We are all too aware of the insane number of shootings in America, including this most recent one. How do we create a safer society? Could we start at home? Family is the smallest unit of society. When it’s strong, our nation is stronger. When it’s weak, our nation, and ultimately the world, suffers. Here is the story of my realization about the critical role that mothers play in families, and how one simple practice became a tradition that brought our family great strength and peace.
When I was a little girl, I loved my gentle, witty mom. She looked like a mash-up of Snow White and Jackie Kennedy. I took her for granted. She was just a mommy in our sleepy 1960’s suburban neighborhood. She didn’t seem to be changing the world like Martin Luther King Jr. was doing on the news. Later she wasn’t, you know, Gloria Steinem or anything. She was just, well…mom.
Then I grew up, became an actual mother, and I stumbled across these quotes:
“When the real history of mankind is fully disclosed, will it feature the echoes of gunfire or the shaping sound of lullabies? The great armistices made by military men or the peacemaking of women in homes and in neighborhoods? Will what happened in cradles and kitchens prove to be more controlling than what happened in congresses?”-Neal A. Maxwell
Later, I read this one:
“A mother can exert an influence unequaled by any other person in any other relationship.” -D. Todd Christopherson
Then came the creme de la creme:
“Motherhood is near to divinity. It is the highest, holiest service to be assumed by mankind. It places her who honors its holy calling and service next to the angels.”
These quotes gave me serious pause. Maybe being an ordinary mother was not ordinary at all. I thought of my mother and wondered if her careful kindness, compassion and patience had changed the world.
It had at least changed the worlds of her six adoring children, I thought. Had we then unwittingly influenced others for good because she had influenced us for good and on and on like that 80’s commercial for Faberge Organics shampoo?
I hoped so. But by the time my husband and I were raising children, the world had changed a lot. Articles like this shared painful statistics. There were fewer strong, peacefully connected, functional families. But my husband and I desperately wanted to raise a strong, peacefully connected, functional family. I had mother friends that felt the same way.
When we heard about BYU’s annual family strengthening summit, Education Week, we went. What we hoped for was even just one, simple concrete thing we could do to build better families.
We got it.
One morning we attended a class in which a family with eleven (eleven!!) children demonstrated a simple once a week program for strengthening families. It was called Family Home Evening (FHE). (FHE began in 1915. It’s still a thing, as noted recently in The Atlantic.)
Perched on small stage, the family began by singing a happy, peaceful song together. Then one family member said an audible prayer. Another shared an inspirational thought. Then they memorized a poem together. Then they blew me away: the children pulled out instruments and began to play. They closed the gathering with another happy children’s song and a little prayer. It was so simple.
The family’s unaffected joy had been apparent. They had obviously done FHE many times. They clearly enjoyed it. Being in public had not seemed to particularly faze them.
During that FHE hour, a palpable feeling of peace and love had been present. It was sublime. We didn’t want to leave. Long after the family left the room, my friends and I were still sitting there. When we finally did leave, we left inspired. We wanted to honor the power of motherhood, share the joy of this idea with our spouses, and re-create this experience in our families.
On the way home I thought about two things. The first was that there was no way our family was going to pull off a home orchestra. Life was full in our home, nigh unto the accidental overflowing of toddler apple juice on our kitchen floors. We did love music. We sang, and occasionally tiny people pressed random keys on a toy piano and/or banged pans together. That was as London Philharmonic as we were likely to get.
But the other thought was that I did love poems, and my husband didn’t hate them. He was gently persuadable. The mother from class had explained that if a child could memorize poems, he/she would have an easier time memorizing school things. Yes. My husband and I were fans of school. We loved our family. This could work.
I was so excited! Although FHE is traditionally a once a week thing, I wanted this sort of gathering to happen as many days of the year as possible. My children were young, with time on their sweet, often messy little hands. Could I spark this? I tried to think confidently. I was the cultural offspring of Helen Reddy, wasn’t I? She had once told me, via song, that I could do anything. And besides, by now I had absorbed the motherhood quotes above, and I was starting to “get” the power of motherhood thing. I wanted to use that power for good, as often as I could.
