I used to be a competitive gymnast. I spent nearly every weekday afternoon of my childhood in the gym. And I loved it. Not because I was actually all that good at gymnastics. I was ok. I enjoyed the sport – very much so — but I mostly loved being in the gym because I felt like I belonged there. I had a place; a place amongst my teammates and my coaches. I didn’t feel that way at school or at church but the gym was like a second home. I think this was due in large part to the effort of my coaches, Mike and Joanna. Not only did they foster a sense of safety and warmth at that tiny gym during our daily workouts, but every year they would host a team sleepover at the gym and they really pulled out all the stops.
It was probably my favorite event of the entire year. Mike and Jo organized a huge scavenger hunt for us and a mock meet with actual judges; we ate together, watched a movie, had a lip sync contest (Angela, I still remember you rocking The Heat is On!) and at the end of the overnight, they would present us with our team t-shirts for the year. The t-shirts had our nicknames on them and our theme for the year (my favorite theme was Go Hard or Go Home when I was 13). Those sleepovers, along with the endless afternoon hours and all the competition traveling, solidified that sense of family and belonging. I was part of something when I was on that team. We had our shirts and our theme, our inside jokes, our songs (Summer of ’69 and It’s a Kind of Magic to name a few) and our traditions.
I’ve been thinking about all of this recently within the context of raising a family. In addition to finding and developing our own traditions, how might Jason and I foster a similar sense of “place” and belonging within our small family of four? My gymnastics team was unique because of all the energy and hard work that Mike and Joanna put into it. It wouldn’t have just happened on its own. When I was 23 I coached for short stint myself and during my first month on the job I was pumped and eager to coach that team like I had been coached when I was a girl. But it only took a few weeks before I realized, sheesh, this is HARD. I don’t FEEL like spending my weekends making up scavenger hunts and goal sheets and videos for these girls. It was a lot more work than I realized. And with regard to family life, I’m realizing that Jason and I can foster that sense of identity and belonging within our family but only with intentionality and effort. It won’t just happen.
I read an article a few years ago in Real Simple magazine by Patrick Lencioni and I tucked it away in my journal so I could return to it when our boys were out of diapers and I could read it through without falling asleep. Lencioni applies some basic business principles to coordinating family life and developing a sense of family identity. He gave ten suggestions and these are the three that stood out to me.
- Identify your core values.
- Understand your opportunity costs.
- Meet to review your progress.
Identifying your core values sounds easy. But I’m finding that it’s actually kind of difficult. Lencioni points out that if everything is important, nothing is. While I want my kids to be creative, funny, kind, adventurous, truthful, helpful, hard-working, intelligent, loyal, interesting, curious, self-aware, self-controlled, socially aware, joy-filled, compassionate and on and on and on, which traits are the most important to me? It’s hard to chose! Jason and I talk about it like this: What does it mean to be a Rust (that’s our last name, btw)? What makes us us? If we can, say, ONLY choose five, which five should we choose? Here’s what we’ve got so far and this is how we explain it to Gryffin and Isaiah…
Being a Rust means being a helper. We are the ones who help. This has already taken so many forms and the boys have surprised me on more than one occasion by remembering it and reminding me. We saw someone with a sign on the street corner last week driving through Belltown and Isaiah said urgently, “Mama! We need a bag! We need to give him something! We’re the helpers!” We made bags last winter to hand out to our homeless friends but we ran out last month. Or when Jason went next door to help our neighbors move some furniture, Gryffin asked “Why? Because we’re the helpers?” I wouldn’t have even thought to explain it that way but it has already set in for Gryffin as an identifier of our family.
People are the most important
After church the boys always get a lollipop from our friend, Joanie. The lollipops are back in her office and the SECOND the service is over, the boys are asking about those lollipops. While I’m happy for them to have a treat, it usually means interrupting a conversation with someone in order to go get them. So I’ve explained to the boys that they can have their lollipops when we are done chatting with our friends because people are the most important. And when they asks to play Angry Birds or watch a show when we have friends over, I remind them that people are the most important so we’ll wait until after they’ve gone home. This has other outpourings as well. Like, birthdays being a big deal in our house and loyalty being paramount, etc.
