Keys to Developing Effective Families


Much of the current writing about families emphasizes their problems—divorce, abuse, drug use, incest, suicide, and so on. Such emphasis may lead to the question: are there any strong, effective families, and if there are, what makes them successful?

We conducted a study to examine what effective LDS families may have in common. We asked stake presidents from various parts of the United States to supply us with a list of the fifteen families in their stakes they judged to be the most effective or outstanding. Later interviews showed that almost all of the two hundred families selected were fully active and committed to the Church and had developed strong relationships between parents and children.

The study was limited to families who had at least one child at home but at least one child old enough to marry, go on a mission, or go to college. After analyzing the surveys and interviews, we found twelve conditions that appeared to be constant. Virtually every family was living each of these conditions to some meaningful extent. And though they differed in many ways, these effective families showed remarkable similarity in certain basic areas.

1. They are committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is clear that at some point these couples made a commitment that their family was going to be active in the Church. When asked, “What do you consider has been most important in making you a strong family?” nearly all these families responded with statements like this:

“As parents, we are absolutely committed to the gospel. My companion and I are in love and are absolutely committed to each other. We try to teach our children what is right and why it is right.”

The commitment these parents have made to the Church is most apparent in three areas: (a) attendance at Church meetings, (b) full payment of tithing, (c) willingness to accept Church positions. These factors were found in almost every family.

One family said: “Most important to our family are the great feelings we have about the gospel. We know what the purpose of life is, and we know that our children are important. Heavenly Father is a partner with us, and we count on him to assist us after we do our part. We can forgo many things the neighbors have because we know that helping a child is much more important than a larger house or a boat. Missions, temple marriage, and sticking close together is what life is really all about.”

Seventy-three percent of these families indicated they always or usually had family prayer together, morning and evening. Many who answered that they had family prayer only occasionally did so because the schedules of family members sometimes made it impossible for all to be together. One said, “We have family prayer as often as possible, but it’s hard to do morning and evening since some of our children who work have different schedules. We’re seldom all home at the same time. But on Sundays we always have prayer together.”

This same scheduling problem made it difficult for all families to hold family home evening together or to read the scriptures. However, 66 percent said they always or usually hold family home evening every week. The remaining third get together occasionally.

When it comes to reading the scriptures every day, only about 30 percent are doing this, whereas the other 70 percent indicated they were able to do this some of the time.

No single factor in these couples’ backgrounds account for their religious commitment. On the contrary, their backgrounds are diverse. Many are converts to the Church. Because of World War II and the Korean War, fewer than half of the fathers in our sample were able to serve missions. Fewer than half graduated from seminary. More than 20 percent were baptized after the age of eight. Of course, many of these parents did come from active Latter-day Saint families, whose members had belonged to the Church for several generations and had shared traditions that were important to them as they raised their children. But others came from part-member or inactive families or were raised in non-LDS homes and later joined the Church.

2. They show family love and unity. Next to the powerful influence of the Church in their lives, these families identify feelings of love and unity as the most important factor in their success. As one family said, “We love to spend time together. Our greatest joy is to be able to visit and talk and enjoy each other’s company. We truly want to be together eternally.”

Love, support, and family unity did not come automatically for most of these families but resulted from planning and effort. Parents encouraged their children to show support for each other, such as attending a ball game or a band concert where a brother or sister participated. To encourage this, parents would express gratitude to their children such as “Thanks for going to Sarah’s concert. It means a lot to have the family support her.”

The children are aware of their families’ support. Unable to attend everything, these parents will say, for example: “We have a fairly large family, and sometimes we can’t attend every game, concert, or debate tournament, but we go out of our way to say something like ‘Brother Briggs told me you really did a good job.’”

In addition to outside-the-home support, these families work and play together in a family setting. Family vacations, for example, become a unifying experience. One family wrote:

“One thing that we invest heavily in the family is the vacation. We go somewhere every year—just our family. Perhaps the neighbors have wondered why we don’t do more things with them, but we have such a good time on our vacations!

