two types of family: Becoming Your Child's Trusted Advisor: May 2023 Online Advising Cohort

The Two Types of Family

In this note I’d like to describe two opposite-extreme family styles I’ve observed from working with thousands of advisees on healing family wounds, which may be helpful for you in reflecting on your own family experiences, both as a child and even as a parent.
You can take these as two ends of a spectrum, with every “real family” falling somewhere in between.
In the “Rules-Driven” family, here is a set of rules to follow, and if you violate a rule, you are punished with negativity, which can include shaming, sarcasm, ridicule and even physical punishment.
While there is nothing wrong with setting down rules, they are a two-edged sword which needs to be handled with care and attention. They are powerful, and yet have the power to wound in unintended ways.
When rules are (unwittingly) set up in a wounding manner, they often exhibit the following traits:
  1. They may not be questioned — they are absolute and there is no negotiation.
  2. They are not explained — the reasoning is not transparent, and the justification is simply “because I said so”. There is no explanation of the underlying benefit of the rule and the kid needs to guess at it.
  3. When a rule is violated, kids are punished not with guilt but with shame. Guilt is a defect with the thing you did. It is fixable, by you, who is still aok as a person. Shame however, is a defect with the thing you are. “What the f — is wrong with you??? Are you stupid???” This is shame.
  4. After the punishment, there is no discussion, there is only silence. So all the kid has is the emotional wound, raw fear of breaking the rule again, and no context or supporting explanation. She has to come up with her own inner narrative of “what just happened and why it happened” and it usually ends up being a self-negative one — “I’m not skilled enough (competence), not pretty enough (body), not the ‘right kind’ (identity), and I get love only if I follow these rules, never for myself as I am (relationship).” 
Kids in a rules-driven family will often fit the “typical rebellious teen” cliche — they will not share much of anything with the parents (“How was school?” “Fine.”), and feel compelled to lie/hide things as needed because the emotional consequence for a rule violation is so deeply painful to their inner sense of self.
As a defensive countermeasure (because kids are not stupid), they will learn the very same shaming language of the parents and attack them back with it (rolling their eyes, slamming doors, blaming and nitpicking the parents at every opportunity). This is never done out of malice, but simply as a defensive survival tactic— to keep the parents on their heels and a safe distance away — so they themselves are out of striking range and have a lower risk of being shamed by them.
This then is the “dialect” they learn as they grow up, and then pass on to their own kids later on. All of this is unwitting and not malicious - the language of self-negativity is inherited.
In the “Values-Driven” family, there is a set of values that the entire family upholds (parents and kids together), and if you violate a value, you are punished with a consequence that will be painful enough to remind you of the value and why you uphold it, but not so much that your sense of your inner self is also wounded.
This is a punishment based in guilt (the thing you did), not in shame (the thing you are) — there is no ridicule, belittling or any other abuse. Because the kid is fine — nothing wrong with the kid — so the consequence being triggered is just a matter of training and reminder of the value set being taught. One that the kid will need for a happy and fulfilling life.
When a family is values-driven, it typically exhibits the following traits:
  1. Values are explained. “You have to be home by 10 because we are worried about your safety.” There is no “just because I said so” or “just because you should.”
  2. Values may be questioned and open to debate. “But what if I come home at 11, but still ensure my safety by doing XYZ?”
  3. Consequences are not to punish but to defend the value. “You came home too late and we were worried sick — we need to do something to remind you to look after your safety, which is the duty of the entire family, not just you, since we love you and you are #1.”
  4. Consequences can even be jointly designed — it is now a group design challenge, not a criminal sentence to be squirmed out of. “How about I skip late outings for a few weeks?” “Does it even need to be that long?” “It’s fine, I mean its a good thing that you worry about me.” “How about a week and call it done?” “Ok!”
  5. There is a lot of discussion. Values of the parents are even adjusted and refined — the open questioning of the kids pushes the parents to actually reflect and grow as well, and they are open to this.
  6. There is no shaming.
Kids in a values family are deeply engaged in family debate and discussion — they question the values of the parents they don’t “get”, and they say so, without fear. The parents then have to really reflect and scramble to articulate why, really, they are asking for a certain thing — and defend this to the kids.
If they can’t defend it, then the value is often adjusted. The first time this happens, it is not a “defeat” for the parents because they “caved in”, but a deep win for the whole family, as the kids become deeply bonded to this family and these parents, now with whom they truly have an emerging stake — the kids now truly have “skin in the game” and the ability to evolve the family as respected emerging members of it.
The family home is no longer a prison where the kids’ inner selves are at risk of being shamed, but a cathedral that they too have an active hand in building.
The parents are still “parents”, but they are no longer wardens and parole officers — they are mentors and advisers now — more deeply teaching the kids the true values of their family, and then actually preparing them to be emerging stewards of the family’s values when they are adults and parents too.
And just as self-negativity is inherited, this kind of values-driven nurturing is also inherited and will be passed on to the following generations.
Again, these are just the two extremes of a spectrum, and all “real families” fall somewhere in between. But thinking about this spectrum has been helpful for me in working with my students in self-healing their inner wounds, and I hope it may be helpful for you too.

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