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Want a Close-Knit Family? Make Time for Shared Life Experiences

  • Dr. Greg Smalley The Smalley Relationship Center
  • Published Oct 05, 2007
Want a Close-Knit Family? Make Time for Shared Life Experiences

Several years ago I used to speak to groups of four hundred to two thousand people in fifty cities annually. I began to notice that certain families in the audiences experienced unusually happy interaction among themselves. I was intrigued by this and began to do a study. I would interview the wife, husband, and children separately. Each person was asked the same question: What do you believe is the main reason you are all so close and happy as a family?

What I found amazed me. Each family member gave basically the same answer: "We do a lot of things together."

I found that these families also had one particular activity in common—camping. A minister in South Dakota echoed this idea. He told me that when he has asked each of his children separately what was the best thing they had done as a family, each one answered "camping." I'm not necessarily advocating camping. We've camped as a family for over fifteen years and we've found that camping is not the secret! But I believe the secret to being a close-knit family almost always can be found in camping.

One reason our family is so close is that we maximize our togetherness and minimize our times apart. That's not to say that we can't be alone as individuals. I work every day. My wife operates our office. Our children pursue their school and career interests. My wife enjoys swimming and going to the gym alone. I enjoy reading a book or watching a television program by myself, and I love running alone. All of us go our separate ways almost every day.

But for the most part, we try to discipline ourselves as a family to organize times when we are all together. For example, every Friday night is family night when the kids are home. We also share our church life together and visit friends' homes together. We share the entire summer together; my family travels with me to various seminars where I speak, and we plan a special vacation. We spend two weeks together at Christmas, another at Easter, and take weekends for various special activities throughout the year. Because of my profession, I am able to take off with the family for extended periods of time, but all-day outings provide the same opportunities for closeness. It just takes a little creativity to find fun things that the whole family will enjoy. But it is very possible!

The principle is also true for husbands and wives without their children. Close-knit marriages result from partners sharing numerous experiences. One summer, Norma asked me if I would take her through a wild animal park. I accepted the suggestion with enthusiasm and borrowed a car at the camp where I was speaking. When we arrived at the park, we were given a brochure that told about the animals and explained that if anything happened to the car, we were to honk the horn and a friendly ranger would come to the rescue.

About halfway through the park, our little convertible overheated. We pulled off the road and I honked the horn. No friendly ranger came to our rescue, but several wild burros wandered over and tried nibbling the convertible top. I honked again and in the rearview mirror I saw a herd of buffalos approach us. Within moments, we were surrounded. Norma wanted me to honk the horn again, but I was afraid for fear the animals might stampede and crush the car. One of the buffaloes bent down on my side of the car and pushed his head against the window. His nostrils were steaming the window while his big, brown eyes looked to see if we had anything to eat. Norma and I held hands, trying to comfort each other. I couldn't stand to look, but kept asking, "Is he gone yet?" "No," said Norma. "Will you please honk the horn?"

"I can't. Just listen to him breathe."

"That's not him breathing. That's me!"

Gradually, the buffalo lost interest in us and moved on. Forty-five minutes after we had pulled off the road, we were able to start the car and drive through the rest of the park. It is experiences like that which we have shared as a couple or family that provide great memories. Common experiences draw people together.

Professional athletes tell me the hardest part of retirement is that they miss the camaraderie of their team. That unique bond is built through hard training and competition together over months and years. That closeness should be part of every family.

One summer my sons and I went fishing in Washington. We found an incredible waterfall dropping into a beautiful pool. Having fished since I was in the third grade, I knew exactly how to catch the trout in this water. Michael and Greg weren't experienced, but they insisted on preparing their own lines. Greg did everything wrong. His leader was too long and too thick. His hook was too large and his one egg didn't cover it. I had everything just right—a two pound leader, four feet long with a small hook. Although it was difficult, I left the boys and crawled around underneath the waterfall instead of staying at the front part of the pool, where there was no possibility of catching a fish.

I had cast my line and was trying to be perfectly still when I heard Greg screaming. He had hooked a twenty-five to thirty inch steelhead. I, the "expert" fisherman in the family, had only caught one steelhead in my entire life. Greg, with his sloppily rigged line, had done the impossible.

I tried to scramble over to Greg to help him reel in his catch. But the rocks were too slippery, so I tried to coach him. He was screaming and reeling in his line too fast. I tried to tell him to slow down, but he was too excited to listen. When the fish reached the bank and Greg was ready to net it, the hook broke away from the line because he hadn't tied the hook properly. The fish flipped back into the water and swam away. Greg threw his pole up the hill, fell on the ground, and began to sob uncontrollably.

My heart sank for him. We both had visions of mounting this catch. In the years since that experience, Greg has never hooked another fish like it. We still look back and grieve over it, through now we can also see the humor in it.

These experiences, along with many others, did something for us as a family. First, we were together. Being together provides the basis for shared experiences that become precious memories. Second, facing difficulties draws a family much closer together. The memories of being together on vacation when things went wrong or when we shared adventure is what knits the family together.

© Copyright 2005 Smalley Relationship Center