How to Balance Interdependence with Autonomy to Achieve Happiness at Home

Family happiness requires balance. There is a movie that shows how a mother bear gives her total attention to her cubs for one year…and then abruptly chases them up a tree, leaving them to survive on their own. Humans take a little longer to make sure their offspring can live on their own (autonomy) and with others (interdependence). Striking the right balance between these opposite needs is essential to happiness.

Children begin to strive for autonomy at the end of the first year of life, when they begin to walk. Their development of language makes them even more autonomous because they can tell their parents “No!”

Autonomy really comes into its own when children enter their adolescent years. As a parent, you need to foster this emerging sense of independence — but not at the expense of family involvement. In other words, send the message to your child that “I want you to be an individual, but you’re still a member of this family.”

Interdependence means simply two or more people working together on a common activity or toward a common goal. It’s the old idea that two hands — or minds — are better than one. Examples of interdependent behavior among family members include

  • Helping one another prepare family meals

  • Parents helping children with their homework

  • Everyone helping out with the yard work

  • Attending to one another during illness

  • Doing household chores together — washing dishes, doing laundry

  • Taking care of family pets

  • Playing cards and other types of games

  • Outdoor recreational pursuits like cycling, fishing, camping

  • Working on school projects together

Share power to be happy

The concept of power is fundamental to family life. People talk about ways in which parents can empower their children, about power struggles between parents and children, and the power differential that exists between siblings of different ages. How families handle the “power relationships” that emerge — and change — over time in large part determines how happy they end up being.

Where there is a significant imbalance of power — for example, an autocratic father sets all the rules for his teenage daughter and threatens to punish her if she doesn’t comply — problems exist. At the very least, in this example, the daughter feels powerless, which can be a breeding ground for feelings of depression, defiance, or hostility. At the worst, the father and daughter will become estranged from one another.

For parents, the trick is to find age-appropriate ways of beginning to share power with their kids starting at an early age and continuing until they reach adulthood. This task isn’t an easy one. Parents are often reluctant to relinquish power — “This is my house. I pay the bills here. And, I know what’s best for you.”

And children generally want more power than they can handle at each stage of their development — “I’ll be okay with my friends at the beach. I don’t know why you worry so much.” This conflict is precisely what makes family life sometimes seem more like a wrestling match than anything else.

Have a family discussion — with the whole family — about power. Don’t allow these issues to play themselves out in an unconscious, unspoken, uncivil, and ultimately unhappy way.

Other ways of sharing family power at different ages include: telling your 7-year-old that she can have a friend over to play and letting her decide which friend to invite; sending your 11-year-old to the grocery store to pick up items for dinner; letting your son pick out which kind of pizza the family will eat; and, letting adolescents of driving age chauffeur the younger children to after-school activities.

Everybody needs a job in a happy family

Imagine that you’re on a baseball team, and you’re all suited up for the game, but the coach has never told you what position he wants you to play. You just sit on the bench, waiting, but there’s nothing for you to do that can make you feel a part of this team.

In happy families, everyone has an assignment, a job, a purpose, something he or she can contribute to family life. There are no spectators, and no one is allowed to sit idly on the sidelines. (This builds a foundation of commitment which is vital to developing a hardy personality).

Children — even very young ones — need to know what is expected of them. For example, you may tell your 4-year old, “Your job is to pick up your toys after you’re through playing with them. That’s not mommy’s job.” Adolescents need to know that their job is to spend a certain amount of time helping out at home. The same goes for parents.

Change the family dialogue to include the phrases It’s my job to . . . and It’s your job to. . . . Assuming everybody does his or her job consistently and well, how can the family help but be happy?

If someone in the family isn’t happy because she doesn’t like her particular job (for example, cleaning up the kitchen after dinner) tell her it’s fine with you if she swaps with another family member (maybe her brother hates having to walk the family dog) just as long as everyone ends up with a job.

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