Updated: May 17, 2021
By Dr Ange, Clinical Psychologist
There is a story that comes to mind for me whenever I think about the concept of family values and traditions. You might know it too. The story goes like this:
A newly wed couple are preparing a roast dinner. Before the wife puts the meat into the roasting pan, she slices off one end of it, and places that slice on top of the larger piece of meat. Her husband sees this, finds it odd, and asks her why does she do this? She said she’s never really thought about it, and that she’s not really sure, it’s just the way that her mum always did it. The husband is perplexed by this answer. When the next family dinner happens, the husband sees his mother in law doing the same thing, slicing the end of the meat and placing it on top of the larger piece of meat, before putting it in the oven. The husband asks his mother in law why does she do this? She says, much like his wife, she’s not really sure, it’s just the way that she saw her mum do it and so it’s always been the way she does it. Sure enough, when the next extended family dinner occurs, and granny-in-law is there, the husband is of course keen to ask his burning question about this strange tradition. Granny smiles and says… “oh! Well, back when I was a young mum, bringing up my large family, we only had such a small roasting pan that couldn’t actually quite fit the size of roast I needed to feed us all. I would always have to cut off the end, and with nowhere else to put it, I would just put it on top so I could fit it all in!”
For me, this story gets at a few interesting points which are really important for parents to be aware of.
Your behaviour can be driven by completely unspoken ideas, beliefs, or expectations
Your behaviour is modelled by children, even the behaviours you didn’t intend to be mimicked!
If you don’t question and review your intentions, you can unwittingly create a legacy that may not be all that helpful!
Luckily, in the story, the behaviour that got passed on was a pretty harmless one (although vegetarians may disagree!). In real life, the behaviours, beliefs, and attitudes that get passed on may in some cases be pretty toxic.
The kind of thing I’m talking about here are the “unspoken rules” that can operate within families. These are, I think, the big “traditions” within a family. I offer a few below, not an exhaustive list, there are many more. As you read through this list, I invite you to wonder about those that may ring true for you about your own upbringing:
Emotions are a sign of weakness
Children should not question the way things are done
Don’t talk about what goes on in this family to others
Children should act like everything is ok even if it’s not
Negative emotions are harmful to people around you
Don’t bother your parents with problems
Deal with your problems yourself
Don’t rock the boat
Family must come first
If we don’t acknowledge something, it’s not real
Don’t upset your father/mother
You’re being selfish if you ask for things
Like the grandmother who had a purpose to cut the end of the roast, maybe somewhere back in the family timeline, these messages served some kind of purpose. However, these can be quite damaging. Some of the messages here can set children up to sacrifice their own feelings and needs, for the sake of the family. This can lead to a sense of invalidation of one’s own feelings and desires, something that may continue later in life. Some of these unspoken rules above encourage pretending/denying or tiptoeing around issues. The result as an adult can be a sense of confusion about yourself or difficulties managing certain interpersonal situations.
If you do relate to some of the statements above, I really hope that you can wonder about the impact these unspoken rules have had on you. This might be quite painful! Know that it’s never too late to start dropping these rules and creating new guidelines that you would like to live by.
Here are some healthy messages that run counter to those listed above. Again have a think of the ones that feel relatable from your own upbringing:
Everyone has wants and needs
Emotions are normal and healthy
Children have their own views (and they may not match the parents’!)
We can choose for ourselves who we talk to about things that upset us
Conflict can be an opportunity to better understand each other
If things are not feeling okay, it is helpful to let people know
Negative emotions are not harmful to others when they are expressed in healthy ways
Parents are here to help you figure out problems you are having
Parents might not be able to solve your problems for you, but they can support you through them
If you have something important to say, speak up! even if it rocks the boat- important things need to be said
Family is often very important but they may not always come first
If you are experiencing something, it is real, even if others don’t recognise it
Mum and dad are able to manage their own feelings if they get upset
I encourage you to ponder on these “unspoken rules” in your family of origin, and to start thinking about the sort of rules you want to foster in your own family of creation.
Here’s a pretty neat activity you could do (preferably both parents do it together). Write a list of these “rules” that you learned from your own family of origin, listing the unhealthy ones on one page, and the healthy ones on a second page. On a third page, try writing a countering rule for each of the unhealthy ones.
Next… I invite you to perform a little ritual. Instead of simply slicing the end of the roast like the family in the story, you can make a deliberate choice about what family “traditions” to keep, and what to leave behind… you might like to rip up the unhealthy rules list, or scrunch it and throw it out, or even burn it!
With your remaining healthy lists, keep them somewhere. On the fridge maybe! Remind yourself that these are the important and healthy messages you wish to give to yourself now, and which you wish to give to your children…
If you need to at this point, add more of your own messages for the family.
And from there, well that’s the hard part… you keep making the effort to both live for yourself in these healthy ways, and be intentional about what it is that you are passing on in your family.
This article references information and activities from the Bringing up Great Kids program, which you can find out more about at:
Dr Angie Randell is a clinical psychologist with a PHD on the topic of child development. Angie has been working as a Psychologist since 2006, and in much of that time she has focused on working with children, adolescents and their families. She has an interest in development across the whole lifespan. She currently works in private practice at Samford Valley, Brisbane City and online. Find out more at: www.drangierandell.com