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The only place to begin our discussion of building better families is with an examination of purpose. What is the purpose of a family? The answer to this question can only be drawn from a vision of a human person. People do not exist for families; families exist for people. What, essentially, is a person’s purpose? If you have read any of my earlier works you know that I have repeatedly proposed that our essential purpose is to become the-best-version-of-ourselves. You are here to become all you were created to be. You are not here exclusively to do something or accomplish certain tasks, but to be and become someone. All the doing that fills our lives—relationships, school, work, politics, community involvement, recreation—is designed simply to provide opportunities for us to become the-best-version-of-ourselves. Could you have any better dream for your children, your spouse, or your parents than for them to truly become and fully celebrate the-best-version-of-themselves? It is the ultimate dream for those we love.
Our vision for family springs from this vision for a person. So we ask the question again: What is the purpose of a family? The purpose of a family is to help one another become the-best-version-of-ourselves and in the process contribute to the greater good of society and humanity. The family is the building block of all great societies. Sadly, we don’t hear much about the building of great societies anymore, and that may be because we mistakenly believe we already have them. So, though it should be unnecessary to ask the question, for the sake of clarity: Why is it important to build and sustain great societies? Because great societies give rise to great men and women who celebrate their best selves and in turn raise humanity to new levels. A family (or a culture or a society, for that matter) is not an end in itself, but exists at the service of a greater purpose. Families, cultures, and societies are true to themselves when they help their members become better-versions-of-themselves.
On paper this may all make sense, but you and I know how difficult it is to celebrate and defend our best self in the moments of everyday living, even before we take into account the influence of our environments.
People and families live in the midst of societies and cultures. In a utopian world, everything about a culture would be aimed toward helping each member of society become the-best-version-of-himself or -herself. In our very human world, however, we know this is not so. It is therefore important to examine the motives of the culture in which we live.
What is the purpose of culture? In general, the role of culture is to offer a broadening experience for the people of a society. But even this broadening should serve some greater overall purpose. Broadening simply for the sake of broadening is dangerous, irresponsible, and reckless. In its truest expression, culture would expose people to a broadening set of ideas and experiences that would be aimed at inspiring and assisting each member of that society to become a-better-version-of-themselves. Every aspect of the human experience should be seen with our essential purpose in mind. Culture is therefore only valuable to the extent that it helps the members of a society celebrate their best selves.
It is needless to say, and blatantly obvious, that our modern culture fails to deliver in this regard in too many ways to list. At every turn we are assaulted by ideas and experiences that not only do not assist us in our quest to become the-best-version-of-ourselves, but even worse, often introduce obstacles that significantly prevent us from embracing our best selves and following our destinies. Music, movies, television, magazines, theater, a visit to the mall, concerts . . . it has become increasingly rare that we emerge from any of these inspired to become a-better-version-of-ourselves.
So, what exactly is our culture trying to achieve? This is where we stumble upon the alarming truth. The vision of our culture is a nonvision. The agenda of our culture is a non-agenda. Our culture is not so much the presence of something as it is the absence of something. The stark reality is that our culture does not have a vision for the human person.
If that sounds a little confusing, imagine how confusing the actual experience of such a culture is for the average teenager.
We inevitably arrive at this haunting question: If there is no grand vision or agenda for our culture, what is driving it? You know the answer. Think for a moment. What is driving the modern popular culture in which our society is immersed? The answer: advertising and consumption. The goal of much of what drives our culture today seems to be nothing more than to create and encourage consumption. Last year’s clothes, though there is nothing wrong with them and they remain as perfectly useful as they were last year, are now magically no good, even inadequate, because they are out of fashion. The same is true of cars, cell phones, furniture, electronics, and hundreds of other items in dozens of other categories.
The practical reality is that the modern culture does not elevate a person; it consumes a person. The purpose of the family and the nonpurpose of the present culture are therefore directly opposed to each other. This places the family right at the heart of a cultural war.
Anyone interested in becoming the-best-version-of-himself or -herself has an uphill battle in today’s culture. It is true that this desire to become all we are capable of being would be difficult even in a culture that attempted to help people in this quest. The internal obstacles—laziness, procrastination, addiction—make it difficult enough as we strive to fulfill our destiny. A culture that opposes our quest adds a whole different set of challenges.
The greatest problem is not that the culture is what it is, but rather that we do not see it for what it is. That the culture opposes our efforts to become our best selves is a problem, but the greater problem is that we do not recognize or actively acknowledge that the culture opposes our essential purpose.
