International Day of Families

I am lucky to come from a large and close-knit family. I grew up in South Africa and while my parents and two of my siblings and their families are still there, four of us live abroad – in the UK in my case. Despite the distance, my family is still at the heart of my life: we speak often, supporting, listening, advising and helping each other to grow and live more fully.

How the elements of a happy family can be harnessed to create a happier world

I am lucky to come from a large and close-knit family. I grew up in South Africa and while my parents and two of my siblings and their families are still there, four of us live abroad – in the UK in my case. Despite the distance, my family is still at the heart of my life: we speak often, supporting, listening, advising and helping each other to grow and live more fully.

Today’s UN International Day of Families seems to me a wonderful opportunity to reflect on ideas of what makes up families, and how we can apply the principles of a strong family unit to society. Never has this been more relevant than now; not only because so many of us are separated from our families as a result of the coronavirus restrictions, but also because we are starting to examine what society will look like in the ‘new normal’. While the pandemic has been lethal for many people and destructive of many ways of being and doing, it has also brought out some of the best in our society: in looking out for one another, showing support without expectation of return, and in demonstrating trust.

The road I live in in London has been inspiring. Everyone has banded together to make sure our older, more vulnerable neighbours have everything they need without having to leave their homes. They have started a mailing group to keep everyone informed and connected and, while I am currently in lockdown in South Africa, one of my neighbours has taken on looking after our front garden when it needs attention. I have been taken by these acts of familiness in this little community. How can we take these family values into a post-coronavirus world?

In preparing to write this piece, I turned to my family, as I so often do. I asked them to tell me what they think being part of a family means, what the foundations for a strong family are, and how they believe society would benefit from seeing itself as a family. Their answers not only shed a light on the type of family I am fortunate enough to come from, but also provide what I believe to be a blueprint for a happy, healthy society.

Belonging is at the heart of what it means to be part of a family. The sense of acceptance, unconditional love and safety is so important to anyone growing up and working out who they are, and to everyone as they navigate life’s challenges. I certainly felt as I grew up (and I still do) that I could be myself and be supported no matter what path I chose. To have that stability, that platform, is an incredibly powerful thing. Equally important, of course, is a family’s ability to challenge and advise you, and knowing that they do so from a place of love. Guidance is crucial for self-realisation and self-actualisation, and guidance from a person or people who you know has no ulterior motive but your best interests is especially valuable. How do we create an environment in which people feel a sense of belonging and safety, with people caring about the growth, personal development and wellbeing of others?

A common story or purpose is also key to a strong family. A family that has spent a lot of time together is like a rich fabric woven with stories, both happy and sad: those stories provide context for other stories, events, jokes and tragedies and create that all-important sense of belonging, of understanding and being understood. I see this happening so often in the new South Africa when there are big sporting events, or now, when we all share a similar story of working through Covid-19. What story can we all work on? Perhaps all working together to save our planet?

What are the foundations for a strong family? The common themes in my own family are: unconditional love, honest communication, spending quality time together (whether physically or virtually), giving and receiving support, showing gratitude and humility, and sharing a passion or belief in something greater than ourselves. For my family, that ‘something’ is our faith, but it could be simply the belief in the importance of family, of helping others.

I invite you to read back over the last three paragraphs I have written and to find something in them that would help you contribute to a healthier, happier family of your own – and ultimately to our society. We need to find it within ourselves to love our neighbours as we love our families – unconditionally and with humility.

It was with this thought in mind that we introduced ‘family groups’ into our Sustainable Futures programme with Afrika Tikkun, where we empower young people to become the sustainable, resilient leaders of the future, ready and equipped to work. The programme started at the beginning of March with a group of 55 students: a big family by anyone’s measure. We were eager that, with such a big group, they didn’t feel lost or like they were just a number. By breaking the group into smaller teams or ‘families’, we hoped to foster a feeling of support and accountability, thereby encouraging more contribution and better outcomes. Family members built and nurtured their families by creating a family name, creating name tags with the same colour schemes, agreeing on a set of standards around how they would engage with one another and sharing their assignments on the WhatsApp group they created. The connection also runs deeper: they chat about topics not related to their work, celebrate birthdays and even share their struggles.

This concept was originally only meant for group work; however, when the coronavirus pandemic led the South African government, like so many others, to enforce strict social distancing rules, we decided to use the family format as a way to teach them. Routes to Resilience facilitators created and joined the ‘family’ WhatsApp groups, using them to deliver the materials and lessons to the groups, as well as to engage in discussion, share assignments and form smaller sub-families.

It has been wonderful to witness the deepening connection between ‘family’ members and to see how they lean on one another to grow and develop, much like ‘real’ families do. It’s an incredible illustration of the power of the family dynamic and what we can achieve if we bring the connection that we feel with our relations to our wider communities and societies. The Afrika Tikkun students feel safe to risk being wrong in front of one another without judgement, and their positive attitude allows them to motivate one another in little and big ways. One participant said of their ‘family’, “meeting new people and getting to know them is very challenging for me, but in this family of mine we are warm-hearted, down to earth and we know our capabilities and when to ask for help.”. Another added, ‘We are different in many ways but the humanity in us makes us one”.

If that’s not a deep insight, then I don’t know what is! We are all humans with so many gifts to offer, and we all have a shared humanity: let’s use that as the basis to create a kinder, more tolerant human family.