“Don’t Forget the Families” sounds like a worthwhile idea on the face of it, but what does it actually mean? On June 15 at noon, Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Ph.D., will discuss a national study of families that looked at whether children are on track to develop the character strengths needed to succeed. One of the major findings of that study was that close connections within the family, or “developmental relationships,” are key to the unfolding of traits that enable children to do well.
Within our communities, appreciating these relationships and understanding how to support them could promote the success of our children. Perhaps surprisingly, even schools and community institutions that intend to engage parents often fail to truly support them. Instead of listening to, and learning from them, they attempt to enlist the family in supporting the organization’s goals. In essence, families are forgotten; hence, the title, “Don’t Forget the Families.” Dr. Roehlkepartain and his partners at the Search Institute (Minneapolis) propose major shifts in organizations that would promote full partnerships with parents and support their crucial role.
Their study also concludes that the developmental relationships in which character strengths form can be broken down into a number of components. According to their findings, families from all backgrounds parent in ways that foster their child’s development, but one important factor proves more challenging in many households, namely, “sharing power.” When parents “share power,” they take their child seriously, attempt to understand their point of view, include the child in decisions that affect them, and collaborate with them to solve problems and accomplish goals. As a psychotherapist, I would think of this in terms of respecting the feelings, ideas, and needs of children at every phase of development. If I were talking with parents, I might speak of power sharing more in terms of conferring rights and responsibilities to the child according to their ability to handle them.
The late child psychologist Erna Furman spoke of helping young children achieve mastery of tasks and of their bodies. She taught parents and teachers a multi-step method for helping young children learn. Let’s say, a preschool-age child is accustomed to being dressed by the mom. First, the mom dresses the child, while showing and saying how it’s done. Then she lets the child try, giving him as much help as he/she needs; the amount of assistance decreases as the child becomes more skilled. Next, she stands back and admires him/her for getting dressed “all by myself.” Lastly, the child he is able to feel good about his skill, even when mom isn’t offering praise. It’s a teaching method, to be sure, but more importantly, it describes a relationship in which a parent respects the child enough to help him take over an activity that is developmentally appropriate. In the context of relationships with the people who love him most, the child comes to believe in him/herself.
At Family Connections, nurturing families is part of our D.N.A., so becoming the City Club’s community partner in the upcoming event was a perfect fit. In fact, our mission is “to strengthen families with young children.” A non-profit family-focused organization, Family Connections has been partnering with parents and helping them build connections – with their children, with other families, and their Greater Cleveland communities – for many years. Our programs bring children and parents together to learn and play in their homes, our playrooms, in public libraries, and the children’s schools. The respect and affection that the hard-working staff has for our participating families are their greatest strengths. We believe that parents who feel cared for will be at their best, caring for their children. In that spirit, we welcome Dr. Roehlkepartain, whose work has such strong implications for remembering the families.
Janet L. Sharp is a Board member of Family Connections. She practices psychotherapy in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.