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The Essential Secret to a Happier Family (It's Easier Than You Think!)

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Nothing says family quite like a middle-of-the-night, cruel words, wrestling your brother to the ground kind of fight.

This past Christmas, all six of our children came home to enjoy the holidays together. We were all crazy excited. The family group text blew up for weeks making plans, arranging schedules and simply anticipating those 7 magical days between December 19 and December 26th.

Everyone in the family was giddy when we picked up three kids from the airport. The kids talked nonstop, cracked jokes and wrestled on the family room floor.

It was well past midnight when everyone started talking about putting luggage away and getting some sleep. In the hustle of finals and Christmas festivities, we hadn’t done a great job of preparing beds and rooms for our kids flying home. And as happens in big families, every bed and dresser and closet had filled during their absence.

Tempers flared. The three kids at home defended their territory. The older kids felt hurt. I felt ashamed because I’d been too overwhelmed with other tasks to sort this out ahead of time. One of the younger kids lashed out to his older brother, “You don’t even belong here anymore!”

Oh! I won’t soon forget the look of hurt and raw pain on my son’s face.

Everyone needs to feel like they belong in their own family.

One of the most essential human needs is connection. We are born with an innate desire to be linked with other people, a craving for acceptance and love. This really isn’t about beds and closet space. It isn’t about owning a spacious home or a tiny apartment where we sleep on couches or inflatable mattresses. Creating a sense of belonging means loving and accepting our family members. The world will be cruel to every one of us, home should be a haven of acceptance and love

We sorted out the bedroom/closet situation pretty quickly. Everyone worked together to clear space and we even ended up donating several bags of old clothing and toys to a second-hand store the next day.

Despite some ugliness, the midnight fight prompted a lot of good discussions. I reassured the older kids they would always be welcome at home. The chastened younger kids promised to be more patient about sharing beds and bathrooms and food. And we all talked about the essence of HOME—a place where you can test out dumb jokes, bad hairstyles, radical ideas and so much more in a safe and loving arena. Where you can come home from a terrible day at school or work and feel accepted warts and flaws and all.

If our children don’t feel loved and accepted at home, they will turn elsewhere for affection and support. And often when people are desperate for love they turn to destructive behaviors and dangerous environments.

As parents, one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is a family where they can make mistakes, stumble, fall and still be loved and accepted simply because they belong.

I’ll never forget my friend Judy Wolfe addressing the children in the audience at her 18 year-old son’s funeral: “I’m going to tell you one of your parents’ great secrets. You know all the fuss they make about your grades and making the team and getting awards?” Her eyes swept through the room as she noted the many children and teenagers filling the chapel.

“This competition, this drive to measure up: It’s all a show. Your parents are in love with you anyway. From the moment you were born they adored you — all you had to do was show up.”

As parents we feel this love for our children, but do we express it? Do we truly create a haven where they feel safety and belonging?

It’s not even a physical place—there are times when children need to live elsewhere, but they need know they are loved, included in prayers and considered part of the family.

We can also offer that sense of acceptance to the rowdy kids down the street, our co-workers, the frustrated dad at the grocery store, to the entire human family.

Next Christmas, I’ll plan ahead a little better: sort out rooms, wash sheets, place flowers and cookies on nightstands (who am I kidding?). Still, the real task (and privilege) is simply the daily prayers, the texts and phone calls, small kindnesses and gentle words sending the message: you belong, you belong, you belong.

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