Chapter 9: Fostering Mental Health by Strengthening Family Life

The Mental Health Ministry of the Local Church
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr.

Chapter 9: Fostering Mental Health by Strengthening Family Life

The family is the basic unit of growth and experience, fulfillment or failure. It is also the basic unit of illness and health. (The Psychodynamics of Family Life (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1958), p. 15.)

-- Nathan W. Acherman.

And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock

-- Matt. 7:25

The Foundations of Mental Health

A church's basic contribution to fostering positive mental health and preventing mental illness is what it does to strengthen family life. Personality is homegrown. The family is the garden in which every new personality is created and grows. Here the roots of mental health are established in some and the roots of mental illness in others. Whatever a church can do to increase the adequacy of parents and the richness of family life will have a direct, positive effect on the mental health of its people. The minister's continuing face-to-face relationship with the families who compose his parish gives him a strategic role in the matter.

From birth to age ten, the average child is under direct home influence nearly ninety-five percent of the time, at school only five percent and at Sunday school or church less than one half of one percent. For every hour a school-age child spends in church, he spends thirty at school and 137 at home. It is obvious that the decisive factor in laying the foundations for future personality health is the health of today's homes. A church's most potent impact on the mental health of children is its positive influence on parents. Parents hold the key to the doorway leading to a bright, mentally healthy future for their children.

This chapter will center on the question, How can a church's family life program make the maximum contribution to the growth and health of persons? The goal of such a program is to help create in all the homes of a parish that quality of relationship through which persons of all ages can grow toward their God-intended fulfillment by having their basic personality needs satisfied. Through positive family life the basic "foods of the spirit" (described in Chap. 6) are made available to infants, children, youth, and adults. The adequacy of this spiritual nutrition determines the emotional growth rate and the degree of personality health produced in that family.

The Family as an Organism

To understand the absolute importance of the family in influencing personality health it is helpful to see the family as an interpersonal organism. A family consists of an organic network of complex social, economic, and psychological interdependencies. Psychiatrist Nathan W. Ackerman has shown that a family possesses these qualities of an organism -- it has functional unity; it is a living developing process; and it has a natural life history.( My discussion in this section draws heavily on Nathan W. Ackerman's approach in The Psychodynamics of Family Life, pp. 15-25.)

As in the case of an individual organism, a family has definite growth stages and critical transition periods. One student of family life delineates seven periods: (a) Beginning families; (b) families with preschool children, (c) families with school children, (d) families with adolescents; (e) launching families; (f) middle-aged families; (g) aging families.( Evelyn M. Duvall, Family Development (New York: J. P. Lippincott Co., 1957) . What appears to be the same family is actually a different family at each stage of its life history. Different interaction, pressures, roles, satisfactions, and self-images are found among its members. The continuing health of a family organism depends, to a considerable degree, on whether it can make the necessary adaptive changes as it moves from stage to stage. A church's family-life program should develop a strategy for helping families in each of the seven stages meet the special challenges of that stage creatively.

The humanness and identity of a child are developed within the family matrix. Each family has a unique emotional climate which, though constantly in flux, provides the psychological environment within which personality develops. At birth, a child has no self, no personality, only the hereditary potentialities for developing a personality. In the give and take of day-to-day family interaction, the personhood of the child emerges and is molded by the family organism. His personal identity and his ways of relating to others are derived from and will always be linked to the identity and relationship patterns of his family-of-origin. If the fundamental relational pattern satisfies the heart-hungers of family members to an adequate degree, their personality-health will be robust. The mental health of children flourishes when the need-satisfying adults around them are mentally healthy.

It is impossible to exaggerate the profundity of the impact of the family's dominant relationship pattern on the personality development of all its members. It influences everything about their personalities -- their anxiety levels, choice of defenses against anxiety, perceptions of reality, models of success and failure, their roles, self-images, conflict patterns, values and life goals. The identity and behavior of each is influenced by all the others in a kind of positive or negative complementarity. Negative complementarity is evident in the sick family organism in which one member is unconsciously "chosen" by the family to be the "black sheep" or mentally ill member. If the black sheep reforms or the ill member recovers, another family member often takes his place. The deviant or mentally disturbed member satisfies some hidden need in the inner dynamics of the family organism. A striking illustration of this is the manner in which some "respectable" parents of delinquents unconsciously use their children to obtain vicarious gratification of their own forbidden destructive or sexual impulses. In short, most personality illness becomes intelligible when understood as a manifestation of a disturbed family organism. Conversely, to a considerable degree an individual's personality strength and health is an expression of the vitality of his original family organism.

