The kids and I are listening to “The Secret Garden” right now via LibriVox. Mary grows up in India being catered to, hand and foot by her Ayah who did everything for her. When Mary was left alone and sent to live in England at ten years old, she learned that she would not always be dressed by someone else. Listen to the audio clip where she explained to the servant girl, Martha, who asked her why she couldn’t dress herself that it was always the custom that she did not dress herself. She said that in India, when something was “the custom” they simply would not deviate from the tradition. When something was suggested that was never done, they would simply say it was not the custom. No one would argue with it, nor change the behavior.
When the custom serves your family, I say, why change it? But, if you are serving the custom at some expense to your family, then it is time to figure out why the custom is there in the fist place.
One of the basic principles of family culture is customs, or norms. Norms are what we default to because it is just what’s expected. Here’s how Brett and Kate McKay of “The Art of Manliness” define norms:
Norms are the spoken and unspoken rules of how a family operates; they represent your values in action. Norms guide how family members interact with one another and with the outside world. Examples of family norms include things like how family members resolve conflict (yelling? passive-aggressiveness? calm, assertive discussion?) and how and if children help out around the house. Norms are conveyed both by example and by intentional inculcation.
Every family has a culture whether it is by default or by design. It’s important that we establish our culture intentionally, or by design, because it is too easy to fall into old habits. Being intentional means that you evaluate your norms and customs and decide what serves your family. Being intentional means establishing rules, and roles, and it means coming together to establish your collective vision for your family. When the expected customs don’t fit with that vision, then it’s time to find new ones that work. We will still have norms and customs, but these will be set intentionally.
What you default to doesn’t have to be destructive or easy. When you set new norms, the default can become constructive and productive. Say your norm is to come home from a long day and plop in front of the TV and check out. Change that norm to involve sitting down in the living room and pulling out a book, or listening to an audiobook. When those habits become established, those things become a part of the routine. Learn to establish better ways to cope with stress or boredom so that your family can constructively work toward your collective vision.
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