Ways to Overhaul the Whole Household
If your kids are running amok, back-talking, and generally ill-behaved, don’t despair. David and Andrea Reiser say that changing your family dynamics isn’t impossible; in fact, it’s as simple as re-focusing on values.
If you’re like many American parents, in spite of your best efforts, your family can seem to be about as far from perfect as possible. Your kids appear to lack all semblance of motivation; you have to nag them to clean their rooms and do their homework. When you try to talk to them, they grunt at you, zoned out in front of the TV or texting their friends 24/7 (or both). Meanwhile, you and your spouse aren’t doing much better: When you do communicate you’re either complaining about your day or snapping at each other. And don’t even ask about the state of your house—it’s a complete wreck!
In short, your family is out of control. So many things seem wrong it’s hard to know where to even begin to fix it all. There’s good news, though: David and Andrea Reiser say that you can change your family dynamics and home life for the better.
“Essentially, your household is an organic system,” says Andrea, coauthor along with her husband, David, of the new book Letters From Home: A Wake-up Call for Success & Wealth. “That means that making the right changes in certain areas—those connected to basic life values—can yield dramatic improvements in seemingly unrelated ones.”
“Take, for instance, respect,” suggests David. “When you respect your family members, you’ll not only speak kindly, you’ll be on time for dinner and hang up your clothes instead of throwing them on the floor. You’ll naturally want to help each other instead of making your family members miserable or creating more work for them to do.”
In fact, the fruits they’ve seen grow from instilling basic life values in their own household inspired Andrea and David to write Letters From Home. Written in the form of letters to the authors’ four sons, the book explores fifteen basic American virtues that built our country and that foster individual and familial success.
“From our own experience—as well as through observing others we respect—we’ve come to the conclusion that if parents want aligned, appreciative, and (relatively) angst-less households, they’ve got to explicitly identify the values they want their kids to learn,” asserts Andrea. “And they’ve got to invoke limits, set expectations, and impose moral guidelines.
“It might not be easy, but you’ve got to realize that you’re a parent first and foremost,” she adds. “Your job is to guide and teach—not to be a friend or to win your child’s approval. Oh, and for anything to stick, parents have to walk the walk, too!”
Ready to start overhauling your household? Read on for several simple but powerful changes that can make a big difference in how your family operates:
Make a “positive meal times” rule. No one is allowed to gripe or argue. Many days, meals are the only times when everyone (or nearly everyone) is together—and the prevailing mood can set the tone for family interactions for hours, if not days, to come. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, consciously discuss good things that have happened, and what you’re all looking forward to doing in the future.
“Believe me, I know what it’s like to sit down at the table and be tempted to complain about a rough day at work . . . or a traffic-filled commute . . . or all of the things I have to get done before I go to bed,” admits David. “But complaining doesn’t make me feel any better, and it certainly doesn’t accomplish anything constructive. However, when I hear what my kids have learned in school or share how I accomplished a goal at work, I really do feel more optimistic and energized. And so do my family members.”
Homework comes before free time. No exceptions. Even if your kids have five hours before bed and only an hour of homework to complete, they should tackle their assignments before engaging in the “fun” stuff. This will teach them to prioritize responsibly because their best efforts will be going toward the tasks with lasting value.
“Yeah, your kids may complain that you’re being ‘unfair,’ and they might make a fairly cogent argument for playing now and working later—mine sure have!” laughs Andrea. “But I’ve learned to stand firm unless there are truly extraordinary circumstances afoot. This way, their concentration and energy levels aren’t compromised by tiredness—and they’re learning valuable habits that will serve them well in college and in the working world.”
Divvy up household chores, and insist that they’re done daily. It takes a lot to keep a house relatively clean, in good repair, and fairly tidy. And just because you’re the adult does not mean you should do it all! Make sure everyone contributes. Even small children can put their toys away. Not only will this keep the house clean, it will teach a healthy work ethic and demonstrate the value of sharing responsibilities.
“It’s your choice as to whether you want your family to be three or four or six or eight separate individuals living under one roof, or one cohesive team,” points out David. “Sure, teams have fun—but they also pitch in to share the load. Explain to your kids that everyone needs to help out so that the house is a comfortable, safe place to live—and let them see you scrubbing and straightening, too!”
