Building a family culture

Today is Father’s Day, June 16, 2019. It’s my fifth one as a dad and my thirty-sixth as a son.

Last night my girls, exhausted from a day playing in the cul-de-sac and then romping all around UC Berkeley with our neighbors, went to sleep blissfully early. My wife and I watched an hour-long episode in the living room, something we rarely do in the evening. This morning we all slept in (meaning we got out of bed after 7am) and I made waffles. Then the five of us (including Blue Boy) went on a long jog / bicycle ride around the neighborhood.

After that, the cul-de-sac sprang back to life and I was able to continue learning to play Kathy’s Song, my new favorite Paul Simon tune. It’s in the easy part of my range and has some beautiful fingerpicking. I want to add it to my “Oh, you play guitar? Play something!” repertoire.

With progress made on that tune, and my kids entertained by the little Eden we’ve found ourselves in, I took the time to finish up this blog post. This is one I’ve been thinking about for a while and started writing last year. It’s about similarities between office culture and family culture.

I’ve spent most of the last two years at home with my family during the hours when I used to be at an office. It’s been rewarding on many levels and it has given me a perspective on something I haven’t considered before: my family’s culture. 

Families have cultures just like companies have cultures. A tangible way to think about it are the cultural norms. 

In an office these are pretty standard:

  • Are distractions allowed in meetings?
  • Do meetings start and end on time? 
  • How are conflicts resolved?
  • Is it okay to be emotional?
  • How promptly are requests handled?

I’ve written and thought a lot about company culture. One of my side projects, eNPS, is a way to measure it. Now that I’m in an office again, although just for the summer, I’m conscious of the cultural norms that I’m creating. I’m trying to be deliberate about it, even the “do as I say, not as I do” norms that I wish I could avoid. Resistance is futile, though. The norm setting is unavoidable.

Culture is always set by the CEO. Every one of the bullet points above stem directly from how the CEO conducts himself.

It used to drive me crazy at a previous job when office meetings scheduled for 30 minutes routinely turned into hour-long meetings. Thirty minutes in, the same question would arise, “Are you guys good to stay longer? We’ve got a lot more to cover.”

Since this meeting often started ten minutes late, we could never predict when we’d get out. Thus, meetings scheduled at the end of the day were especially painful. Since I was so concerned about and distracted by the timing of the meeting, I was not as productive or focused as I could have been.

And guess what? It was the CEO causing it. His previous meeting would inevitably run long, causing his next meetings to run long. It was a death spiral of time mismanagement. As a result, other people in the company conducted meetings the same way. We’d tend to show up a few minutes late, unprepared, without concern for how long the meetings would run.

Indeed, culture happens whether you want it to or not. So the other day I had an intriguing thought: Do families have cultures the same way that offices have cultures?

The answer, I believe, is a resounding YES. Families absolutely have cultures. The parents are like the CEOs (and I’d argue that mom has much more sway than dad, but results may vary) and the kids are like the employees. Everything flows from the top.

Those questions I asked above about office norms translate easily to family norms:

  • Are distractions allowed during meals (e.g. phones, televisions)?
  • Is there regular a bedtime, playtime, naptime routine?
  • What’s the ratio of discourse to crying/yelling/hitting when conflicts arise?
  • Are parents allowed to lose their temper?
  • Do kids listen right away or are they allowed to ignore requests?

There’s no right or wrong answer to any of these questions. They’re simply embodiments of the culture that we parents are creating, again, whether we like it or not, in the ways that we conduct our parenting.

I would argue, with a fair bit of certainty, that it’s beneficial to be aware of the culture that you’re creating. Parents should know that how they resolve conflicts feeds back directly to how their kids resolve conflicts. Parents who are easily frustrated, who raise their voices and grab arms (or even hit) to make a point, are setting that behavior as a norm in their family. Even if they attempt to “do as I say, not as I do,” the imprint goes deeper than whether or not their kid yells or hits back. Culture is a mentality, a way of thinking, and while it usually manifests in behavior it can also be there lurking behind the scenes. Culture is what you can’t see, too.

The best example I can think of in my own family is our use of iPhones and laptops. My kids probably see me using technology a lot more than I realize. Part of that is working from home, part of that is that these are useful tools (YouTube for home fixes, Ultimate Guitar app for learning songs, WordPress for blog writing…) so to some degree it can’t be helped. But it’s sending a mental signal, one that will show itself when my kids are old enough to have their own phones and laptops.

To mitigate this I try to always and immediately put my device away when my kids want my attention. They should know that they are always more important to me than my technology. Face-to-face connections are more important than internet connections. When they have their own phones I want them to treat me and our friends and family the same way.

The other common sleeper norm is smoking. If a kid sees his parent smoking throughout his childhood, it’s sending a signal. He may spend his first eighteen years without smoking a cigarette but given the opportunity, he’ll take it up. No amount of public service announcements will prevent it. He’ll do it because that’s the culture he knows.

My kids right now are two-and-a-half and four-and-a-half. I notice that around the age of two, our family norms (I might even call them “habits”) are pretty well cemented. We eat dinner together with no distractions. We don’t watch a lot of television. We’re very friendly and generous with our neighbors. We bathe, brush teeth, and read books before bed time. We listen to each other, and when we get upset, we talk it out. We tell each other how we’re feeling, both the good and the bad. And when Melissa and I give instructions, our kids have to listen. When our kids don’t listen, they’re not being a “bad kid,” they’re just being a “bad listener.”

A lot of these norms come from my wife, who has a way of parenting that fortunately fits very well with mine. For the most part, I follow her lead on this stuff. The norms I’ve contributed to are in eating (carrots and hummus are now a staple, as are dinner salads), playing music (both girls want to play guitar and hopefully also piano), and enjoyment of camping, swimming, and throwing rocks in the creek.

There are countless other signals they’ve taken up too that I may never directly see. I hope they seek out in a partner a relationship like the one I have with Melissa. I hope they recognize what love feels like and how to show it. I hope they raise their kids in a way and a place similar to their own upbringing. I hope they stay curious, enjoy learning and reading and writing. I don’t really care what school they go to but I hope they value the process of formal education.

And finally I hope they also choose a huge lovable dog as their first pet. I’m glad my girls will know how special pets can be, and I hope they’ll translate that into a love of all animals and the places where animals live.

Even though I’m writing this on my computer while my kids are riding around in the cul-de-sac in front of me, even though I sometimes thumb through my phone in my kids’ beds while they drift to sleep, I’m proud of my family culture and the norms we’re setting every day.

One Father’s Day many years from now, I hope my kids will read this blog post and agree.

Smooching Lily on this Father’s Day as our neighbor looks on.

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