A family is a group of people who interact in some fashion that is comfortable for the group. The sense of being comfortable may not really be comfortable; however, it is normal. Some families interact in a fashion that is pleasing, others that is upsetting. Whether it is pleasing; or upsetting, that is the level of family interaction that is being encouraged, and that is what the family legacy becomes.
When leaders of families are asked what it is they do to create this sense of a family legacy, they will often give the "deer-in-the-headlights" look like "What are you talking about?" The fact is, so few of us recognize that the day-to-day interaction we have with our family is creating the family legacy, an enduring pattern of family interaction, for better or worse. What you do with your family today, your partner, your children, will make all the difference, but you will likely be doing that very thing with a family member today because of what you learned about families as a child.
You went to Family College as a child. You attended this Family College every day for eighteen years, whether you resided at the home of your biological parents or in some other home, adopted home, group home, or juvenile hall. The way you grew up taught you to understand THIS is what a family is like. Being exposed to that sense of a family for eighteen years, it will be automatic for us all at some point in our adult life to put what we learned into everyday practice, thus the family legacy. We do what we practiced to do, observing people everyday for eighteen years as they taught us how to respond to upcoming holidays, bills in the mail, auto accidents, relatives coming to visit, marital difficulties and birthdays. We watched how our parents, our adoptive parents, or foster caregivers responded to one another and the children. Seeing is observing, observing leads to learning, and learning leads to doing. How many of us have been stopped dead in our tracks as parents, immediately recognizing that we were, just moments ago, acting like we said we never would act, just like our parents did, just like they taught us?
The family legacy is not something that we necessarily are aware of day to day with our family. It has actually been programmed into us from the very first day of our life. This is what a family is; this is what a family does. This is how a father acts, and this is how a mother acts. Why else do we all find ourselves later on adopting with very little notice the very same tactics, beliefs, and coping skills that our parents employed? It is as if it was embedded in our brains to emerge later in life when we view ourselves as being like our parents. Your brain says: All right, you seem to be the same size now as your parents, you may begin acting like them. Yet, this message is subliminal, not conscious, much as your breathing is. We really pay very little attention to either, yet perhaps we should. The question that comes up then is: how much of a robot do you wish to be? Do you blindly begin and end each day as you were taught, for better or worse? Is it a good effort and are people in the family happy, or does your effort produce distress and discomfort among all?
I have spoken with family members who excitedly report the list of activities in which their family participates; annually attendance at the Renaissance Faire, traveling abroad, camping, sports, birthday parties, dinner parties, and holidays. Other family members report doing very little of that sort of activity, but profess that their days go on one by one, each bringing the same sort of trepidation that the one just passing brought. One young person reported that whole days seemed ruined from the start, because they all knew the father would be coming home in the late afternoon, grumpy, and begin drinking, and everyone would be expected to keep their distance. Ah, the family legacy enacted.
What is your family legacy and just how is it coming to life in your family? What were you taught to do, is it the best for you and your family, or could you do better? Could you spend more time with your children, doing what they are interested in, rather than making sure they are on the best softball team in the area? Could you do more for your spouse, being more attentive and caring, with more outright displays of affection toward one another?
Changing anything like this could be difficult, but it is also very much worth it. Perhaps you could take a long, hard look at your family legacy: What were you taught, what are you doing with that teaching, and to whom are you doing it? You can change, but it takes effort and the willingness to honestly observe your behavior. Scrooge did it, remember? Overnight with all those dreams, he realized that his behavior was atrocious; but it was just what he had been taught by his father, which was to ignore people and hurt their feelings. Although he was fictional, perhaps we can learn from Dickens that change is possible, if we are willing to clearly and honestly look at what we are doing to our family. Wait too long and it may be too late. Take responsibility for your family and create your own positive family legacy. Your family is waiting for you to start.