By Lane Burgess
Director of Marketing and Communications
First Things First of Greater Richmond
For many of us, the new year is time to make resolutions to better ourselves. We commit to losing weight, working out, staying more organized, and drinking less. We often work on everything in our lives except one of our most difficult struggles–relationships with our families and those closest to us. Improving our relationships isn’t as simple as setting an alarm for an hour earlier or asking a friend to hold us accountable to a new rule.
First Things First of Greater Richmond, a community nonprofit, believes that healthy relationships contribute to healthier lifestyles, greater financial strength, and brighter futures for Richmond’s youth. First Things First’s mission is to: encourage both mothers and fathers to be more actively involved in the lives of their children; advocate for strong, healthy, lifelong marriages; and work to prevent out-of-wedlock and teen pregnancies.
The divorce rate in metro Richmond is approximately 50 percent, according to U. S. Census data and vital statistics. In 2011, there were 5,562 marriages and 3,655 divorces in the Richmond metropolitan area. Additionally, children who grow up in fragmented homes are seven times more likely to live in poverty in adulthood and three times more likely to fail in school. Girls from fragmented homes are three times more likely to experience teen pregnancy.
Whether you’re married, divorced or single, will you resolve to work on your relationships this year?
Keep in mind that there are three patterns that appear over and over again in healthy families: adults are in charge; there is room to be close and apart; and families expect to change with flexibility.
Resolve to lead as a parent
Research shows that in healthy families, the parents make and enforce the rules for the family. Rules hold your family together and put your family values into action. When rules are in place, children know what is expected of them, learn to cooperate and feel more in control, according to Family Wellness Associates.
Ask yourself who is making the rules in your family. Is it the grandparents, kids, neighbors, or a social worker? It should be you, the parent.
Once you have made the rules, parents (married or not) should stick together to enforce them. If you want to experience fewer power struggles, fights and bad feelings, learn to negotiate with each other. Single parents, make sure you get an adult whom you trust to talk with about your decisions.
“Your kids can say a lot of horrible things when you are enforcing rules, but in the long run, the most important thing you can do for your kids is give them limits and boundaries,” says Truin Huntley, executive director for First Things First. “It will help them to do this as adults. You are serving them better by doing this.”
Resolve to be a role model to your children
Keep in mind that children learn by copying what they see other people do – positive and negative – so remember that your actions speak louder than words. If you want your child to learn morals and values, you must spend time with your child. Take time to be alone with each child to have special, uninterrupted time. Share your hobbies and passions while modeling the behavior you’d like to see from them. Volunteer together, work together, and play together. You should be modeling healthy finances, high morals, and effective conflict resolution without violence.
Resolve to be an active father
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 24 million children in America – one out of three -live in father – absent homes. Children without involved fathers have higher chances of experiencing poverty, drug abuse, and problems with the law.
Whether you live with your children or not, you can make the decision to be active in their lives. Being an active father greatly increases your child’s chances of success in the future. Children with active dads score higher on cognitive tests and have greater academic achievement. The more involved you become in your child’s school activities, the lower the risk of him/her failing or dropping out.
Even if you don’t live in the same home as your child, staying connected will affect them in tremendous ways including better social skills, fewer behavioral problems, and fewer mental health problems.
“The one job that a mother can’t do is be a father,” says Bob Ruthazer, founder and certified family life educator for First Things First. “Fathers play a unique role in the lives of their children. Starting from a very early age, fathers expose their children to new and challenging experiences. Perhaps the most important role a father plays for his child is to teach a girl how to respect herself and how to expect respect from a man, and how she should be treated by men. Fathers teach boys how to be resilient through failure and how to respect and treat a woman.”
Resolve to have a better marriage
Research from The Marriage Commission shows us that married people tend to have healthier lifestyles, live longer, have more satisfying sexual relationships, have more economic assets and have children that tend to do better academically and emotionally. Marriage reduces poverty and material hardship for disadvantaged women and their children, and marriage is associated with reduced rates of alcohol and substance abuse.
“Marriage is the hardest thing you’ll do, but it can also be the most rewarding if you put the work into it,” says First Things First Executive Director Truin Huntley. “With your spouse, the deeper the relationship goes, you have someone no matter what who you can always count on, but you have to put the work in. The grass is not greener on the other side; it will usually be easier to work it out with your spouse than to deal with the problems associated with separation and divorce.”
If your marriage needs a makeover this year, begin with these tips from Huntley’s own experience.
- Carve out time alone together. Planning a date night doesn’t mean spending a lot of money. Going to see a movie, a play, or going out to dinner may be expensive, but staying home to bake cookies, make a craft together, bake homemade pizzas, or drink hot chocolate while watching a movie are sensible alternatives. Be creative in order to show each other you still value one-on-one time.
- Serve your spouse before you serve yourself. Be selfless! You may not want to do what’s being asked of you, but make your marriage about making your spouse happy. You’ll see great returns.
- Be your spouse’s biggest fan; never speak badly about him or her to other people.
- Be a team. A team is strongest when two people are equals. This may mean talking to your parents about including your partner in making decisions or balancing power so that you both win.
“The best thing we’ve ever done for our marriage was to stop keeping a scorecard, and while it was hard to change our mentality, it was the best thing to do.”
Ruthazer suggests that couples should share long-term wishes and dreams to have something to look forward to that’s out in the distance such as a vacation, retirement plan, or a dream job.
“Do some problem-solving around your finances to make steps toward short and long-term goals,” he added. “Finances are the most common thing that couples argue about, and if you can work together toward common goals, you will tend to have lower conflict.”
Resolve to be a better listener and speaker
With your child, listening and talking are extremely important and should be a balanced give-and-take. To build your child’s self-esteem, you must be patient enough to listen. If you want a child to talk about himself, keep your opinions, critiques, and judgments to yourself. Listening doesn’t mean you agree with what’s been said.
“With your spouse, listen for content and don’t criticize or give your opinion,” says Ruthazer. “Then reflect back what you heard to make sure you heard it accurately, and make adjustments as necessary. Listen and look for body language that reflects how the other person is feeling.”
Other tips for better listening include eye contact, nodding, staying quiet, or repeating back what you heard. Signs of bad listening are interrupting, critiquing or making jokes.
For more skills and resources to better your relationships this year, visit www.FirstThingsRichmond.org or call 804-288-3431.