- - Sunday, January 1, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Culture challenge of the week: Normal family life

Many of us have entered the new year a few pounds heavier, many dollars lighter and a bit exhausted from the family celebrations. And more than one person I know has confessed relief that family togetherness will lessen for a while — and they aren’t just talking about extended family members.

It’s not that these friends don’t love their children and spouses. They do. But even the best of families may struggle daily to create family harmony out of competing needs, schedules and personalities. Consistent kindness at home toward beloved — but irritating — family members is a tall order.

We Americans, by and large, think of ourselves as kind people. And so we are, by many measures. The Christmas season provided proof of that.

In Detroit, citizens showered a poor ex-con with unexpected Christmas gifts and cash for his children. Why? Because the ex-con chose honesty in the face of need and temptation, returning a lost, cash-filled wallet to its rightful owner. Kind Americans gave the honest man an unexpected blessing.

And in an Indianapolis Kmart, an anonymous woman quietly brought joy to financially strapped families the week before Christmas when she paid off their Christmas layaway balances. Single moms, chipping away at balances that loomed large the week before Christmas, wept with delight when they realized their children would have gifts after all. Random shoppers felt the gentle touch of the woman’s kindness as she pressed $50 bills into their hands.

The woman’s generosity moved the hearts of families, cashiers, bystanders and (later) TV viewers. Best of all, it inspired copycat generosity in scattered stores across the country, where the kindness of strangers made Christmas layaway balances disappear — and instant smiles appear.

American kindness is more than anecdotal. It leads the world. A 2011 international survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that “Americans are more likely to volunteer time, give money and help a stranger than any other people on the planet.”

(Perhaps not surprisingly, Americans who attend church services regularly volunteer at twice the rate of nonreligious folks and give substantially more money to charity.)

But kindness to strangers is the easy part, isn’t it? When a stranger struggles to open a heavy door, juggling packages and toddlers, most of us would leap forward to help. When a sibling calls from another room, wanting help with the dog’s untimely mess, I suspect we’re more likely to drag our feet than leap forward.

When we awake in a foul mood, family members bear the brunt of our scowls, sharp words and churlish behavior. And when we’re so wrapped up in our work or projects that we’re oblivious to others, we miss hundreds of opportunities to smile, encourage and be kind to our families.

How to save your family: 21 days of kindness

The Book of Proverbs — which, even if you are not a believer, is an amazing collection of practical insights — reminds us of the power of kindness. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). How many daily situations in our family lives would turn out differently if we just spoke more kindly? How many spats and hurt feelings would disappear if our words flowed gently?

Kindness in family life shows itself in the externals — a welcoming smile, a gentle tone of voice or attentive eyes — but begins deep in our hearts. Scripture tells us, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). And it reminds us that, “love is patient, love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4).

If we are to be kind, our hearts must be tender, full of love and forgiveness. Great goal, right? But how do we begin?

First, pray. Ask God to shape your heart with His own hands, to mold your spirit to be like His. Pray with confidence, believing He will help you become a mother, father, son or daughter with a tender heart.

Second, practice. Steven Covey popularized the notion that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. It’s worth giving his method a try. Give your family 21 days of purposeful, small acts of kindness — motivated by a heart that wants to love more richly — and see what happens. I suspect the fruits of your kindness will be sweet enough to inspire a lifetime of kindness toward those you love best.

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at rebecca@howtosaveyourfamily.com.

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