors quietly; if we accidentally slam a door, we say, “Excuse me, please….”
  • We do not shout messages to people in other rooms. We walk to wherever someone is and then deliver the message in a normal voice.
  • We do not consume food outside of designated eating areas: kitchen, dining room, play or t.v. room.
  • We do not overindulge in food or drink. No unauthorized snacks between meals, especially right before meals.
  • We try to eat all the food set before us.
  • We put clothes where they belong when not in use: clean clothes in closet or drawers, dirty clothes in laundry.
  • When we’re finished with them, we put toys, sports gear, and tools back where they belong.
  • If we’ve used a plate or drinking glass, we rinse or wash it and put it where it belongs.
  • If we’ve borrowed something, we return it. If we’ve lost a borrowed item, we apologize and try our best to either replace it or pay for it.
  • We do our house chores promptly and to the best of our ability; we start our homework at a set time and stick with it until it’s done right.
  • We do not return a car home with less than a quarter-tank of gas.
  • We can all make suggestions about many affairs in family life, but parents make decisions in serious matters. And they decide what’s serious.
  • We do not aim for “results” as such, but rather for personal best effort.

3) We give people information they need to carry out their responsibilities.

  • When we’re going out, we always inform: where we are going, with whom, and when we plan to return.
  • We get prior permission, with at least one day’s notice, for important and potentially disruptive activities: sleepovers, camping trips, long distance trips, and the like.
  • We come straight home from school, work, social events–except with prior consultation.
  • We return from social events at a reasonable hour, one previously agreed upon.
  • If we’re going to be late, we call.
  • We take phone messages intelligently: caller’s name and phone number, summary of message (if any), time and date of call, name or initials of person who took the call.
  • In general, we work to avoid unpleasant surprises and unnecessary worry in the family. (We have enough as it is.)

4) We use electronic media and games only to promote family welfare, never to work against it.

  • We have one television in the house, so as to monitor it and keep it from fragmenting the family.
  • We use t.v. and video-gadgets sparingly and discerningly. Most of our recreation will be non-electronic: reading, games, hobbies, sports, or conversation.
  • We permit nothing in our home that offends our moral principles and treats other human beings as things: no pornography (treating women as objects), no racist or sexist or ethnic disparagement, no gratuitous violence, no coarse language, no glamorous depictions of disrespect and rudeness.
  • We will usually–not always, but much of the time–watch t.v. and movies together: sports, high quality shows and films, news and documentaries. That’s it.
  • We do not watch t.v. on school nights, unless we watch together or with prior consultation, as noted above.
  • If we bicker over t.v. or games, we get one warning to stop; if quarreling persists, the activity is terminated.
  • We keep noise level within reason so as not to distract or bother others.

5) We love and honor our Creator above all things; we thank Him for His blessings    and ask His help for our needs and those of others.

  • We thank the Lord by worshipping Him together as a family.
  • We strive to live by His commandments of right and wrong.
  • We respect the conscience and rights of others who worship Him differently.
  • We pray before meals and bedtime. We pray for the needs of our family and country and those of anyone suffering in sorrow. We serve the Lord by serving others.
  • We live in the confidence that God watches over us with His loving fatherly protection. Parents treat their children the way God treats all of us–with affectionate and protective love, attention to needs, clear standards of right and wrong, compassionate understanding, and a ready willingness to forgive.
  • We know that God commands all of us to honor father and mother. The finest way we do this is to adopt our parents’ values, live by them all our lives, and pass them on to our own children whole and intact.

There you have them, the rules most commonly found in great families.

To live by them perfectly every day is, of course, an impossible ideal. For both parents and children, some backsliding and flawed performance is absolutely normal. All the same, these rules are fixed in place as what we try to live by, a “resting place” for our conscience–like the keys on a piano or computer keyboard to which our fingers always return. The people in a great family never attain perfection, but they never stop trying. To keep trying, no matter what, is the essence of greatness.