Enriching Husband-Wife Relationships

The emotional health of today's families was profoundly influenced by the experiences which these parents had as children and youth in yesterday's families. Emotional illness and health tends to be transmitted from one generation to the next over bridges of parent-child relationships. The health of the families of the next generation is already being deeply influenced by the experiences of children in present-day homes.

Though difficult, it is possible to interrupt the transgenerational process by which emotional problems are transmitted. Based on his extensive experience with troubled families, Ackerman declares: "Under optimal conditions it is possible to achieve a level of positive emotional health beyond that which characterized the families-of-origin. The younger generations of parents may raise healthier children than the older one, even while overreacting against their parents' 'mistakes.' " (The Psychodynamics of Family Life, p. 22.)

Many experiences beyond the parental home have influenced parents since their childhood. Hopefully these enriched their lives and enhanced their resources for raising healthier children. The church with a dynamic family life emphasis becomes this kind of broadening-strengthening influence in the lives of scores of parents and potential parents.

The personal identities which two people bring to a marriage are never fully formed. Each is attracted to the other by deep yearnings, including the yearning to complete himself through psychological union. Maleness is completed by femaleness and vice versa. A new identity emerges from the complementing interaction between the psychological worlds which the partners bring to the marriage. This new marital-pair identity is not simply the sum of their two personalities, although it incorporates many aspects of each. It is a new creation resulting from the ways each unique personality interacts with the other. A good marriage relationship has dimensions of health and strength which neither could possess alone. The marriage-pair identity provides a new base from which personal growth can occur. As children arrive, the marriage identity provides the core for the emerging, expanding family identity. The marriage identity is modified by interaction with the children. Fundamentally, the personal identity of the child (his answers to "Who am I and what am I worth?") are shaped by the marriage identity and its derivative, the family identity. If his parents have clear, positive answers (on a feeling level) to the question, 'Who are we as individuals and as a couple?," the child will grow a sturdy sense of self-esteem and a solid identity. His self-image will eventually include aspects of the self-images of each of his parents, of their marriage identity, and of the family identity, all combined in his own unique way.

Since the child's personality growth is inextricably bound up with his parents' relationship with each other, it is imperative that that relationship be as strong and well-nourished as possible. If the parents' relationship is impoverished so that their sexual and ego needs are frustrated over long periods of time, they will become unable to satisfy the child's heart-hungers. What is worse, they will tend, through loneliness, to try to satisfy their adult emotional needs in their relationship with the child. This makes the child feel exploited and caught in the cross fire between two people, both of whom are essential in his psychic economy. The woman who uses motherhood as a compensation for failure in wifehood is a case in point. The old saying to the effect that the most important thing a father can do for his child is to love the child's mother (and vice versa) contains an inescapable truth.

One of the ways in which a church program can enrich husband-wife relationships is by providing sound education for marriage beginning with high school youth. Ideally, such long-range preparation should occur in small groups using a modified therapy approach with self-understanding as the major goal. Since personality problems and emotional immaturity rather than lack of information are at the heart of most marriage failures, effective preparation for marriage should place heavy emphasis on feelings, attitudes, and relationships. If young people knew themselves better, they would be less pushed by neurotic needs in their choices of "roommates for life."

Premarital counseling (or better, premarital guidance) should be the culmination of a long preparation-for-marriage process. Premarital guidance sessions should have these goals: (a) Strengthening the bridge of relationship with the minister and the church. Whatever else happens during the sessions, the minister should do everything he can to establish strong rapport with the couple. This will make it easier for them to return to him in the future should they need help. It will also strengthen their link with the church fellowship, which can undergird their marriage. (b) Helping the couple understand the difference between "holy matrimony" and just "getting married." The former is a religious service symbolizing the ways in which both God and the religious community are deeply involved in the marriage relationship. The ceremony, understood as the establishment of a sacred covenant, is a significant way of helping a couple enter into the vertical dimension of family life. The emerging identity of a growing family is supported by the larger identity of the religious community. (c) Reducing the couple's anxieties about the mechanics of the ceremony by providing this information. This instruction can free their minds for more vital considerations. (d) Supplying the couple with whatever information they may desire related to achieving a strong, satisfying marriage relationship, including information about sex, finances, in-laws, children, planned parenthood, religion, and so forth. This is basically a seed-planting operation (as in Jesus' parable of the sower). Only a small part of the information will fall on the receptive soil of the couple's sense of need. (e) Giving them at least a taste of the experience of increasing their awareness of their relationship. Acquaintance with what Reuel Howe calls the "language of relationship" can point them in the direction of growth. By encouraging the couple to reflect on the new spiritual entity which they are beginning by establishing the core of a family, the growth of their sense of couple-identity is stimulated. (f) Helping acquaint them with the importance of recognizing and satisfying emotional needs -- each other's and their children's. This should encourage them to see marriage as a relationship which must be worked at if it is to grow. (g) Offering the couple the opportunity for more extended counseling, before or after the ceremony if they desire it or if serious emotional problems are evident. A minimum of three premarital sessions should be held with every couple.