Being a Rust means being a camper. We are a camping family. Jason is part Native American and reverence for nature and creation is important to him. One of the things that we have returned to time and again in our marriage is the poem “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Jason found it several years ago and we memorized it together. Camping is one of the main ways that we live into this poem, so to speak — by taking time as a family to rest in the grace of the world. In a culture where media and technology are so overwhelming, it’s important to us to make time to be outdoors on a regular basis.
Jason and I want to be a family of story-tellers. This divides into 3 parts.
Telling the Family Stories, the family history. We want Isaiah and Gryffin to have a strong sense of where they come from and who came before them. This means re-telling the same family stories again and again, year after year. And not just the good stories with happy outcomes but the rough stuff, too. In an op-ed piece featured in The Christian Science Monitor in June of this year, Jim Sollisch writes about story-telling and kids, saying,
“The more you know about your family’s story, the more you feel a part of something bigger. You see yourself as a character in an ongoing saga, a narrative of successes and failures, of striving – because that’s the story of every family, really…So the next time your children ask for a story, you don’t have to conjure up faraway kingdoms and alien creatures. Tell them about the time you hit the game-winning shot. Tell them about their grandfather, who lived in America for 40 years without ever learning English. Tell them about their grandmother who, when her husband died, talked her way into his job as a traveling auto parts salesman back in 1944. That’s a story my mother told my brother and me, a story that reminded us we come from a family that doesn’t take no for an answer.”
Learning & Telling the Stories of Others. This means that we need to seek out the stories of other people. We need to read good books and be good listeners, ask good questions and try new foods. We need to listen to new music and learn how to tell the stories of those who might not be able to tell their own.
Living a Good Story. We want our lives to be a story worth telling. This one is a bit abstract, I know, and difficult to explain to the boys at this stage but so many things align under this component of the core value. Recently we’ve been talking about dishonesty, for example. We’ve been explaining to the boys what it means to tell a lie. Jason told them that telling a lie usually feels yucky, like stinky cheese inside of you. Nobody likes to smell stinky cheese.
Letting our insides and our outsides match
This one is also multi-faceted. First, I want yes to be yes in our house and no to be no. If we say “yes” when we really mean “no,” only festering and frustration will follow. Right now, this is still very basic in our house and we are working on it by insisting that the boys ask questions rather than making statements. Saying, “I’m thirrrrrsty,” is just a preschooler’s passive aggressive way of trying to get someone to get them something to drink. So we’ve started encouraging the boys to think about what it is that they want and then asking for it directly, “May I have a glass of milk?” Second, I want all 4 of us to be able to live in a way with each other where our insides and our outsides truly match; that who we are on the inside is who we are on the outside. That we don’t have to hide who we are but are free to be our “most vulnerable and most powerful selves” as encouraged by Brené Brown in Daring Greatly. It won’t be easy but it’s definitely something I’d like to strive for.
Those are our five. So far anyway. I imagine these might change over the years as we redefine and rediscover what is important to us. But it’s a starting point and this is what it means to be a Rust in 2013 at least.
Understanding opportunity cost simply means understanding how one course of action might prevent you from accomplishing other tasks and choosing your family activities accordingly. An example for us would be soccer in the summer time. Isaiah has shown some interest in soccer and we tossed around the idea of signing him up for pee wee soccer this summer – just for fun. But there were games slated for every Saturday morning (the opportunity) which meant that we would not be able to go camping (the cost). Since camping and being outdoors is a core value for us, it made the decision easy. Soccer was out and camping was in.
REVIEW YOUR PROGRESS
Reviewing your progress is just a different way of saying “family meeting.” Lencioni stresses the importance of coming together on a weekly basis for a short family meeting. It might only last 10 minutes but it’s about making space to review what’s going on in family life, air any grievances, see what adjustments might need to be made. It’s a chance to assess how the family is doing and give your kids a voice and a stronger sense of the role they play in family life. Jason and I try to check in every Sunday so it’s been a natural extension to include the boys each week.
I don’t have a clue if ANY of this will give our boys a sense of identity, purpose and belonging. But it seems worth a shot. Our family will have a culture, a way of being, whether we plan for it intentionally or not. So I’d rather give it some thought ahead of time rather than looking back in 25 years and wishing I’d done things differently. I’m guessing there is PLENTY that I will wish I had done differently but hopefully this aspect of family life won’t be one of them. And maybe I’ll enroll my kids in gymnastics, just in case this doesn’t pan out!