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Taking the Pulse of the Y2K Family

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The 20th century has spawned many different types of families. How do you know whether yours is “healthy”?

By Ellen Frankenberg

At the end of the fiscal year, you know where you stand. Clear numbers benchmark your company’s success or failure in meeting its targets. Over time, a series of annual figures become graphs that tell you where you’ve been, and where you need to go. But when you look at the family dimension of your family business, there are no such benchmarks. Families cannot be measured by numbers. There’s no black-and-white certainty that your family is “healthy.”

Talk shows and tabloids have left most of us too well schooled in the addictions, abuse, and violence of clearly dysfunctional families. We recognize them when we come across them at the country club or the church picnic. It’s those families in the middle, yours and mine, with irritating but nonviolent problems, that raise questions in the middle of a sleepless night. How did we manage to raise a son who says he’s “too smart to work?” Why do our two daughters-in-law fight with each other at every family brunch?

How do you know whether or not your family is healthy? When there are arguments in some families and cultures, the anger is loud and swift and then life goes on. In other families any decibel level beyond “rational” leads to days of stony silence. When is the expression of anger healthy? When does irritating behavior cross a line and become an indicator of unhealthy pressure building up within?

Family cycles

There is no perfect emotional climate of a healthy family. So many cultural and ethnic variations exist that we can only look out for extreme changes in our own family’s “normal” behavior: Is this angry outburst more severe than anything we’ve seen before? Has criticism reached the point where it prevents individuals from doing their jobs? Have our own best efforts to solve a persistent problem failed? Is it time to call in professional help?

Like other living organisms, families come in many shapes and sizes, and there is no one right way to organize them. They span generations and form a unique “structure” or culture through growing constellations of individuals. Because our personal experience of family has become “normal” for us, we may actually expect other families to act like ours. Like snowflakes, though, no two families are really alike.

Does your family represent the traditional structure of one mother and one father raising their biological children all the way into adulthood? Have you been able to re-structure your family following a divorce? Does your nuclear family tend to feel isolated, or are there extended family members who pitch in during times of trouble?

The late 20th century has spawned lots of new ways to structure a family: single- parent families, remarried families, surrogate families, and so on. At least we have dropped the term “broken family.” Some of us have even learned, perhaps the hard way, that there is no such thing as a “blended family,” because the experience is never smooth. Bi-nuclear says it better.

The good news is that each of these new family structures can become healthy, even after a major loss through death or divorce or desertion. Single parents, for instance, can best develop a healthy family when they have a “co-parent,” some other supportive adult—grandparent, friend, or another single parent—who knows them and their children well, and backs them up when they need help. Stepfamilies do best when the first or biological parent consistently remains the limit-setting parent, and the new parent focuses on nurturing the children, rather than trying to discipline them.

Adaptive as many Y2K families may be, the pace of change keeps accelerating. The materials from which the family structure is built keep evolving, too. Cultural, ethnic, economic, religious, social, educational, physiological, and geographical experience is constantly changing for each individual. Consequently, the chemistry of all the individuals combined into a particular family is re-mixed day by day.

A snapshot taken at the family reunion last summer can never be repeated. Someone will have married, or divorced, or died; someone has been born, or adopted, or has moved to Australia; others have gained inches, or beards, or pounds, or stature.

Even the conventional nuclear family, as family therapist Monica McGoldrick has taught us, has its cycles. What is “healthy” behavior for a family at one stage of its life—everyone gathered together around the supper table most evenings—may be dysfunctional at another phase of the cycle, for instance, when the “children” hit 30. Like other living organisms, healthy nuclear families grow and change so much that they eventually die, while their descendants live on.

Former children, former parents

For owners of family firms, understanding the life cycle of the family has special significance. In our complex, competitive culture, the prolonged dependence of our children now ends at about 25; before that, many parents still co-sign car loans and offer shelter during law school or after the first broken engagement. All through adolescence, our sons and daughters assert lots of other kinds of independence, but they gain true economic indepen dence only later. For grown children work ing in the family firm, it may never come at all. Dad’s name is still on every paycheck.

