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For a happy family life, think free-form jazz | Tim Lott

Family eating pizza at home
‘Have at least one meal a day as a family’ (posed by models). Photograph: mixetto/Getty Images

I am coming to the end of my time as a Guardian Family columnist, so I thought I would use my final contributions to summarise what I have discovered or pondered over during the last four years – a few principles worth thinking about if you hope for a functional family life.

First, relax and do what you think is right. There are as many views about parenting, marriage and children as there are unpulled Christmas crackers in Nigel Farage’s house. Most of these received truths have the perishability of organic fruit. Family life is less like mathematics and more like free-form jazz. Feel at liberty to improvise.

Be kind. If there is a simple secret to relationships, it is probably this. However, not too kind. You can do as much damage by being overindulgent as by being neglectful. Your children are your children, not your friends. Their positive judgment of you is good to have, but it is not a necessity.

Learn to communicate. “Learn” is the operative word: most people think they already know how to do so. They open their mouths and words come out, then the targets of those words signal that they have heard them. However, real communication is an art and an acquired skill. It involves observation, honesty and a commitment to understanding, including self-understanding. You have to listen to silences, watch body language, unconscious cues, signals that the sender may not even be aware of dispatching. You have to read between the lines – including those imperceptible ones marking boundaries within.

Under the umbrella of communication lies negotiation. To have a successful relationship you have to realise you are probably as wrong as you are right. Your partner almost certainly has a point. To work together, in good faith, to find common ground is the only hope for a healthy marriage. However, negotiating with children is optional. As a wise parent once said, “I don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

In these days of heightened tension between the sexes, don’t hide behind gender stereotypes. If you believe your problems are down to your partner being a misogynist pig or a ball-busting virago, you are trying to make the problem go away by name-calling because you are unwilling to face it. Keep things in perspective. It isn’t worth getting upset about who left the toothpaste lid off. You’re all dust in the long term.

Maintain intimacy. There are a number of practical methods for doing this. Don’t buy a big house. People are always trying to extend the size of their living spaces, but smaller spaces bring people together. Cyberspace also threatens intimacy. The personal freedoms of tablets, phones and PCs are leading to the decay of family commonality. Find times to switch them off. All of them, together. And have at least one meal a day as a family.

Respect one another. The moment you lose respect for your partner, and see no prospect of regaining it, you should seriously consider your options. Respect is non-negotiable. You don’t have to have respect for your children – they’re children, after all, so they may have to make do with love and care. But you must make sure they respect you, and giving them some respect in turn is the best way to make that happen.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly – you’re not as powerful as you think. And you are going to fail as a parent – everyone does – but less than you imagine. Children are independent beings and make their own choices and interpretations. There’s culture, there’s nature, there’s nurture and there’s how each individual child chooses to interpret what’s coming at them. That last part, you have no control over. So don’t beat yourself up too much – or pat yourself on the back too much, either. You’re a fragile link in a long chain of causality.

@timlottwriter

This article titled "For a happy family life, think free-form jazz" was written by Tim Lott, for The Guardian on Friday 5 January 2018 01.29pm

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