The consequence of these opposing purposes is that whether you are aware of it or not, if you are trying to achieve any of the following, you are in the middle of a cultural war:
Our present culture does not lend itself to building better families, it promotes the destruction of families. This makes sense, if consumption is at the heart of our culture’s nonvision, because a broken family needs two of everything—two houses, two washing machines, two lawn mowers, two kitchen tables, and so on. If to create and perpetually increase consumption was your goal, you would want every family in the world to be broken apart as much as possible.
Similarly, our culture does not lend itself to raising amazing children. When was the last time you saw a really well-adjusted, selfless, thoughtful child or teenager at the center of a popular television show? What place does our modern culture have for the compassion and virtue of a young person like Anne Frank?
If one of your goals was to have a really dynamic and wonderful marriage, and if you could choose between a variety of cultures, you certainly wouldn’t pick today’s. This culture’s ability to promote and sustain healthy marriages is now beyond a joke. In fact, what, if anything, does our culture do to promote dynamic and faithful marriage?
And finally, the big picture, in how many ways does our culture help you become the-best-version-of-yourself? Very few. Someone who seriously wants to grow in the midst of this culture is required to make a very concerted effort, to seek out the resources necessary to nurture such a journey, and to steel themselves against the never-ending onslaught of ideas and images that constantly present themselves and try to lure you away from your path. Why? No real reason, no real vision, no great agenda other than to sell you something (ideas or products). And again, we discover that consumption is not driven by the self-assured individual dedicated to being a well-rounded healthy contributing member of society. No, consumption is driven by the self-centered, self-interested, pleasure-seeking, insecure soul who needs the latest of everything in order to feel that he or she has any real worth. An emotionally healthy person consumes less than an emotionally unhealthy person. That’s why so much advertising does not make you feel good about yourself and the contribution you can make to society, but rather creates insecure and needy consumers who think that buying and having will deliver them to a place where they are at peace with themselves.
With every passing day, our culture caters more and more to the lowest common denominator. In doing so, the great center of society continues to be dragged to lower levels. The-least-possible-version-of-ourselves is where the culture is leading us. If you are the slightest bit interested in building a better family, raising amazing children, having a great marriage, and becoming the-best-version-of-yourself, it is time to recognize and daily affirm that the culture is not your friend. You are, in fact, in the middle of a very serious cultural war.
Still not convinced that our culture is in crisis? Here are some of the signs. There are more than 2.2 million people in America’s prisons and jails, another 4 million on probation, and almost another million on parole. It is estimated that 80 percent of these have substance dependencies. In 2005, there were 16,692 murders committed in the United States. During that same year, 93,934 rapes were reported, and the great majority of sexual assaults continue to go unreported. The annual incidence of domestic violence is greater than a million cases, and pregnant women have increasingly become the target of such attacks. In 2002, Americans reported over 159 million alcohol-impaired driving trips. More than one million drivers are arrested each year under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. Every day 8,000 teens become infected with a new sexually transmitted disease. More than 50 percent of fifteen-year-old girls have had oral sex. Every seven seconds a teenage girl becomes addicted to smoking. Sixty-five percent of sixteen-year-old males view pornography at least once every ten days. The suicide rate among young adults and teens has increased 5,000 percent over the last five decades. Depression has reached epidemic levels. College life is celebrated as four years of excessive drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, general recklessness, and disregard for others, to the point that if you do not participate you are looked upon as if there is something wrong with you.
Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College and author of more than twenty-five books, explained it in this way: “If you can’t see that our entire civilization is in crisis, then you are a wounded victim of the war. We are now engaged in the most serious war that the world has ever known. To win any war, the three most necessary things to know are (1) that you are at war, (2) who your enemy is, (3) what weapons or strategies can defeat that enemy. You cannot win a war (1) if you simply sow peace on a battlefield, (2) if you fight civil wars against your allies, or (3) if you use the wrong weapons.”
I would add that it is critically important to know what you are fighting for, what you are defending, why it is important to win, and what is at stake if you lose—and that it is also vital that you know who your allies are. Knowledge of these is what gives courage and resolve to our hearts in times of testing.
Not only does today’s culture present an opposing purpose, but it is a real force to be reckoned with. If we are serious about building better families, it would serve us well to recognize at the outset that a little tweaking here and there is probably not going to get the job done. It is also important to realize that no technique (including those I will share with you in chapters three and four of this book) sprinkled here and there, in and of itself, is enough to win this cultural war and build better families. What is needed is a strategy, a life-giving strategy, that can be applied over and over again to the moments of our everyday lives.
Are You Willing?
The most cursory and elementary examination of our culture along the lines of the hopes and dreams we have for our families quickly reveals that our current culture and any authentic vision of family are massively at odds with each other. But what are we willing to do about it?
