Genealogy rewinds: Who were your ancestors? Where did they come from? What were they like five, six, seven generations ago?

Family building fast forwards: What will your family be like five, six, seven generations from now? What will be your legacy to them? How will you be remembered?

Our local literary hero Thomas Wolfe wrote eloquently about impossible families who will suffocate us unless we run away. After decades of mediating family disputes about money and business, I could add anecdotal evidence to support Wolfe’s notion. Families under stress can be difficult, stubborn, combative, cold, even cruel at times. That sad behavior makes headlines, inspires soap operas and sells novels. But don’t overlook the quiet good news: lots of families are loving, caring, nurturing, kind, supportive, generous, peaceful (mostly), and enjoy each other (mostly). Others could be.

Wise business families are fortifying family relationships neglected by their very busyness. If they don’t succeed their companies won’t survive. Wise wealthy families are invested in developing each family member’s human potential. If they don’t succeed, “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” may materialize among them. Much of what these privileged families are learning about family building and family remodeling is also useful to the rest of us who don’t share companies or fortunes. What follows applies to all families.

Wealthy or not, every family’s most valuable asset is human capital – its individual members. The most important work of every family, wealthy or not, is to grow its human capital across the generations – to help every family member reach his or her personal potential. The Army recruiting jingle says it: “Be all that you can be!” Friends, teachers, coaches and clergy can help of course, but the basic work of growing human capital cannot be successfully outsourced.

Some families raise us to leave the family circle. Others prepare us to take our assigned places in the family tribe. Most families send mixed signals: closeness but distance, loyalty to self but loyalty to kin. The boundaries blur.

I think it’s healthy for families to organize themselves: to express their common values and aspirations in writing; to draw their boundaries; to create a family forum or council governed by an agreement that strikes a working balance between independence and interdependence. The divisive stresses of modern life fragment families who lack a structure that holds them together. Leave your unborn fifth, sixth and seventh generations the legacy of a functioning family structure. Later generations can have fun remodeling it.

Here’s some Holiday homework for gathered families:
  1. Who is the oldest member of your family? Who is the youngest? What will your family will be like when the youngest attains the oldest’s current age?
  2. Together read Stephen Covey’s family vision statement:
“The mission of our family is to create a place of order, truth, love, happiness, and relaxation; and to provide opportunities for each person to become responsibly independent and effectively interdependent in order to achieve worthwhile purposes. Our Family Mission: To love each other...To help each other...To believe in each other...To wisely use our time, talents, and resources to bless others... To worship together... Forever.”1

Together talk about what kind of family you would like to be when your youngest attains your oldest’s age. Together begin a draft of your own family vision statement. Assume it will be revised as the family vision changes over the generations.

Good genes don’t guarantee strong families. Much of family building is pioneering uncharted territory together. Family building doesn’t just happen – it’s intentional, takes time, effort, planning, commitment, requires patience, is ongoing, never ends. It’s about living and struggling and dying and what we leave behind to dear ones and to unborn generations we will never know. In between and in the meantime, there’s much rich family living to savor and share if we work at it wisely.

Your family may opt for Holiday leftovers at home while hashing out how you want things to be five, six, seven generations hence.

Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again” but the opposite is true.

We never really leave home.

But we can remodel.

Start drawing the plans.
1: From the "Personal Leadership Application Workbook" for Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

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