Become an on-time (or early!) family. How often are you and your kids scrambling around, frantically trying to get to school or work or soccer on time? From now on, strive to make the answer “almost never.” Building a few extra minutes into your schedule isn’t hard—but it has immense value. Timeliness reflects well on anyone’s character and contributes greatly to peace of mind. Get behind a slow car? No matter! This erstwhile annoyance won’t set you off because you’ve got extra time.
“Knowing that you’re running late is a terrible feeling—plus, it tends to blow other snags and minor incidents out of proportion,” points out Andrea. “If your child spills juice in the car, for example, you won’t get nearly as upset if you have a few extra minutes to spare. More importantly, though, you’ll be considered more reliable and treated with more respect—inside and outside your family—if you keep your word when time is involved.
“One of our family’s tried-and-true, time-saving methods is simply putting ‘stuff’ in an established place once we’re done using it so that we know where it is when we’re running out the door,” she adds. “This includes keys, sunglasses, backpacks, library books, and coats”
Make one day a week a “no electronics” day. Yes, you read that right. The Reisers really are suggesting that you ban all types of electronic entertainment for one day a week. On this day, no one can watch TV, play video games, or text their friends. No one can zone out in front of the computer (yes, this means parents, too!).
“When you pull the plug, your family will be forced to interact with each other or find other productive things to do,” David explains. “Believe it or not, you’ve all got important stories to share with one another, games to play together, and projects to complete as a team. No, electronics aren’t bad (far from it!), but they do have a tendency to be seen as ‘essentials’ when they truly aren’t.
Choose a “cause” to support as a family. While America seems to be filled with an increasing number of selfish, entitled children (and adults!), your family doesn’t have to swell those numbers. One of the biggest antidotes to self-centeredness, say the Reisers, is giving back—plus, donating time and money to those who need it fosters perspective, counteracts the “gimmies,” and establishes a meaningful connection with the human race as a whole.
“Some of the most meaningful, lasting pleasure our family has experienced has come from lending a helping hand where it’s needed,” Andrea says. “And believe me, giving back and serving others don’t have to be hard. Your family could take part in a fundraising walk or take holiday gifts to a nursing home, or volunteer at an animal shelter once a week. The rule is that everyone must contribute. This teaches gratitude and selflessness.”
Make sure that politeness is paramount. These days, courtesy isn’t so common anymore. Explain to your kids the importance of using respectful language like “yes, ma’am,” “no, sir,” “please,” and “thank you,” and also teach them basic politeness tenets like looking others in the eye and extending a hand to shake. Model these behaviors yourself in public and at home, and praise your kids when you see them following your lead.
“More than once, I’ve had store clerks, teachers, and acquaintances of all sorts tell me how unusual it is that my kids use good manners and treat others politely,” David shares. “And to me, that’s bittersweet. I’m proud of my boys, but I’m also sad that polite behavior seems to be the exception rather than the norm. Treating others with dignity and respect doesn’t cost anything—and its rewards are manifold.”
Teach your kids to disagree agreeably (and do it yourself, too). Getting into disagreements from time to time is part of life—but outright fights don’t have to be. Model the art of healthy conflict to your kids—at home and in public. For example, hear your spouse out when you disagree and reply without raising your voice. Strive for direct communication instead of passive-aggressive manipulation. These communication strategies will foster mutual respect and help create authentic relationships—inside and outside of your home.
“Nobody’s perfect—we all ‘lose it’ from time to time,” clarifies Andrea. “However, David and I firmly believe that there’s very little that needs to be said that can’t be conveyed without raised voices and acrimonious words. When you learn to disagree agreeably, you greatly increase the odds for a better understanding of the situation and for a satisfactory resolution. And in all interactions—disagreements or not—listen with the intent to understand rather than the intent to respond. There’s a big difference!”
Place a premium on respect. Respect isn’t something you can choose to show when you feel like it—it’s an attitude you either have or you don’t. Don’t allow bad language or name-calling under any circumstances, and teach your kids to be polite and deferential to all established authority figures—regardless of whether they agree with what they’re being told to do or not.