Most parents say they would do whatever was necessary to help their child grow free and strong and succeed. But are you willing to be countercultural? This is the question it all hangs upon.
By being countercultural I mean being willing to step away from the culture whenever it does not help you and your family to become a-better-version-of-yourselves. People who are countercultural are often ridiculed. This can be difficult, but it can also be clarifying and can help both children and parents to develop character. And the truth is, if enough people choose a countercultural lifestyle, they will create a new culture. That is the only way a new culture will be born. If enough people stop going to movies that are filled with violence and foul language, the powers that be will start making more movies that support you in your quest to become your best self. This is true across all industries. The markets will go where there is demand.
It is abundantly clear what the fruits of our current culture are. We must decide if this is what we want for our children, our families, and ourselves. If we want a different result, then we must take a different approach. If we want a radically different result, and my experience has been that most parents do, then we need a radically different approach. And I assure you, this will require more courage and inner fortitude on the part of parents than it will from our children. It is hard to be a leader, and make no mistake, your role as a parent is a leadership role.
In my own life, whenever I set out to accomplish something, I look around to find out who has done it before and what has made them successful. When it comes to raising children, I don’t know anyone who has done a better job than my friends Mark and Liz in Louisville, Kentucky. They have two daughters, Katie and Lisa. Now just twenty-three and nineteen, they are mature, generous, thoughtful, fun-loving, and genuinely kind young women. I am confident you could put Katie and Lisa in a room with anyone—from heads of state to the homeless—and they would conduct themselves in a way that would impress, and quite possibly amaze. They are the most well-adjusted, contributing, intelligent, engaging young ladies I know.
Do they get on each other’s nerves from time to time? Sure. Are they strikingly similar at the core and yet incredibly unique in other ways? No question. Did Mark and Liz win the parenting lottery? Absolutely not.
Luck has nothing to do with the results their parenting has achieved. As I have observed them throughout our friendship of almost a decade now, there are a thousand things I see Mark and Liz doing on a regular basis that make them great parents. At the same time, I think their success can be summarized in two words: involved and interested. They are genuinely interested in their children’s journeys—their hopes and dreams, fears and failures, questions and needs. They also genuinely enjoy being involved in their daughters’ lives. It is not something they have to do; it is something they get to do. They see it as the privilege of a lifetime, not something to be squeezed into the schedule.
But Mark and Liz’s success as parents also springs from a myriad of personal habits. In the first place, they are both dedicated to continuous learning and to their own personal growth. They can make the most routine experience into an adventure. They are genuinely interested in other people, even if they have just met them. They live simply and well within their means. They are both avid readers. They are willing to make sacrifices for each other, for their children, and for their friends. Interestingly enough, these habits are for the most part countercultural.
I remember when it was time for Lisa to start driving. She practiced driving and passed her exam and was told her parents would give her $15,000 to buy her first car. At the time Mark was the CEO of a company with more than six billion dollars’ worth of annual revenue, and his own compensation was in the millions. He certainly could have afforded to buy his daughter any car she wanted. But Mark and Liz live in a modest home, they drive American cars, and have made a conscious decision to live the way they do. Mark and Lisa spent weeks talking about cars, looking through the papers at used cars, and finally Lisa decided upon a blue Oldsmobile SUV. Giving her a budget helped her understand that money is a finite commodity, and now that she has her car, she has to pay for gas with her own money from babysitting and her summer job.
It would have been easier for Mark and Liz to lease her a brand-new Jetta, bring it home, and be done with it. But how many lessons would Lisa have missed out on? Not only that, for the rest of her life Lisa will look back on the experience of buying her first car and have great memories of an experience with her parents.
By the time the average American child is six years old she will have spent more time watching television than she will spend speaking to her father in her entire life. This is certainly not true for Katie and Lisa, and not because they have not watched their fair share of television. But because both Mark and Liz have made the ultimate investment in their children—time. Young people yearn for time with their parents. Time to know and be known. Time to mess around, and enough time that the kidding around can create the ease necessary to talk about more serious things.
This is an example of successful parenting and a fine family. Are they perfect? Of course not, and they would be the first to tell you that. But there is great success here. As parents, as children, as spouses, as siblings, they are doing something right . . . and something worthy of our emulation. And if you look closely, I think you will discover that a great deal of that success is due to the fact that they were willing to be countercultural. Are you willing?