Precisely because they will remain economically dependent on their family’s resources longer than their peers, it is important that children of a healthy business-owning fam ily achieve some kind of economic adulthood. One option is to demonstrate success at a job with another company before being hired by the family firm; another is to clearly link paychecks not only to standards in the industry, but also to success or failure in accomplishing defined, measurable, individual goals. It’s not an allowance from Dad; it’s good pay for good work.

Whenever your sons or daughters gain their own variety of economic independence, sometime between 18 and 25, you become “former parents” because your sons and daughters are “former children.” This means that unsolicited personal advice ends, and the lip-biting begins, because they are now responsible for their own adult lives, and your family’s life cycle has entered a new phase. If you participate in your son’s annual review because you are CEO, you focus on challenging him to improve his performance relative to his own goals, as you would any other promising employee.

Does it work?

All these issues come down to one. In order to determine whether your family is healthy, the first question is an entrepreneur’s question: “Is it working?” Would each member of your family say it’s working for him or her? “Working” means that each member has received enough basic support (according to their age and situation) to meet their physical, emotional, spiritual, economic, and intellectual needs. It also means that each member can also give back something healthy—a joke, a hug, a good day’s work—to everyone else in the family, even mom and dad.

The emphasis here is on each member of your family saying, “It’s working.” Every family will fail in some aspect of its vast responsibilities, but if it’s working, each member can say, in Bruno Bettelheim’s phrase, that this is a “good enough” family to live in. If even one member persistently says there is too much anger and not enough love to go around, then that family is an unhealthy place, for that individual has perhaps become the scapegoat for all the others. The clearest indicator of family health does not come from pastors, or psychologists, or pediatricians. It is each member deciding for himself or herself that this family is working, that it’s “good enough for me.”

If you clearly want to develop some kind of benchmark for your family, why not ask each member to help you? Invite them to an “annual meeting” to review the health of your family. Together you can decide what is working or not working for each individual member. If you believe it would be helpful, a family psychologist or other family professional can act as facilitator. But at this consultation, the family members themselves are the decision-makers.


Ellen Frankenberg, is a Cincinnati-based psychologist who works with families in business. Over the past 10 years she has developed a practical process to guide healthy decision-making about family participation in a business.



Assessing what’s ‘good enough’

The following list of statements can give you clues to your family’s emotional health. Use the list to prompt responses from family members and stimulate discussion. There are no right answers or winning scores. But if after the discussion, each member affirms that, for him or her, the family “good enough,” it probably is. —E.F.

The emotional climate in our family

1. Each member of our family can communicate directly with each other member about a problem, by describing what happened and how they feel about it.

2. Problems that trigger strong emotion are soon dealt with directly, without allowing geographic separation or destructive behavior to block their resolution.

3. Each family member knows that he/she is loved and can be forgiven, if they make up for doing something wrong.

4. Positive statements from one family member to another are more frequent than negative statements.

5. Members know that they are responsible for their own behavior; they cannot change another family member’s behavior except by changing their own.

6. Our family can have fun together, and each member can laugh at himself/herself more often than at someone else.

The structure of our family

7. According to the stage of our family’s life cycle, members can be both independent and dependent to an appropriate degree.

8. Married couples in our family can set aside private time for each other without work or children interfering.

9. Family members, whether children or adults, have some opportunity to develop their talents, pursue their goals, and contribute to others around them.

10. Clear boundaries separate what should be kept between a married couple, what is the domain of the nuclear family, what belongs to the extended family, and what is appropriate for business associates.

11. All family members are shown respect, whatever their generation or gender, by listening to their concerns in a timely manner.

12. Family members employed in the business are evaluated on the basis of their own accomplishments, not just their position in the family.
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