“For example, if your daughter disagrees with a grade she received on a paper, encourage her to make an appointment with the teacher to have a constructive dialogue about the reason for the grade,” suggests David. “Coach her to raise her points calmly, politely, and respectfully, and insist that she, in turn, listen respectfully to the teacher’s explanation.
“Furthermore, respect isn’t something that only kids should show,” David adds. “It’s a mark of maturity to conduct your own affairs respectfully, too. Always remember that your kids are watching your every move—and listening to your every word—and that their behavior will reflect what they notice. So if you’re pulled over for speeding, for example, admit your mistake gracefully instead of arguing with the cop.”
When big decisions or issues loom, hold family meetings to get everyone’s input. Obviously, Mom’s and Dad’s opinions carry the most weight in a majority of situations, but as long as the issue or decision at hand is age-appropriate, it’s important for everyone’s opinion to be heard and considered. This sort of consideration and transparency will foster respect all around.
“Again, this goes back to facing life as a team,” explains Andrea. “Some big decisions are full of hope and excitement; for example, our family decided to move to a completely new state and town because the new location offered educational, cultural, social, and professional opportunities we’d been dreaming of. Other major issues—like dealing with a serious illness in the family—are decidedly less comfortable to discuss, but it’s equally important to involve everyone.
“No matter its nature, though, you’ll find that all family members will be more fully on board and less likely to be resentful if they had a say in the plan that was made,” she adds.
Make saving a family affair. There’s no doubt about it—raising a family and running a household are expensive! While it’s true that everyone can’t contribute equally, it’s a wise idea for everyone to contribute something—especially toward non-essential but much-anticipated objects and experiences. Involving your kids will teach them more about saving, prioritizing, and the value of a dollar than words ever could!
“For big family expenses like vacations, a new PC, a dog, or a pool, get everyone in on the financial prep,” suggests David. “Resolve not to pay with credit, and explain that since everyone will be benefiting, everyone should contribute—even if it’s only $1 a week. Benefits include teaching how to save and budget responsibly. Plus, everyone will really value the end result.”
Insist that everyone set goals and report on them regularly. Without goals, most of us would merely drift through life, making the best of whatever came our ways. Sometimes this strategy works—but most of the time, it’s a recipe for disappointment and regret. Teach your kids early on that setting realistic goals is a great way to stay on track and to get to where they want to be—especially when folks who care about them are there to help them along!
“Setting goals is a great way to get kids (and you, too!) thinking about what they really want, and to drive home lessons about perseverance, self-discipline, and patience,” Andrea asserts. “On a weekly basis, have everyone in the family share what positive things they’re working toward. Then, offer encouragement, progress-checks, and yes, reality-checks, daily. This serves as a good reminder that family should be the strongest and most reliable support system.”
Promise that everyone (yes, you too!) will face the music when rules are broken. “Do as I say, not as I do” is no way to teach your kids lasting values. When you or your spouse make mistakes, admit it! You don’t have to ground yourselves, but you should issue apologies where necessary and do what you can to rectify things.
“To some extent, you can ensure that your kids behave the way you want them to,” David explains. “After all, you’re the one supporting them, setting limits and expectations, rewarding them, and punishing them. However, your own behavior in relation to what you expect from your kids will often determine whether or not the values you teach stick with them or are abandoned after they leave home.”
“Yes, your family is a team to which everyone contributes, and all members should be mutually encouraging, transparent, and loving—but don’t lose sight of who’s ultimately in charge,” reflects Andrea. “Remember that your number one role is not to be your kids’ best friend. It’s to raise productive, responsible, accountable human beings—and to do that, you’ve got to set boundaries and exercise your authority. Period.”
“And beyond that,” David concludes, “you’ve also got to model the behavior you want your kids to exhibit. If they see you handling conflict in a way that’s not disruptive, being respectful to a waitress, or saving money responsibly, that’s what they’ll do, too. It’s true: When values are at the center of your family’s interactions and priorities, many of your most daunting problems will sort themselves out.”
Courtesy of David and Andrea Reiser, authors of Letters From Home: A Wake-up Call for Success & Wealth (100 percent of royalties and other income from book are donated to Share Our Strength, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and FORCE).