DALLAS — When they were kids, Gary Malone and his sister Susan sold potholders together. They also ran a swim school out of their own backyard.
But when it came time to choose real careers, they faced very different expectations. Their dad, a Freudian psychiatrist, planned that his three sons would accomplish great things.
He had few expectations for his daughter because she was, well, a girl.
"My bar was low," she said. "I had the opposite reaction to that; I wanted to do better than the boys. When that owned me, I was on dead-end paths. Since I have understood it, I have been able to use it to my advantage."
Gary Malone became a psychiatrist. Susan Malone became an editor and author who has also teamed with her brother on a couple of books, including the just-released "What's Wrong with My Family — And How to Live Your Best Life Anyway."
Gary Malone will tell you most families are a bit messy, the dysfunction sometimes mild, sometimes quite severe. But when you accept that fact and look honestly at your own childhood, you can figure out what you need to change so it doesn't pass down like a mutated gene.
He is a psychiatrist who admits he has seen some of the worst that family life can offer, from sexual abuse to alcohol, physical abuse to neglect. "If you don't address it, you will repeat it. But you can recognize and create the family you want," Malone said.
No recipe exists. But there are shared traits that most high-functioning families have. The Malones think three in particular make all the difference. Family is a place where a child experiences unconditional love. Individual family members are allowed to have their personal identity. And parents set boundaries and provide structure and consistency.
To that list, Craig Pierce would add paying attention. A marriage and family therapist, Pierce sums up family strength with a word he coined: "Attunetion." It's a combination of paying real attention and being attuned to what's going on with your kids. The views are not contradictory.
"Philosophically, like no other time, parents and everyone else is being bombarded with what to pay attention to," said Pierce, founder and CEO of the Southwest Family Guidance Center, which has offices throughout New Mexico. He just published "Parenting Without Distraction: The Attunetion® Approach."
"We respond, respond, respond. But we don't stop long enough to tune in to what matters most. We all need to tune in, past distractions."
The Malones cite distraction as weakening families, too.
Even good parents are frequently distracted by all the things tugging at their time and vying for attention. Some parents check their kids' grades and make sure they're playing on the elite soccer team and call it good. That's not enough, Gary Malone said.
Distractions can be like sun shining in a driver's eye — it's hard to see what's out there. Pierce talks about a mom who harps at her son, 14, because he never cleans his room. If he does that, she figures, it will show he respects her, that he listens, that he's responsible. But she's so focused on that she misses other things, like the fact that his peers are changing to the negative, his grades are dropping, he comes home later and later, and his eyes are dilated. A messy room is pretty typical for a teenage boy. Missing those other things has much different impact.
She is also, says Pierce, missing a chance to work with her son and share the task, to talk and connect. A better approach would be to say, "Let's go in together and we'll each do three things." Within 15 minutes, he says, the room is cleaner, they've spent time together, she's demonstrated some skills he needs, there's no power struggle, she got her respect and she's maybe had the chance to notice if he's high or not.
"I think most of us are doing parenting without a conscious intention and we don't stop long enough to wonder why we're doing it or is it the most effective way. I recently walked into the room where my son was studying. He had the sports channel on, music in the background and was talking to a girl while doing homework. I told him he couldn't be doing his homework well that way."
Pierce's son responded that he is getting straight A's and "what more do you want?"
"He was saying it respectfully and he was making a point," says Pierce. "His point was right. I was saying it out of an automatic response. Had he not been making good grades and being focused, that was a different matter."
Recently, Pierce watched two dads interact with their kids in a restaurant. One dad was "pretending" with his daughter, about 5, in a make-believe world. He was totally interacting. The other dad, with a boy about the same age, was messing around with his phone. The boy was well behaved, but ignored. Only when the food came did that second dad put his phone down. Then he concentrated mostly on his food.
That's not what any of these experts recommend. "We need to ask ourselves, am I fully present," Pierce said. "We are really declining in our culture in the time we spend face to face interacting with each other as adults, but even more specifically with our kids. We are losing the ability to be connected, related and empathetic."
Good parenting involves intent, they all agree.
"Every family provides what you carry out with you and what you don't want to repeat," Gary Malone said. "But if you don't make some conscious choices and acknowledge the part you don't want, under stress you will repeat it."
His sister describes family dysfunction as a bell curve. "The point is, no matter what happened to you, there's still a way to live your best life. ...We all tend to go, 'You should hear what my mother did to me.' You have to identify issues, but you need to go to a deeper step" to see how your parents influence your parenting and then change things you don't want to repeat.
"It's never too late; kids are very forgiving," Gary Malone said. His advice is to identify what's happening that causes trouble in your family and then stop doing it. "It's fixable."
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