A Sense of Belonging

All across the country, parents are still feeling the intense emotional effects of the Colorado incident in April. This massacre, the shooting in Oregon last year, and other similar tragedies have raised the questions: "Why? Will this happen to us? How can we prevent this?" The President proposed one solution: that we must teach children to talk about their feelings of anger rather than act upon them. Authorities have likewise suggested a cause for this type of incident: that when children don't feel accepted by their peers they're more likely to form cliques or gangs, and to behave aggressively. When a child feels isolated it is a dangerous situation. These things are, I believe, part of the larger truth: that the children of our country are feeling increasingly isolated, not necessarily from their peers but from their parents. Because all children (indeed all people) must feel as though they belong to something bigger than themselves, this sense of isolation from family leads children to seek that sense of belonging elsewhere - from peers at best, from cliques and gangs at worst. How, though, does this sense of isolation happen, and what can we as parents do to prevent it in our own children?

In order to determine why children today are feeling more isolated than they did in the past, we need to take a look at the recent historical evolution of the family. Forty to fifty years ago, children grew up in households where Mom usually stayed home with the kids. Dad worked 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. and was home in the evenings. Extended family was often close by. The way the family was structured was more naturally conducive to children feeling as though they belonged to the family, simply because it's members were around more. Our society, however, has changed a great deal since then. Today, extended family is often scattered across the country, divorced and single parent households are prevalent, and in two parent households both parents often work. The working hours of 9 - 5 no longer exist for most people. National statistics indicate that the average child sees his family for approximately 5 - 20 minutes a day. It's difficult to feel that there is a family unit to which you belong in that short amount of time. Thus, more and more, children are feeling isolated from the very people whom they need the most - parents, siblings and extended family members. This sense of isolation causes them to seek that sense of belonging elsewhere in order to ease the feeling of loneliness. Some children join a peer group that has a basically positive influence. Others join cliques and gangs.

So what do we do? For most parents, moving closer to extended family members or changing a job situation simply aren't options. Fortunately, I believe that there is still a solution. It involves creating what Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families) calls a family "culture." This family culture hinges upon parents implementing a structure that communicates in no uncertain terms to all family members that the family is more important than anything else; that the family takes priority over work, social and personal obligations. While it sounds like a large task, it's relatively simple to get started.

Let's start with the idea of structure. Structure is defined by Webster's dictionary as "something arranged in a definite pattern of organization." It is the patterns in family life that allow children to see the family as a concrete and important unit. Obviously, the patterns must be healthy ones that include the children in order for this to be beneficial. In my ten years as a parent educator and counselor in private practice, the structure that I find works best in terms of giving children a sense of belonging to the family involves family meetings. When parents set aside a definite time each week to meet together with their children, it lessens the sense of isolation that is becoming so prevalent in our society today. The time set aside defines the pattern that children are quick to latch onto.

I recommend that family meetings be held weekly and be inviolate. In other words, other engagements should be turned down in favor of meeting together as a family. Now obviously, this won't always work - there will be the occasional business trip out of town, the school play, the once in a lifetime invitation you simply can't refuse. That's o.k. Occasionally rescheduling your family meeting for another time or day of the week won't destroy the underlying message. However, if the exception becomes the rule, and you find that you're postponing or canceling more family meetings than you're holding, the pattern will be disrupted and your children are more likely to feel that family isn't as important as you proclaim it to be.

Just as important as the external pattern of regular family meetings is the internal structure. Here are some pointers:

* Have an agenda. Post it so all family members have the opportunity to write down issues they'd like to discuss at the following meeting.

* Appoint a chairperson (which can rotate amongst capable family members) and someone to take minutes. This formalized procedure may seem unnatural, but it lends a sense of importance to the proceedings which communicates to your children that the family is important.

* Show as much respect during the meeting to your children as you would to an employer. While your children can't formally "fire" you for being out of line, they can become isolated as a result of your disrespect.

* Have a time limit. Twenty to thirty minutes is more than adequate if you have young children, while you can stretch it up to an hour with older children.

One mother of two teenage girls told me that their meetings lasted an hour and a half a week, and the girls were begging for more time. This is the kind of story I hear over and over again from parents with children of all ages: kids want and need MORE time with their parents - time where they feel heard, understood and part of something bigger than themselves. The weekly family meeting fulfills that need.