Every family has its traditions – some you may truly treasure such as big holiday gatherings with extended family; some you may truly despise such as the jello mold served at every festivity; and some you may not even realize exist. Those that you value, you hope your children “inherit.” Those that you abhor, you try to avoid. However, what you pass down to your children consists of much more than these obvious traditions. Have you ever stopped to think about the impact of all of your day-to-day interactions with your children?
What are Family Legacies?
All families have a set of beliefs, values, and attitudes that are passed down from generation to generation through the messages that children receive from their parents. These then become part of the growing child’s worldview. These beliefs are frequently conveyed unconsciously by parents and internalized by children unknowingly and without being evaluated in terms of their validity, truthfulness, or usefulness; they are blindly accepted. Although most obvious during the holidays, the transmission of family legacies occurs all year long through the small events and interactions of daily living.
Many of these legacies, therefore, can be passed along without a lot of reflection on the part of the parent. For example, you might have grown up in a house where “children were to be seen but not heard.” Without even realizing it, you might be acting on this idea by not encouraging or even allowing your children to voice opinions, and you may not engage in discussions and conversations with them. Without evaluating the belief that children should not speak their minds, you may not even consider a more open approach to hearing your children’s thoughts; you are simply doing what has always been done.
Evaluating Family Legacies
Family legacies can be worth treasuring and passing on to the next generation or they may be unhealthy and merit discarding. Being aware of your family legacies can help you to decide which beliefs and attitudes you cherish and which you want to make a conscious effort to change.
For example, if you were raised in a family that valued “together time,” your parents may have taught you why they thought this was important, spent time with you and your siblings, included you in decisions about outings and vacations, and encouraged you to set aside time to be with your family. As an adult, you may want to continue to teach and model this value for your own children. This is an example of being aware of a positive tradition that remains important to you and that you have consciously decided to maintain.
On the other hand, there may be some values passed down that you decide you want to modify. For example, you may have been raised by parents who were very strict in their discipline; they were quick to punish, did not allow you to explain your point of view, and used humiliation as a discipline tool. As an adult you may decide that you want to reverse that legacy. Instead of using discipline that shames your children, you choose methods that maintain their self-esteem and your relationship with them.
Conflicting Family Legacies
Sometimes parents are at odds with each other because they each bring their own family legacy to the parenting table. It may not be a matter of one being right and the other wrong; they are just different options. Yet, because parents have not stepped back and evaluated the messages they received, they may assume that there is a “best” way to do things (their family’s way) and that any other choice is inferior. For example, you may believe in making birthday celebrations a full day event with elaborate planning and lots of guests, while your co-parent believes in a low-key dinner with a cake and just the immediate family. With these different expectations and assumptions, disappointment or anger can easily take over.
Changing Family Legacies
If you find yourself at odds with your parenting partner or frequently frustrated with your children, then it may be a sign that you need to look at some of your underlying beliefs. If you hear yourself repeating words your parents said to you that you swore you would never say, you can stop and ask yourself, “What do I really believe about this?” Once you become aware of your family legacies, you can then choose to keep, modify, or discard them.
Making changes in the messages you send to your children is not always easy and can cause stress: new behavior may not come naturally to you; it may feel like you are being disloyal to your parents because you are rejecting some of their values by doing things differently; and family members may feel threatened by and resist the changes you are trying to make.
However, there are some things you can do:
- Surround yourself with people who support your growth.
- Make shifts in approach gradually and thoughtfully. You want to be careful not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. There will probably be some parts of your family legacy that you choose to preserve even as you discard other parts.
- Acknowledge the struggles other family members may have with the changes you are making. Remember that they may have been quite happy with how things were!
- Gather information about healthy parenting strategies and approaches.
By replacing some of the negative messages you absorbed as a child with ones that are more in line with how you want to live, you can pass on to your children more positive messages which they in turn can use when they raise their children. You have the power to change and improve upon your family’s traditions and heritage for generations to come!By Audrey Krisbergh, Certified Parenting Educator
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