When I was a kid, there were two kinds of families in my neighborhood, the fun, welcoming, kind who never knew how many people were going to be at the dinner table, and the private kind who rarely invited friends over and bit their tongues when asked personal questions. I considered my own family to be on the former ilk. Back then, I thought this could only be good. At various times in my development, the motley crew at our 5:30 dinner table might include a pregnant teenager on billet from our church, some cousin’s college aged kid who was doing a semester at our house, and an assortment of peer friends. And there were few secrets in that dinner table conversation. All states of the human condition were ripe material for conversational comedy.
Today, family therapists look at a family’s tendency to be more closed or more open as a way to determine how healthy it is for the children in the nest. While there is a huge range of communication styles within a family and styles of inter-relating with the community, a couple of extremes can indicate a family dysfunction. One is too private and the other is too open to outside influences.
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When you think about too private, think of the heart wrenching family structure of Philip Gerrido as the extreme example. His crazy ideas and violent behavior ruled the nest that included a kid-napped and raped “wife.” The family had little input from outside relationships, not even at school because the children were home schooled. This is a rare, extreme example of a closed family system. Another, less obvious, closed family system might be a family who follows a religion that is not represented in the community. Because some of the community’s lifestyle choices might be at odds with their religious beliefs, this family tends to limit social contact and exposure to media. Finally, an even more subtle example might be a family who is just very private. They send overt or silent messages to the children that family matters are not to be discussed outside of the home. They also are reluctant to have too many guests in their home.
There’s another extreme. That’s the family with so many people and ideas filtering through the front door that the family has no compass at all. These families often lack a family code, a set of values to return to when the winds of peer pressure blow too strong. Too many ideas and too much information, when not tempered with sound social structure and family emotional guidance, can make children feel frightened, and also leave them confused when they begin to build their own identity as a young adult.
The key is to find the right balance of open and closed. Having a tight-knit family structure that provides privacy and protection from influences that do not underscore family values is not necessarily dangerous for kids. But having a family system that prohibits exploration of alternative thought and choices, leaves a child unprepared when she/he eventually leaves the nest. Teaching children family values is crucial to their development. I call it, “Instilling The Hopi Way.” But preventing a child from interacting, exploring, and questioning the big, wide, world of ideas outside the front door, handicaps them when they begin the process of becoming individuals.
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