Much of the current reports about families emphasize 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 Latter-day Saint 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. (Although these were families in the United States, the basic principles revealed are shared by Latter-day Saint families around the world.) 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.
The commitment those 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 other possessions. Missions, temple marriage, and staying close together in our relationships 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 accounts 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, which had been members of 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 less active families or were raised in non–Latter-day Saint 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 activities where a brother or sister participated.
In addition to outside-the-home support, these families work and play together in a family setting. Family vacations, where possible, become a unifying experience.
3. They have goals.
These families seem to have had 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 at the table and talk for an hour after we finish a meal. We may look things up in reference books, read aloud to each other, or tell jokes.”
Part of this learning experience involves frequent reading of good books—the classics, biographies, poetry. In addition, 97 percent of these families subscribe to the Church magazine.
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 children were asked what their favorite television show was in a school survey, they responded, ‘The news broadcast.’ 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 where the children are seems to say to the child. “You are important, and we are interested in your well-being.”
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:
Tell them personally—97 percent
Do things for them—96 percent
Hug them—94 percent
Write or phone them—91 percent
Kiss them—85 percent
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.
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 being overcome by 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 started going into a decline, my partner walked 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 and exercised their faith, girded up their loins, developed patience, called their children together, and discussed 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 behave, 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.
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 indicate 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 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 do work in the home sometimes was an issue that posed challenges.
As for giving children some kind of monetary 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.
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 were when most of the children were starting 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 raising a good family. They all acknowledge weaknesses and shortcomings. None claim to be perfect. Many indicated that they are not sure they are successful. They say, “Wait until our grandchildren grow up.” But the essence of their lives is clearly 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 overall, the parents in these families are happy together in their marriages, feeling they are accomplishing something good and meaningful in their lives.
William G. Dyer, dean emeritus of Brigham Young University’s School of Management, is president of the BYU First Stake.