Purpose and Conflict
Purpose is at the heart of a countercultural family. The countercultural family clearly establishes what they are about, and it is a common unchanging purpose. In conversations they talk about becoming the-best-version-of-themselves. They celebrate this as their great common unchanging purpose, and this purpose brings stability and direction. It never changes. It is like the North Star that never moves and therefore is always true to those who seek guidance.
The greatest advantage this common unchanging purpose gives families is in the area of conflict.
Conflict is inevitable in relationships. This is especially true in families because you have different people, sometimes many people, of different ages and interests, all of whom are at different places in their journeys—all of which breeds inevitable conflict. Not because people are bad or wrong, but rather because people are people—unique and wonderfully different.
Often, in families, we spend a lot of time trying to avoid or calm conflict. This is usually a role parents play, but sometimes there is a child or grandparent who takes on the role of “peacemaker” within the family. Often our approach is peace at any price, which of course is no peace at all.
We are uncomfortable with conflict because in many cases we have been raised to believe that conflict is bad. When conflict is disrespectful and rude, arrogant and selfish, it is bad. But why? Not because it is conflict. It is bad because it is unhealthy, and it is unhealthy because it doesn’t help people grow and become better-versions-of-themselves. But conflict in and of itself is not bad. In fact, it can be a very powerful dynamic in relationships and families.
What we need is healthy conflict, and only one thing makes healthy conflict possible: common, unchanging purpose.
As a nation, America has this common, unchanging purpose. We find it set out in the Constitution. Certainly there have been amendments, but twenty-six Amendments in two hundred years is a phenomenal testament to the unchanging core that the framers of the Constitution set forth. The reason the Constitution (common, unchanging purpose) is so powerful is because it provides guidance and direction in times of uncertainty, transition, and disagreement. When America has an opportunity, we look to the Constitution to check that we are moving in the right direction. When America has a crisis, we once again look to the Constitution for insight about how to best handle the crisis. The Constitution allows America to handle every situation in a way that is true to herself. It is a powerful tool without which many other nations have suffered unimaginable trials.
As individuals we, too, need a common, unchanging purpose. We spoke of it earlier though we did not call it such. Your unchanging purpose is to become the-best-version-of-yourself. It will not change when you get a little older. It was not different when you were a little younger. Though you may not have always been aware of it, it was there, dwelling within you, waiting to be discovered and pursued. In every moment of the day, in each decision, all you have to do is ask yourself: Is what I am about to do or say going to help me become the-best-version-of-myself? This one question can be a tremendous guide.
In relationships, we also need a common, unchanging purpose. Otherwise, relationships come unglued. You cannot have two people running in different directions and expect to hold that relationship together. You can have very different and varied interests and careers, but at the core, if the relationship is to be dynamic, successful, and lasting, it requires a common purpose. Common interests are not enough, we need a common, unchanging purpose. And the common, unchanging purpose of every relationship is to help each other become the-best-version-of-ourselves. This is true in every relationship whether that relationship is between husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, brother and sister, parent and child, or between friends and colleagues. We are here to help one another become our best selves.
In a family, it is our role to help one another celebrate this common, unchanging purpose. It is not the parents’ responsibility solely; it is everyone’s responsibility. Even newborn babies play a role in helping others become the-best-version-of-themselves. They do it by causing people to slow down and marvel at life.
The common, unchanging purpose of every family, and each member of a family, is to help one another become the-best-version-of-themselves.
Once this is established, healthy conflict is possible. The reason why is because now, when you have an argument, rather than arguing against one another, you can argue for something. You can say to me, “Matthew, I think we should do this because it will help us become the-best-version-of-ourselves.” and I can say, “I think it will stop us from becoming the-best-version-of-ourselves, and here’s why.” We are now arguing for something—our common, unchanging purpose—rather than arguing against each other. Now our argument becomes a quest for what is best for us rather than a battle of the egos.
Place this common, unchanging purpose at the center of your family. If you have teenagers you will need to get their buy-in. If they won’t commit to it, you will not be able to create the dynamic. Because unless people commit to it, when there is a disagreement you will each be arguing with different purposes in mind. Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler were not going to sit down and work out their differences, because they had opposing purposes.
If your children are very young you are at a great advantage, because you can introduce this concept to your family’s daily culture and they will pick it up and celebrate it. Not because you are brainwashing them with it, but because they have not been affected by the nonvision and purposelessness of the culture. This dream to become the-best-version-of-ourselves is within us all. As parents and siblings we simply have to encourage it in one another and draw it out.
This is easily understood with a simple example. Say a child, perhaps four or five years old, comes to you and asks, “Can I do . . . this?” or “Can I have . . . that?” Ask that child in response, “Is that going to help you become the-best-version-of-yourself?” If the child is old enough to understand the concept, he knows instantly. The age may vary, but once a child understands the concept, he or she will know what things do and what things don’t help them toward that purpose. The concept does not need explanation because we all hold within us a vision of the-best-version-of-ourselves.