Then I thought again, more realistically. How could a regular gathering like this actually work? Our children were so young, so bouncy. It was a room full of springy “Tiggers”. I guessed that I could get them to all sit still at the same time for approximately five seconds. There was just no way…or was there? A scene from “SeaWorld” popped into my head.
What if?….I went to the store and purchased a plethora of candy (knowing what we now know about sugar, if I could turn back time, I might have used something else, like strawberries). I gathered the kids in a circle and made them a promise: “If you can sit still for two minutes…”
I mustered up some faux Braveheart gravitas, whilst holding aloft the bag of candy. “Each of you shall receive One of These!!” Riveted, they briefly stopped giggling and elbowing each other. They were on their way to becoming the treat-seeking dolphins of SeaWorld.
In the brief window of quiet, I talked about the “special feeling” of love and closeness we would get to enjoy when we were all together and talking about “happiness things”. That feeling, I explained, was like a delicate soap bubble. A lot of “bounciness” could easily pop it. To feel this special happiness, we had to be still.
We worked our way up from sitting still for two minutes to five minutes, to twenty…and for years we haven’t needed any treats at all. The gathering itself has been the treat. We have long since been wired, like Pavlovian dogs, to the joy of it.
From the start, I was determined that our circle of warmth would be a redress free zone, except for small, behavior shaping reminders. I tried to keep it light, focusing more on rewards than consequences. Often I would add a bonus prize for the best behaved child-the one who had exhibited the most peaceful behavior and best listening skills during our time together.
This got comical as the kids began to compete with each other for the prize. They wanted to know every criterion particular. So I added “good posture”. Later, on a whim, I added “compliments for mom”. It was hilarious to see so many little squared shoulders, offering things like “You are so pretty mommy!” My often messy morning hair and sweatshirts did not deter them, reminding me that rewards are powerful!
I was thrilled when our new tradition began to take solid root. My goal was to make this an every day experience, even knowing that my husband’s schedule wouldn’t allow him to be there every day. I could be there even when he could not. I didn’t make the every day goal. But we weren’t far off.
Why so often? Partly because it was fun! But we also needed these gatherings because life is hard, and we were learning increasingly good ways to deal with life.
Healthy food helps the body. Healthy traditions help the soul. In a world that doesn’t always value healthy behaviors, we needed all the soul food we could get.
We encouraged positive feelings and actions in these gatherings. No electronics, unless we were watching an inspirational clip, were allowed. We sang. We took turns sharing inspirational thoughts. We got off track All The Time. We found endless laughter and fodder for inside jokes.
As the kids got morphed into teens, discussions often became longer and deeper. We listened as my husband shared deep and powerful insights. We cried as we shared hard experiences. The circle of all of us had become a safe space to share. Mostly though, we laughed. And in the end we really did memorize a lot of poems that the kids can recite to this day.
It’s now been well over twenty years since we began.
When a grown daughter and I were recently speaking about FHE she said: “Mom, I think I can speak for our whole family when I say we have so many wonderful memories of these times-the closeness they brought and continue to bring to our whole family.”
We are glad the kids have grown up with comforting remembrances born from this adoptable, adaptable tradition. They have memories they can finger like amulets of self-esteem during stressful times in their lives.
Our children are far from perfect. But they are happy, addiction free, and healthy and strong in the “life things”, like serving others, having a moral compass, and creating and maintaining strong relationships. These children are some of our very best friends.
Ryan Petty, father of Florida shooting victim Alaina Petty made this statement after his daughter’s death: “Strong families are vital to a peaceful, functioning society…when families break down, that’s where the problems begin.” His wife Kelly added “Having a strong family is the most important thing, to have support and love and to learn right from wrong. When children don’t have that, sometimes they end up doing really bad things. If strong families were encouraged more and fought for more, more kids could be helped and not fall by the wayside….”
Strong families create strong children who can then be strongly kind to others. Who knows who these children might influence for good? Who knows what they might help prevent, or who they might protect?
It’s said that “out of small things proceedeth that which is great”. FHE is a small thing, but eventual, tremendous societal things can come from it’s simple implementation.
As Oprah says: “When you know better, you do better.”
Family Home Evening is a tool to help families know, then do. It’s been one of the great joys of our lives.
Originally published at medium.com