Families That Work

Cutting Edge Magazine
April 1993
Tom Terry

Fourteen-year-old Taylor and 16-year-old Lorissa sat quietly as they listened to their parents, Johnathan and Lucia Wagen, explain the strategy they have used to build successful relationships at home. Daniel and his mother, Dolores Fulcher, seem to agree on just about everything as they discuss what has made their family so close.

What makes a successful family? Two parents? Two incomes? Respect? With the families interviewed by Cutting Edge there seem to be a few common points that help build a foundation that will last for years.

Starting Young

Good communication doesn’t happen between parents and kids overnight. It takes years of building upon the right foundation to keep a family unit together. Richard Encinas, family counselor with Calvary Chapel of Albuquerque, makes the point that balanced family relationships are the result of an “educational” experience. “A lot of parents make the assumption that all they have to do is have the children live in the same house with them, and they will pick up their values. That’s a mistake. Parents have to become students of their children. Parents have to interact with their kids regularly and know them. Parents should realize that their child is a unique individual with his own personality and wishes.”

The Wagen family seems to reflect that understanding. While Johnathan answers questions about their home life, the family listens closely. You get the definite impression he is a firm leader in his home, but he didn’t become so without listening to his family’s needs. “Our kids have a definite respect for us. We also respect them as individuals, I think I’m that way because my own parents always treated me as a little more ‘adult’ than I really was. “

When asked how far that respect goes when things don’t go their way, Lorissa answers, “We try to think things out; why [our parents] make the kind of decisions they do.” 

Where do the lines of authority and freedom cross between parents and teenagers? Families sometimes experience conflict when the wishes of a child are the opposite of  parents. Who wins? Who has the final say? 

Eighteen-year-old Daniel Fulcher is preparing to leave home for the first time. Contemplating the idea of being responsible for “everything” is a bit sobering. His parents have tried hard to teach Daniel the responsibilities that go with adulthood. “It is very hard for me to think of Dan running his own life,” admits his mother Dolores, “but he’s responsible. When he was in his mid-teens and began working, he started paying for a few things to learn financial responsibility. As he grew, we split responsibilities. He would pay for part of his clothes, and we would pay for part.”

“That helped me,” Daniel is quick to reply. 

Johnathan Wagen tries to strike a fine balance between restrictions and responsibility. “We let the kids make decisions on their own. They have to learn how to handle responsibility, and I’d rather have them make a mistake [while they’re still home] than later.”

The proof of successful parenting is found in a child’s actions when mom and dad aren’t looking. When it’s time to make tough decisions Lorissa and Taylor have a guide. “We want to do things we know [our parents] would like, and avoid what they don’t like,” says Taylor, “we know what they expect from us.” Counselor Richard Encinas says that’s the way things should work.

“If kids are pre-teens, or teens, and parents have only provided ‘things,’ and education, food, shelter and the like, but the parents haven’t established a relationship, then there are no boundaries. Freedom is found in solid boundaries, and boundaries are tied to privileges. If a child is young, his privileges should be narrow since he needs boundaries along the lines of his capabilities. As he gets older, those privileges increase as he demonstrates responsibility. The more responsibility, the fewer the boundaries and the growth of personal freedoms. Parents who haven’t given boundaries—and give them later—give them when the child hasn’t learned responsibility, and they feel constrained by the new restrictions.”

Restrictions are important, but too many can cause resentment. Counselor Encinas and Johnathan Wagen both believe excessive restrictions lead to “parents exasperating their children.” The Bible warns against parents being too heavy-handed with their kids, and that principle has guided the Wagen’s.

Human Parents

Another area often frustrating to kids can be a parent’s lack of vulnerability. Parents are human too, and make mistakes. The key to keeping a child’s respect is the willingness of a parent to make amends with a child if the parent has wronged them in some way. Lorissa and Taylor Wagen fidget when talking about their parents having to apologize. It’s unusual to think that mom and dad, the ones kids look to for leadership and stability in the home could be “wrong”—and that they would own up to it. Johnathan and Lucia have had to ask for their children’s forgiveness at times, and they say that’s only strengthened their relationship. Children realize that when a parent says “I’m sorry” for something, they’re acknowledging they are important, and that their opinions matter.

According to Richard Encinas, one of the biggest mistakes both parents and kids make is to refuse admitting a wrong. “They don’t consider each other’s perspective.” When the relationship deteriorates, both parties then have some confessing to do, but the parents must lead in taking the blame. “If parents don’t admit it, nothing will happen. The same is true with the kids. After they admit their mistakes, they should ask for forgiveness and work on never making the same mistake again.

Turning a Family Around

Dolores Fulcher relates what her family was like only a few years ago. “Jim and I were ready to get a divorce. We had even separated all the belongings between us when we decided to go to the Family Life Seminar. It was at the seminar that I learned Jim wasn’t my enemy, and he learned that I wasn’t his.”

“I used to be domineering and made a lot of the decisions. But now I understand that my husband is the final authority. Learning the biblical roles for the family really turned us around. There’s no doubt that the biblical view of the family saved our family.”

According to Richard Encinas, this understanding is crucial for successful relationships. “Both parties (husband and wife) must agree on their biblical roles. The husband and wife must agree on their values and child raising.”

Family Types

Counselor Encinas gives tips to those he helps work through family problems. His first priority is to ascertain what kind of family he is dealing with, and to teach each person the biblical family role. “The democratic family, the idea that each member of the family has equal decision-making authority, has created problems. It seems like a good idea to let children have [an equal] voice. The Judeo-Christian idea, however, is theocratic. God gives parents the responsibility to superintend. That idea is being done away with today. In the democratic family children become peers with the parents. Who then is the leader? Who makes the final decisions? This actually breaks down communication. In the theocratic family, the roles are understood. If mom and dad are in tune to what God wants ,then the decision making will be [thoughtful] and not bad.”

“Parents who try to become a child’s ‘friend’ can become permissive parents—friends without any role or authority.”

Daniel Fulcher admits that he’s beginning to view his parents more as “equals” as he grows older, but he hasn’t forgotten that his parents still carry a weight of authority he does not.

“I still rely on my parents for advice. And I know that when I move out I’ll be calling them a lot—just like my brothers and sisters do.” (Daniel is the youngest of five children.)

At a first reading, these families may seem “perfect,” Yet, there seems to be no such thing as a perfect family. The Wagen’s and Fulcher’s are very different people. They have their share of problems, and even family struggles—but they have made a commitment to one another more important than those differences. Dolores Fulcher says, “Our kids know that no matter what they may do, no matter what, we won’t love them any less. That’s important.”

If families struggling with internal conflicts want to repair the damage and rebuild their lives, the Wagen’s and Fulcher’s have some advice. Johnathan Wagen says that if families want to rebuild their relationships. the first step they must take is to “come to an agreement to serve the Lord first.” Lucia remarks that even if one spouse won’t serve God, the other should “have faith that God will work things out.” Lucia’s words sound simplistic, but they ring true in her own life. It was Lucia who first became a Christian, waiting for Johnathan to follow suit. Her faith and patience paid off.

Dolores Fulcher reflects Lucia’s faith, “Families may be in a mess, but they should know that God will come through for them.” Daniel Fulcher suggests, “Be real with your parents, be honest, and pray for them.” The Wagon kids agree. Following all the biblical examples for a good marriage and family won’t guarantee success; but it will give any family a better shot at success. The Wagen’s and Fulcher’s have applied the biblical principles of the family to their own, and have proven those principles work when all else fails.