As they get older, this common, unchanging purpose provides the reason. When they ask why they can’t do certain things or why they shouldn’t act in certain ways or go to certain places, the answer is not “Because I said so!” But rather “Because it won’t help you become a-better-version-of-yourself!”
Certainly, as parents, it is important to articulate this concept. At different times you need to explain that you see your role as helping them become the-best-version-of-themselves. Explain that you don’t see parenting as a popularity contest, but as a role you take seriously. When you write them birthday cards reaffirm this message. In camp letters, graduation letters, relate all things to this great purpose. It is not enough for people to hear something once or twice. The messaging of the culture is constant and repetitive almost to the point of tedium, but it works. If your messaging is going to compete it needs to be concise and constant. Is that going to help you become the-best-version-of-yourself? Are you helping your friends become the-best-version-of-themselves? Are they helping you? What can I do as a parent to help you become the-best-version-of-yourself? Let’s go work out together, it will help us become better-versions-of-ourselves. Let’s not go to the drive-through, we’ll go home and I’ll make some turkey sandwiches, it’ll help us become the-best-version-of-ourselves.
Will you get all sorts of comments from them about how they have heard it before and they are sick of hearing it? You bet you will. But that is affirmation that they are hearing the message. The repetition will put the concept in their mind, and before too long, at each juncture in their day, they will start asking themselves the question.
Could you have a better dream for a child than to want him or her to become the-best-version-of-himself or -herself? It’s the ultimate dream. If they are only going to hear one message from you in their entire life, make it this one. It will lead them to everything that is good, true, and noble.
And if you really want this message to sink deep into the hearts and minds of your children, make yourself vulnerable and allow them to hold you accountable. When did you last ask your children for advice or feedback? Ask them how they think you could become a-better-version-of-yourself?
I have heard hundreds of stories from parents who have used this message with their children and have had their children turn it back on them. There is no point telling them they shouldn’t use foul language if you use it. If you encourage your children to eat foods that are healthy and not to watch too much television, but plant yourself in your La-Z-Boy recliner on a Sunday afternoon with a six-pack of beer and a 300-ounce bag of potato chips to watch football . . . you can expect some feedback about that. Your children will hold you rigorously accountable. Don’t be surprised by it. Encourage it. Embrace it. Allow them to hold you accountable. Give them permission to hold you accountable. Thank them for helping you. However you respond to their challenge is how they will respond when you challenge them.
Everyone in a family plays a role in each member becoming his or her best self. Remind children that they have a responsibility to help you. It is not a one-way street. We are all in this together.
Conflict is inevitable. The best relationships and families are not those without conflict, but those where the conflict is dynamic, lively, healthy, and respectful. Clearly establishing a sense of purpose within the family makes that healthy conflict possible. And once we have established that we are here to help one another become the-best-version-of-ourselves, every conflict becomes an opportunity to affirm that purpose.
by Matthew Kelly
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For more than a decade, Matthew Kelly has been traveling the world inspiring people to become the-best-version-of-themselves. Now, Kelly shares with us remarkable insights and sensible everyday strategies for transforming the family into what it should be: a place where each of us can become the-best-version-of-ourselves. Beginning with an exploration of the changing face of the family in our culture, Kelly sets every listener at ease by explaining: “A family is not what we think a family should be, or what we hope to have, or should have, or what would be ideal—a family is what we actually have . . .”
In Building Better Families, Kelly explores important issues by raising evocative questions: What makes a successful parent? Do you realize that your children are in the middle of a cultural war? What are the five things children really need? Are you asking your children the right questions? What are you teaching your children about work, money, food, exercise, body image, and sex? What are the priorities of your family culture?
Building Better Families is filled with examples that can be applied to your daily experience of parenting and family, while at the same time illuminating the broader and deeper significance of family for society and the future of humanity. “The family is a once a deeply personal experience and the cornerstone of all great societies,” Kelly tells us.
Matthew Kelly is the author of several books, including Perfectly Yourself, The Rhythm of Life, The Seven Levels of Intimacy, and The Dream Manager. His books have appeared on multiple bestseller lists, including those of The New York Times, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. Kelly is the founder of The Matthew Kelly Foundation, whose major charitable work is to help young people discover their mission in life. Kelly is also the president of Floyd Consulting, a Chicago-based consulting company that helps corporations become the-best-version-of-themselves.
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Author Matthew Kelly
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