Following the wedding, the minister should help the couple become involved as a couple in meaningful church activities. Worshipping together, sharing in a koinonia group, or enjoying the fellowship of a young couples club -- these and other activities can provide food for a growing husband-wife church relationship.

A California church invited couples who had been married within the past two years to a series of four informal meetings to discuss their relationships. The minister led the group of five couples who responded. Their problems proved to be mainly the "grinding of the gears" type, typical of the adjustment period of new marriages. In the second session, the minister suggested that they role-play a potential conflict situation -- forgetting a spouse's birthday -- and then discuss how they would handle it. As the couples shared their feelings about their marriages, rapport developed among them, permitting deeper communication. After the series, several of the participants reported that greater openness of communication within their marriages had resulted from the group experience.

A family-centered church program should include a variety o£ couple activities, without children. Parents need to recharge their batteries by enjoying each other and relating to other adults. Children can be appreciated most if family togetherness is judiciously balanced with apartness.

Education for Positive Parenthood

Effective on-the-job training for parents can make a valuable contribution to family mental health. Here are some of the goals of parent education:

(1) To help parents enjoy and believe in their children.

(2) To strengthen their feeling of adequacy as parents.

(3) To help them enjoy their marriage more.

(4) To increase their self-understanding, including understanding of themselves in their roles as parents and marriage partners.

(5) To increase their understanding of the "ages and stages" of themselves and their children.

(6) To enhance their ability to recognize and satisfy the emotional hungers of their children and each other.

Psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan once called for "the teaching of every parent the fact that children do not grow like green plants on chemicals activated by solar energy, or in any other way that may be taken for granted, but rather by assimilating ideas and examples given them by significant elders. Parents must be made to see that children are . . . held in trust as future members of the community." (Discussion of "The Psychiatry of Enduring Peace and Social Progress," by G. B. Chisholm, Psychiatry (February, 1946), p. 44.)

To achieve these goals, parent education needs to have parents' hearts as well as their heads as targets. Discussions of handling a child's anger constructively should be accompanied by small-group opportunities for the parents to work through their own feelings in this area (which is so vital to mental health) . This, of course, takes time and skilled leadership. Open discussion of the parents' feelings about sex should also be encouraged in good parent education. If a parent is stiff and anxious in discussing sex with his child, no supply of enlightened ideas will make it a constructive experience. Attitudes toward sex and anger are usually too deeply rooted to be altered radically by modified therapy approaches. However, it is possible and valuable for parents to achieve heightened awareness of these deeper feelings. This awareness can help them minimize the negative effects of the feelings, by discussing them openly with the child. The fact that a parent is able to talk with candor about his uneasiness in discussing sex helps to protect the child from the subtle contagion of such anxiety-loaded attitudes.

Much parent education focuses too much on content and children, and too little on parents and their feelings. Of course, it is more comfortable to talk about the former than the latter. Unfortunately, the frequent result is to heighten the parents' unproductive self-consciousness, making them awkward with their children because they are afraid of "breaking the rules" of child-rearing. To lessen this response, the resource person in a child-study group should emphasize the importance of the general tone of relationships in a family and point out that there is no one "right way" of rearing children. A cartoon depicted a pair of preteen boys reading a book entitled "Your Child.", One is saying to the other, "Boy! This next phase we go through is a dilly!" Something of this light touch in handling the often-somber data of "child psychology" is needed in parent education to reduce the threat resulting from overevaluation of such writings.

Most couples acquire the sense of need which will allow them to learn from parent education only after the first child is on the way. Groups for expectant parents have been used effectively in some churches. If a low birth rate in a particular church makes it unfeasible to hold such a series periodically, and if no community agency sponsors classes for expectant parents, it is wise for the pastor to meet with the couples separately to help prepare them for their demanding new roles. Whether it is done in small groups or couple-by-couple, pastoral preparation of expectant parents should emphasize the emotional needs of infants, a subject which physicians often do not emphasize adequately. A book like Margaretha Ribble's The Rights of Infants (The Rights of Infants (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943). or Dorothy Baruch's chapter on "Better Beginnings" in New Ways in Discipline,( New ways in Discipline, pp. 85ff.) are valuable resources in this area. The husband and wife should both be encouraged to discuss their feelings about themselves and each other as expectant parents. These feelings often conflict and are disturbing to the marriage. Representing the concern of the religious community for them and their soon-to-be-born child is a part of the minister's responsibility. This helps to undergird their lives during this period of stress.

