The tank is set. Daddy filled it ahead of time, styling the interior with a pirate’s treasure chest, a pink and purple castle with a tunnel for fish to swim through, and enough fake plants to make a jungle out of the 5-gallon fish home. This birthday surprise for our six-year-old sparkle of a daughter was a hit, and now all that is left is selecting fish to fill it.
We parade our giant family down to Pet Smart because there are many animal-lovers in our house, and I would never hear the end of it if everyone didn’t get to come along.
Birthday girl is beaming from ear to ear, skipping from our van all the way to the fish display. An associate guides her toward fish touted to be complementary to one another, and within minutes she has six new fish to bring home: one for each year of her life.
Once home, the fish are freed from the bag and acclimate to their new space. Six fish sort out unfamiliar territory—both their surroundings and relationships with each other.
As the days go by, it becomes clear which fish are aggressive and bossy and which are timid. Though we all watch the same drama unfold, we each have a different storyline we’ve connected to the fish; what they must be thinking and why they act the way they do.
It’s not so different from the way individuals experience life within a household. Each person in a family forms his or her own memories, builds separate relationships, searches for a unique voice in the midst of the group, and discovers personal limitations. Many things contribute to how family culture develops: priorities, personalities, traumas, triggers, desires, stress, beliefs, and more. The sum total of family relationships is not dependent solely (or even primarily) on how much fun is synthesized on a given day (which is a relief for this serious-leaning mom). Injecting fun is not the only way to tackle the goal of family harmony, although it certainly can help!
Your attentiveness and the predictable ways you invest in your child’s self-esteem, emotional intelligence, and connection to the family are what most significantly forms the collective culture born out of living (and loving) each other within the family fishbowl.
For good or for bad, people return to what they know.
Intentionally cultivating your family culture is ultimately about defining your family values—thinking about them and talking about them—and making decisions that consistently enflesh them. Doing so can shape the core beliefs a child.
To create the peaceful family culture I long for, my husband and I strive to cultivate:
Kind and life-giving words
Proverbs 18:21 talks about the tongue having the power to give life or bring death. I’ve seen a few ill-spoken words obliterate dreams, relationships, and confidence. Speaking truth wrapped in grace is a high priority in our home because words are powerful. Words declare what is in our hearts toward each other, and can also influence a child to choose their own words wisely even when they feel frustrated. When I am consistently gracious and kind with my own words, it tells my kids this is the expectation. This isn’t to say that we never have negativity flung about, but our kids know that we value kindness, and every one of us practices it every day.
Restraint hasn’t always come naturally to me. Gentleness is the first thing to go when I’m trying to herd children out the door while gathering stray shoes and filling up water bottles. I have emphatically buckled children, slammed doors closed, and cried in the driver’s seat because I knew I needlessly acted like a bear. I’ve tried to smooth out our departure routines so I’m not pressed up against a deadline, and in the moments my anger does flash up, I take three deep breaths to diffuse the pressure. I value punctuality, but I’ve learned there is literally nowhere we need to be that justifies being gruff or grumpy. In the process, I learned that children learn restraint only when they see it modeled by their parents.
Nearly every conflict in my house boils down to one party claiming that the other person did it (or didn’t do it) while they bear no responsibility. This is seldom true. I make a point to talk through each person’s role in the conflict. I ask, “Who is responsible for X choice?” and “Who is responsible for Y choice?” “What could you have done differently?” I feed them ideas about how they can responsibly and proactively diffuse conflict.
It can be hard for both adults and children to move on after a conflict. Feelings remain wounded, treasured lego creations remain in pieces, and sometimes it isn’t totally clear how to move forward. I want to model repentance to my kids, own my mistakes, and offer an authentic apology. More than apologies alone, reconciliation skills help my kids learn to listen well and include others in their play.
Teamwork is non-negotiable in our house. When the kids were younger, asking for help led to a bigger mess, but now that I have so many able bodies, I focus on empowering my kids to work collaboratively. There are currently only a few jobs I complete on my own (laundry, dishes, and diapers), and responsibility for everything else (clean-up, organization, shelving books, meal prep & cooking, etc) is shared. It isn’t glamorous, but it is a huge part of our family culture.
Patience & delayed gratification
Learning to wait, practicing constructive ways to deal with disappointment, and hearing the word “no” all help kids navigate the bummer side of life. I think big families have an advantage in this area because by default, parents cannot meet all needs at the same time, and kids grow accustomed to waiting. One practical way I have helped my kids learn to wait is when they wake from naps (in cribs), I don’t immediately scoop them out the minute I wake up. I give them a few minutes before I swoop in with an animated face and kisses all over. We practice waiting as much as possible—while mom pours and drinks her coffee, while siblings are assisted with homework, and when they’re asking for snacks but really don’t need them.
Communication is everything. Words are part of it, but effective communication also includes attentiveness, listening, quality time, gentleness, and clear expectations. I foster this among my children by requiring from the early years that everyone speak out loud about their feelings. If two kids are at odds, I facilitate a conversation between them, asking them to tell the other person how they feel and acknowledge what was said. I also model effective communication when I stop to acknowledge my kids, keep myself available and responsive, and generously offer guidance and encouragement.
Humility and a heart for serving others
Humility is one character quality that lands at the top of my priority list; it may be our most important family value. If everyone serves one another, lovely things happen within a family. Matthew 20:26-28 says, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” I am convicted to model a servant heart for my kids whenever possible, joyfully completing even mundane tasks because I want them to know it is my pleasure to serve them. I give high praise to children who display servanthood in our home and highlight examples of others who serve well. Humility undercuts selfishness, arrogance, pridefulness, and complaining.
Shaping a family culture is a journey. No one is checking to see that you have it all figured out when your first child is one or four or seven. As babies are added to your family or as your wee ones grow tall, you may need to explore new approaches to tend the relationships between everyone in your home. Your priorities might change, but your consistent investment in growing connection and understanding between the members of your family will make your home a place everyone wants to be.
Intentionally cultivating your family culture is a pursuit that must evolve to serve the goals you have for your household in a given season.
Take time every so often to inspect your declared values as a family and measure them up against your everyday choices. If things aren’t going well, see if you’re able to rearrange some of the things in your fish tank to make room for what matters most.
Emily Sue Allen is the founder and visionary behind KindredMom.com, an online community and podcast dedicated to helping women find joy and purpose in motherhood. Emily is passionate about living a deeply nourished life and celebrating the beauty of ordinary moments. She is forever marked by the rescue and redemption Jesus Christ has accomplished in her life. Emily is a featured contributor in Strong, Brave & Beautiful: Stories of Hope for Moms in the Weeds, a collaborative volume of essays written to encourage moms in the weeds of parenting kids at home, a member of Hope*writers, and an ongoing devotional writer for Joyful Life Magazine. She lives with her husband and seven kids—three girls and four boys—in the Pacific Northwest. Emily’s website is emilysueallen.com. Subscribe to her newsletter “Flowers, Children & Other Lovely Things” at emilysueallen.substack.com and find her on Instagram.