“We may have cross words; sometimes we go a few miles without anyone speaking to each other. But that soon heals, and we sing, play, and tell jokes without interruptions from the telephone or television. We always try to visit someplace that is educational or spiritual or near relatives. We take a lot of pictures so the children can remember our trips. Hardly a week goes by that they don’t talk about someplace they’ve been. That, we think, is important.”

3. They have goals. These families seem to have a clear vision of where they are going and the goals they want to achieve.

Every participant said they wanted the following for their children: a good education, a temple marriage, a strong feeling of self-worth and a good self-concept, a strong sense of family unity, a commitment to the Church, a mission, good citizenship.

The members talk together about what they want as a family. They have a vision of being with each other forever. This vision translates into specific goals that are discussed when children are small, and children begin early to plan for missions, education, and temple marriage. Even young family members could state these goals clearly.

4. They teach and they talk. These parents spend a good deal of time talking with their children, teaching them, and helping them cope with personal problems and concerns. One family said:

“Being able to talk freely with each other and our children about feelings, problems, goals, hurts, and joys has been our greatest asset. We talk together while we’re working or playing. Sometimes we may stay and talk for an hour after we finish a meal. We may look things up in reference books, read aloud to each other, tell jokes.”

One father indicated:

“When we build fences or work with machinery, we talk together as father and son. Sometimes my son will ask about my mission. Sometimes we talk about political issues. Sometimes we just work.” Another father put it this way:

“I would say if there was one thing that has made a difference in our family, it has been that we have always talked together. When our children were little they would all climb onto our bed, and we would talk. They loved to hear about how their mother and I met and got married and how they were born—all the circumstances surrounding their lives. That continued even after they went to college and got married.”

Part of this learning experience involves frequent reading of good books—the classics, biographies, poetry. In addition, 97 percent of these families take the Ensign magazine, and most of them take the New Era and the Friend, if they have children of that age.

These families watch less than half as much television as the national average. When we asked whether television viewing was controlled in their homes, most parents said that it was, but that much of the control meant that they give some guidelines and trust the children to follow them. One parent said:

“When our eight-year-old twins were asked what their favorite TV show was in a school survey, they responded, ‘The news.’ This was probably because we all watch the news together and discuss the day’s events.”

5. They have few rules, but high expectations. Almost all of the families have three rules: (a) treat each member of the family with respect; (b) let parents know where you are going and when you will be back; (c) be honest and dependable.

The children have learned in the process of growing up what their parents expect. One young man said: “I remember when one of my friends asked if I’d like to go to a movie with him on a Sunday afternoon. I said no, and he wanted to know why—was that one of our rules? he asked. I thought about it and suddenly realized that it was one of our rules, but it had never been stated in those words. It’s just one of the things that our family would never do.”

Knowing children’s whereabouts seems to say to the child, “You are important.” One mother said: “Whenever my children come home late at night, they know to come to my bedroom and kiss me goodnight. That serves several purposes. First of all, I know they are home safe. Second, it assures them that I am interested in their well-being. And third, I think that the children resist Word of Wisdom temptations because they know that when they kiss me goodnight I would be in a pretty good position to know if they had broken it.”

6. Their discipline is firm but fair. These parents discipline primarily by talking. When the children do not do what they are supposed to, the parents feel they have to take some action. Ninety-seven percent listed reasoning with the child as their first course of action. If talking does not produce results, they generally withdraw some privileges. Some would eventually spank the child, although that would occur only with younger children. However, 45 percent said that they never spanked their children. Instead of punishing children for disobedient behavior, most of these parents try to use positive reinforcement and rewards to get the children to do what is appropriate. They reward them with praise or a special incentive.