The next natural opportunity for continuing parent education arises during the pastoral call which should occur soon after the child is born. Like all pastoral calls, this should be for more than a social visit. The couple should be given ample opportunity to articulate their feelings about themselves and their baby. Arrangements can be made for infant baptism (or dedication, as the case may be), and the couple may be urged to participate in a group for new parents, and/or in the broader parent-education program. Carefully selected pamphlets or books on the psychological needs of infants can be presented to the couple. A pastoral prayer of thanksgiving is a natural and essential part of such a call in most cases.

It is well for the minister to be alert to the marital problems which sometimes result from pregnancy and childbirth. Marriages based on adolescent romance are often severely shaken by these events. Emotional immaturities come to the surface of the marriage. Occasion- ally husbands have affairs around this time because they cannot tolerate the anxiety of being married to a mother, because they are jealous (unconsciously) of their wife's biological creativity, or because they cannot tolerate sharing their wife's attention with an infant competitor (which revives old sibling rivalries). If the minister senses serious problems such as these, or if the baby is handicapped, he should help the couple work through their difficulties or find other professional counseling.

Prebaptismal counseling offers a splendid opportunity for continuing the parent-education process. It is unfortunate that relatively few churches utilize this natural opportunity to the full. In one survey of clergymen, only half reported holding any regular interviews with parents of children about to be baptized.( Roy W. Fairchild and John C. Wynn, Families in the Church: A Protestant Survey (New York: Association Press, 1961), p. 231.) It is my experience that prebaptismal sessions tend to be more fruitful, from both educational and counseling perspectives, than most premarital sessions. The reason for this is simply that most new parents have a stronger sense of need for help than do typical couples hovered on the brink of matrimony. If the minister and his family life committee plan the prebaptismal sessions with care, they can provide both a major learning experience and an impetus to continuing involvement in the church's parent education program.

Ideally, prebaptismal counseling should take place in groups of from three to seven couples, utilizing a minimum of three sessions of two hours' duration. Here is the way one west-coast church conducted their sessions. The minister led the series of three Sunday afternoon meetings during the month preceding a date set for infant baptisms. Six couples participated. The first session began at the point of the parents' immediate anxiety the mechanics of their part in the baptismal service. This led into a consideration of the Protestant views of infant baptism and a detailed discussion of the meaning of each step in the ritual. Particular emphasis was given to the vows which the parents would be asked to take. A lively discussion ensued on the question of how parents could implement these vows. In concrete terms, how does a parent lead a child' by precept and example, "into the love of God and the service of our Lord Jesus Christ"?

At the close of session one, sections from Reuel Howe's Man's Need and God's Action (Man's Need and God's Action (New York: The Seabury Press, 1953). were assigned as "homework." His conception of baptism as "the gift of new relationship" provided an ideal transition to the second session. This dealt with how parents can help young children experience the meaning of the gospel through the "language of relationships" in the family. The leader pointed out that it is impossible to separate the physical, psychological, and spiritual needs of infants. He then presented Erik Erikson's illuminating concept, "basic trust" (Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1950) . pp. 219-22.) -- the fundamental feeling that grows in a healthy mother-child relationship during the first year of life. The leader declared, "Your child's most important lessons in religion are the ones he experiences before he learns to tall;." This precipitated vigorous group discussion concerning how one communicates love and trust to a baby so that he will have a foundation for later relationships of trust. Several had read The Rights of Infants which emphasizes the crucial importance of abundant cuddling, body contact, and sucking. One mother quoted, in effect, Margaretha Ribble's statement that "the parents who shrink in horror from the 'animal' side of life make it impossible for the child to develop the very qualities of intelligence and spirituality that they think they stand for." (The Rights of Infants, p. 110.) Several of the parents challenged this view. One of the feelings behind their response eventually came out. It was the feeling of having failed older children who had been treated in ways the parents now recognized as inadequate. The minister indicated that his wife and he had these feelings about their oldest child, but that children are remarkably resilient and that becoming aware of errors in the past often creates the opportunity to make up for them in the present.( Dorothy W. Baruch makes this helpful point in New Ways in Sex Education (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1959), p. xv.)

