I was recently chatting with my closest childhood friend, and we were waxing nostalgic about how different our homes were growing up, and how we felt about those differences at the time. While it can clearly be said that one’s parents are a big part of forming one’s character, and that as we age, our friends become a very large influence on our values, our experiences, and how we interpret the world around us, by extension our friends’ parents can be a strong influence on us as well, either directly or indirectly.

I often saw this particular friend’s mom as a sort of second mother to me. She was divorced and had given up on the Church despite being from a Mormon family. I only found out much later that some ward leaders were extremely nasty to her, trying to convince her to “stand by her man” who was not worth standing by. She worked long grueling hours as a nurse. She was raising two daughters, one of whom was mentally slow and required some additional care. To me, she was a strong, independent woman who was done taking crap from other people, particularly men. She was confident, yet caring. She had a great sense of humor. She treated me like a daughter. She was direct, patient, and not a prude at all.

Being at their house also felt much more independent to me. She often had to work 72 hour shifts, and I’d stay over there while she was gone. We’d get up when we wanted, eat what we wanted when we wanted, and we’d do adventurous things like swinging from ropes in the barn on their property, landing in big piles of hay bales. We’d ride dirt bikes. We’d swim. We’d walk across a rusty I-beam across the stream and into the woods. Nobody knew where we were. In winter, we’d walk the three miles on the frozen creek between our houses, meeting up halfway and walking the rest together.

My friend’s view of my house (and her own) was kind of the predictable flip side of all that. At my house (with a stay at home mom and no siblings at home), it was quiet and orderly. There were always family meals on time and together at a table. My parents were industrious and capable, not stressed out like her mom often was. I never got grounded, and she felt like she always did.

Another friend of mine from Church had parents who were almost never home when I went there. Our dads were in the bishopric together. Her parents both worked long hours as educators. They seldom ate family meals together. When I was there, she and I fended for ourselves, often opting for butterscotch pudding for dinner instead of an actual meal, or slapping together sandwiches (her favorite was pickles and peanut butter). She also had MTV and cable TV which was a BIG DEAL at the time, a huge extravagance. At my house, we only had the three big networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) plus a half day of programming on Saturdays from a station in Philadelphia that showed old movies (which I grew to love, including the schlocky horror movies of prior decades like “Them!,” “Burnt Offerings,” and “Motel Hell”). She was very close to her dad, and she also called her parents by their first names, both of which were different than in my own house and felt somehow admirable. She lived in the suburbs whereas I was out in the sticks, so she had neighbors, and I envied her connection to school friends and how convenient it was to go places from her house. Her house was always a disaster, unlike my own immaculate house where everything had its place, the floors were clean, and even the multi-acre yard was orderly.

There were other friends that exposed me to completely different lifestyles and ways of parenting that were alluring and novel. I had two different friends whose families lived in apartments or townhomes, some with siblings at home, others with parents who argued, some with foster kids in the home, and many variations on how the family dynamics worked. All of these different family styles broadened my perspective on how families work, how it could be when I had my own family, and what I liked and didn’t like about their arrangements. There was no single ideal model; there were many variations that all worked in their own way.

I recently read a description of six different types of family dynamics:

Authoritarian. These households are run by “rules,” with very few if any exceptions being made. In general, kids are not consulted in decisions, even when they are affected by the rules. Honestly, I don’t really think any of my friends, not the ones who had friends come to their house anyway, had this dynamic. That’s probably because their houses were not great places to hang out.

Authoritative. In these households, there is a parent figure who is in charge, and while their word is final, they do explain decisions to the rest of the family members and demonstrate the need to obtain buy-in and treat others with respect while sticking to firm boundaries. This is kind of like the Mary Poppins model. You can make it fun, but by golly you are taking that medicine.

Competitive. These families are constantly competing with one another, between siblings, and even between parents and other family members. There is a sense of rivalry that pervades personal interactions.

Uninvolved. Even when they are present, family members are pursuing their own individual interests and may not feel present to one another in the moment.

Communal. These families are a collective, a community in which each person makes a contribution to the whole. All voices are heard and individual opinions are respected.

Alliance-based. This is like the show Survivor. Different family members band together to gain leverage over other family members, or a child and parent may ally against the other parent.

In my own experience, growing up, our family mostly felt Uninvolved. I spent a lot of time reading or working or hanging out with friends. Even when I was home, I usually had a book in my hand. My parents were quite old by the time I was born, so they were probably mentally ready to be done with this parenting nonsense, which suited me fine.

Many Church leaders share stories that reveal their own parenting styles and assumptions, and it is not always to their credit. For example, there are too many Authoritarian family stories for my taste, and it’s ultimately not a very successful parenting style. It often creates resentment, stunted emotional development in children, and eventual parental estrangement. When the person giving parental advice is a worse parent than I am, it’s hard to take their advice seriously.

There are some hallmarks of healthy family dynamics from the same article:

  • Open Communication. Do family members feel encouraged to speak for themselves, or are they encouraged or forced to defer to the one person in the family whose word is law? Do other family members try to “interpret” others’ opinions to make them more acceptable?
  • Emotional Support. Everyone is allowed to communicate their anxieties, fears and sorrows. They are not ashamed to share their feelings with others in the family.
  • Shared Responsibility. The parents aren’t the sole authorities and decision-makers. All family members are respected and included, given opportunities to lead in the family. Their input is solicited.
  • Work Balance. The family avoids the tensions that come from too many non-family commitments. Family responsibilities are shared, and nobody is so absent that they can’t contribute meaningfully.
  • Expressing Interest. Family members feel that others in the family are interested in them and their lives. They discuss their days. They show up for important events.
  • Support and Discipline. Parents provide structure, especially to young children, that supports their growth and well-being. Rather than punishing bad behavior to deter it, parents provide strategies to help improve behavior.
  • Shared Respect. Family members work together to resolve conflicts rather than punishing those who have different opinions.
  • Creating a Safe Environment. Parents set good examples, stay positive, and display affection.

While I’m not sure any of these are a 10 out of 10 in the family I created, I like to think that they are at least slightly higher than the house I grew up in, and in turn, I imagine that my parents’ results were slightly better than their own parents’ results on the whole. While trauma can be passed down through DNA, we also examine the faults of our parents and try to do better. We at least manage to change some of what we didn’t like.

As my own kids were growing up, I saw them interact with their friends’ parents and make these same types of mental comparisons. Once in Singapore, my daughter came home from a friend’s birthday party on their family yacht and said, “Hey, why don’t we have a yacht?” I had to explain that 1) the marina slip alone was $1M annually, 2) we were only in Singapore temporarily, and 3) see #1 again. But she also saw that we were more lax than many parents, giving our kids more independence, not pushing them as hard on schoolwork, letting them choose their own clothes and spend weekends with friends. Even as an adult, my daughter once observed that her friend had said, “Wow, your mom really loves you.” What I suspect she really meant was, “I wish I had a better relationship with my mom.” Whenever we meet other people’s parents, it’s always natural to compare.

Obviously, in my case, a lot of my friends’ parents were Church members (or had been), but that’s not always the case. Something I learned, though, was that regardless of what the Church was claiming was the “ideal,” it wasn’t at all universally practiced among the families I got to know. I could clearly see that there was more than one way to be a family, and more than one way to be Mormon. Perhaps there’s more homogeneity in other places, but where I was, there was a lot of variety.

  • Did your friends often have different family dynamics than yours? What differences did you notice?
  • How much influence did other people’s parents have on you when you were growing up?
  • What family dynamics do you see the Church espousing? Are they the same ones you see as ideal?
  • What’s your own style?