5 Ways to kill warmth in your family (and how to rebuild it)

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Sep 30, 2016

Photo by Jenn Richardson

Math homework. It’s normally not a battleground in our family, but last week, it was.

Our youngest’s fifth grade teacher had been a bit rushed in her math explanation that day, so Jessica came home not fully understanding how to do her homework.

Normally I can calmly teach my kids math. But this particular day, I lacked patience. And tact. And wisdom. And a whole host of other things. Twice I had to send Jessica to the couch until she “had a better attitude.” She was close to tears. I was grouchy.

Our relationship was fractured by fractions (corny, I know, but I couldn't resist).

About an hour after the math homework was (finally) finished and tucked away in her backpack, I asked Jessica to snuggle with me on the couch. I apologized for my tone of voice and frustration and asked her to forgive me. I asked her to help me figure out what I could do differently in the future. Then we discussed what she could also do differently. What could have been a terrible night actually turned into a pretty sweet moment.

It’s moments like that when I’m so grateful for all I learn from our research. Like this phrase: “Warm is the new cool.”

Research says warmth is crucial when it comes to young people.

Of the almost 1,300 interviews we conducted during our four years of Growing Young research, those five words remain some of the most vivid to me.

When it comes to churches and young people, it’s not about having a cool leader. Or a cool facility. Or cool programs. All of those can be good, but they aren’t essential.

What is essential is that your church be warm. Learn more about our Growing Young research.

Warmth is crucial for your family too.

Warm is not just important for churches. It’s just as true in your family.

In a comprehensive study of relational dynamics in more than 300 families spanning 35 years, family warmth was more correlated with faith transmission than any other relational factor (including amount of contact between the generations, the type of contact, and the number of children in the family).[1]

But as a parent, you aren’t the best judge of your family’s warmth. As is true with so many aspects of family life, this study found it is our child’s perception of closeness that matters more than our own perception of closeness.

In other words, in the fraction debacle with Jessica, how she felt about our relationship is more important than how I felt.

Your child is likely to be a more stringent grader of your family relationships, but their grade counts more than yours.

Tweet this: Our children are likely to be more stringent graders of our family relationships, but their grade counts more than ours.

So more than any tip or trick we’ve been using with our kids, for the last few years Dave and I have focused on our family’s warmth.

5 ways to kill warmth in your family

Based on my own experience, here are five bad habits that can steal from your family’s warmth:

1. Words.

Our families see us at our worst. And often we aren’t as careful with our word choice with them as we are with others. It’s all too easy for us to default to sarcasm or other unkind words that tear down instead of build up.

2. Tone of voice.

Here’s one of my biggest challenges—whether or not math is involved. If you were to read a transcript of what I say at home, it would sound okay (most of the time). It’s my tone of voice that’s often more problematic.

3. Body language: sighs, eye rolls, you name it.

I was recently talking to a friend whose mom sighs when she feels overwhelmed by her granddaughter—my friend’s daughter. My friend is realizing that she grew up with those very same sighs—sighs that communicated that she was too much to handle, and sighs that have created a permanent wall between them.

4. Technology.

Technology—whether in the form of texts, video games, or watching our favorite reality TV show together—can unite a family. But it can also divide. I walk through restaurants and see families sitting around tables, all of them focused on separate screens. No talking. Just texts and YouTube. And my heart breaks.

5. Fatigue.

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all” is a phrase I can’t stop thinking about. Fatigue also makes us grumpy and angry, both of which are warmth-stealers in any relationship.

Want to turn up the warmth for your family? Here are 4 ways to start.

1. Identify which of the five warmth-killers is your biggest challenge.

In my case, the biggest challenge is tone of voice. The second biggest challenge is fatigue, which makes me more irritable.

2. If developmentally appropriate, talk with your kids about your struggle.

They know it already. They will be glad to know that you know it too. Jessica certainly was.

3. Choose one thing you’re going to do differently this week.

Turn off your phone at dinner. Get an extra 30 minutes of sleep. Ask your spouse or a good friend to let you know when your words, tone of voice, or eye rolls have become a problem.

4. Stay mindful to the bigger lessons God’s trying to teach you.

Richard Rohr calls this the “task within the task.” As you try to increase your own family’s warmth, what is God trying to show you about his warm love for you? What keeps you from resting in that love? What hinders you from being a tunnel that shares that love with others?

Want more parenting ideas? Check out our family guide.

[1] Bengston, Vern L., with Norella Putney and Susan Harris, Families and Faith: Generations and the Transmission of Religion. Unpublished manuscript, July 2011, final report submitted to The John Templeton Foundation: 90.

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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