7. They express their love. These families express love and praise openly. Following are the most frequent means of expressing their feelings:

  1. (a)

    Tell them personally—97 percent

  2. (b)

    Do things for them—96 percent

  3. (c)

    Hug them—94 percent

  4. (d)

    Write or phone them—91 percent

  5. (e)

    Kiss them—85 percent

  6. (f)

    Provide life’s necessities for them—74 percent

Our sample families were most likely to show love or approval by verbal expressions of praise or love or through service. One mother said, “There is a lot of good feeling between our boys and their dad. They may not kiss or hug much, but they wrestle a lot in a fun sort of way.”

Interviews indicated that these families vary in ways they express openness and love. But the evidence is clear that there is a great deal of telling, hugging, and loving.

8. They support each other during adversity. Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of these effective families is the way they pull together when faced with problems. These families all had difficulties and afflictions. But instead of breaking under adversity, they seemed to grow together. Most of these families didn’t really define their problems as adversity. A father said, “My son eloped; our youngest daughter was discovered to have cancer; we had a boy who started drinking and using drugs. Then when my business went sour, my partner pulled out, leaving me with all the debts.” This father’s reaction to adversity mirrored that of many of the families surveyed, who turned to the Lord in prayer and fasting, exercised their faith, developed patience, and called their children together to discuss the problems.

9. They extend family support. A base of support in these families extends beyond the immediate family. Members of these effective families—whether or not they still live at home—still continue to identify with aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins.

Eighty-four percent of the parents said their children’s friends were also a positive influence. The parents indicated they had influenced who those friends were, mostly by inviting their children’s friends to activities at their home so they would know who they were, how they behaved, and what they were doing.

10. They know that home is a busy place. All of the members in these families were involved in a variety of activities at home, work, school, and church. These families did not isolate themselves from the world. They worked to help each other in a number of activities: music, drama, debate, clubs, dating, dancing, working outside the home.

Children were most often involved in Scouting or working outside the home, followed by sports and other school activities.

11. They work. Almost all of these parents indicated that their children had to work around the home. Nearly all responses showed a concern for children’s work habits; 77 percent of the families said that children did some household chores. The group who did the fewest duties were older children (often returned missionaries) living at home and working or going to school. Noteworthy is that 60 percent said the children did their work willingly. For the other 40 percent, getting children to work sometimes was an issue that posed challenges.

As for giving allowances, 43 percent of the parents gave an allowance; 57 percent did not. The work ethic is strong in these families. More than 40 percent said that they required children to work for money given to them, and most children worked outside the home at some kind of small job when they were old enough.

12. The parents love and support each other. When couples rated the happiness of their marriage on a scale from 1 to 9, with 9 high, the average score was 8.5. Nearly three-quarters said their marriage was a 9. However, 4 percent rated their happiness at 5 or below and were still seen as having an effective family.

In all two hundred families there was a general acceptance of the traditional roles between husbands and wives. Most of the men were the wage earners, although a number of the women also worked outside the home. Women took the primary responsibility for the home, but both taught and disciplined the children.

One couple made this observation: “We fell in love a long time ago and made a commitment to team up in this life and the next. Some of the time we have had difficulties, but we’ve worked at it, and we love each other more as the years go by. Some of the hardest things occurred when the children started to get older, but we stuck it out. We really do love each other, and our children sense that. We talk and share; we pray together and do a lot of planning about our family. We think the Lord helps us in our family and with our children.”

These parents focus their main energies on rearing a good family. They all acknowledge weaknesses and shortcomings. None claim to be perfect. Many indicate that they are not sure they are successful. They say, “Wait until our grandchildren are raised.” But the essence of their lives is that they are trying to live by gospel standards and values.

They also want to be unified as a family. Truly committed to these goals, it seems that, in the main, the parents in these families are happy together in their marriages, feeling they are accomplishing something good and meaningful in their lives.

[photos] Photography by Craig Dimond

William G. Dyer, dean emeritus of Brigham Young University’s School of Management, is president of the BYU First Stake.

Phillip R. Kunz, a professor of Sociology at BYU, is the high priests group leader in the Edgemont Eighth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont South Stake.