A family environment is widely regarded as being exceptionally advantageous for the healthy psychological development of children.
Of course, children can and often do develop into well-balanced and rounded individuals if they’re unfortunate enough to lack family surroundings. Even so, building a strong family can be very helpful when raising children.
Defining the family
The family unit isn’t necessarily about conventional blood relationships such as father/mother, siblings, aunts/uncles and so on.
The family is simply a person or people who are regularly around and responsible for providing primary care and support to children. That care environment needs to be seen by the child as being totally supportive and unthreatening. Ideally, it should also be one that’s happy with all members being at ease with each other (or predominantly so!).
As such, the family can be entirely unrelated to the child or children concerned. What is important is the environment the family provides.
The principal characteristics of a healthy family environment
There is inevitably a degree of opinion here but generally, a healthy family environment offers a child:
- somewhere they feel physically and emotionally safe from harm;
- people around who always offer support in their play, work and learning (note, that doesn’t necessarily mean always saying ‘yes’ to the child);
- the reassurance that they’re seen as being important and highly valued;
- a place they can literally call their own, with their toys and other things they feel are theirs;
- the opportunity to constructively learn and develop – often by observation of the behaviours of other family members around them;
- people they can confide in without fear of ridicule or sharing with others;
- somewhere where they can develop very special relationships with others that are difficult or unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.
True, this is very idealistic and no family is perfect. Families do squabble and occasionally fracture along fault lines. However, the healthy family recovers from these issues because what’s important is the family, not their temporary disputes. That in itself is a powerful lesson for a child’s development.
Building a strong family
Unfortunately, there is no fixed recipe for this. Every collection of individuals will be different in terms of how they go about things.
In the Western world, there are though some general principles that are broadly agreed upon by the majority:
- families must be inclusive where everyone, including children, feel they are stakeholders. Old models of autocratic family heads (matriarchs or patriarchs) may no longer be suited to the modern world;
- every member must feel equally valued;
- family members must feel that their relationships with others in the group are somehow ‘special’ and different to their relationships with others outside the family;
- everyone must contribute to the greater whole (e.g., sharing housework);
- all individuals must feel of equal value to others;
- the family must find time for its own development and maintenance. Holidays are a good example but also doing things together like shared mealtimes and discussion, banning the use of technology for those periods and so on;
- people must be encouraged to at least sometimes put the interests of other family members ahead of their personal needs.
Avoiding ‘pulling up the drawbridge’
There is a slight risk in all this that the family can become insular. The ultimate expression of this is demonstrated in some cults.
It’s very important that the family maintains excellent relationships with other people outside, such as schools or day care centers etc. This helps children to develop their own social skills that one day will be essential if they’re to start their own strong and healthy family environment.