The third meeting was used by the parents to discuss problems in child rearing and to compare experiences. Among the points which were raised was an emphasis on the importance of the father's being involved in caring for the baby and on the necessity of keeping the marriage relationship growing during this period of pressure. The entire group was urged by the Family Life Committee chairman to join in the church's ongoing child study and family life program. The minister indicated that these three sessions were only an introduction and that the church had a continuing interest in helping the parents implement their baptismal vows and in enriching the lives of all of its families. This final session was closed with a period of devotions in which the key ideas discussed during the series were brought together in the spirit of gratitude for the high privilege of being cocreators with God.

The period between birth and starting public school is the time when the basic structure of a child's personality is established. As indicated in Chap. 6, these years constitute the period during which effective parent education can have its most decisive impact. A community's churches have an open pathway to more families in this crucial period than all the other community agencies combined. What a tragic waste of a superb opportunity when, as often happens, a church loses contact with a family for several years following a child's baptism! Reaching and influencing parents in this age group should have highest priority among the goals of a church's family life committee!

The "Child-Study Nursery Group" described in Chap. 7 is an illustration of how a modified therapy approach can be used in a continuing group for parents of preschoolers. In a larger church it is possible and desirable to have at least two groups of this kind divided on the basis of the children's ages. Children change rapidly during the preschool years, as do the interests and problems of their parents. Continuing long-term groups are valuable because they build strong, supportive relationships among their members. But there is also value in short-term (three to ten meetings) parent-education groups focused on particular age groups or problems.

Each stage of life has its own particular "developmental task," the accomplishment of which is essential to the maintenance of vigorous mental health. An overview of the changing needs and growth challenges of each period of life provides a useful format for structuring a comprehensive family life program. Erikson's widely used "Eight Stages of Man"(Childhood and Society,pp. 219-33ff; see also "Identity and the Life Cycle," Psychological Issues, Vol 1, No. 1, 1959) can be helpful to sophisticated parent groups in understanding their own as well as their children's evolving needs. Translating some of Erickson's psychoanalytic language facilitates communication.


Approximate age

Radius of significant relations

Person needs to achieve

Negative alternative


Birth to 15 mo.

Maternal person

Basic trust

Basic mistrust


15 mo. to

2 1/2 yrs.



Shame and doubt


2 1/2 (or 3) to 6 (or 7)

Basic family




6 (or 7) to puberty

Neighbor-hood, school




Puberty to 20

Peer group, leader models


Identity diffusion


Young adult-hood

Partners in friendship, sex, cooperation




Middle adulthood

Divided labor and shared household




Later years


Ego integrity



A closer look at the developmental goal of each stage is now in order. Basic trust is the deep feeling that existence is trustworthy and worthwhile. It results from the warmth and dependability of the mother-infant psychological bond (see Chap. 3). Autonomy, the life task of stage 2, is the child's realization that he is a separate entity from the mother and that this is basically good. During the third stage (called the "oedipal phase" by Freud), a child normally develops a sensuous attachment to the parent of the opposite sex. This is a crucial preparation for eventual happiness in marriage. To illustrate, a little girl in a healthy family discovers in the warmth and strength of her father that it is a good, safe thing to relate to males. The same applies to boys in their relationships with their mothers during this stage. The term "initiative" refers to the feeling that it is good to be oneself in a thrusting, possessing way.

Experiencing a warm oedipal attachment between three and six years is essential to normal development. But since it consists of wanting the parent of the opposite sex entirely to oneself, it both raises fears of the same-sex parent and comes into conflict with the child's love for that parent. This dilemma is normally resolved around six or seven when the child relinquishes his oedipal wishes and identifies with the same-sex parent. During the next state (called "latency") a boy learns to feel and behave in male ways as he perceives them in his father. His identity as a male person is shaped decisively as he joins all-male groups and experiments with male roles. During this period, he normally learns to work and produce, mastering the use of certain tools and savoring the satisfactions of diligence and of the successful completion of a project. The developmental goal of this stage is a sense of industry, the solid awareness that he can accomplish things.

Stage five, adolescence, is the period of the identity crisis when a youth struggles to gain a firm sense of who he is as a person, separate from his parents. The dependence-independence ambivalence is often acute during this period. During adolescence, oedipal feelings toward the parent of the opposite sex are reactivated. Normally these are resolved by being transferred to others of that sex and eventually to a marital partner.

The goal of young adulthood (stage six) is the establishment of intimacy -- psychological and sexual closeness to others. During this period, persons marry, establishing what Gibson Winter calls a "covenant of intimacy." They produce children and the cycle begins again, while the growth stages continue in the parents. Having developed the capacity for intimacy, young adults enter the mature years with the ability to bear responsibility and achieve their maximum productivity. The developmental task of this stage (seven) is to realize their creative potential and to achieve what Erikson calls "generativity," the investment of themselves in the coming generation, and in the currents of education, art, and science. If this is not achieved, they turn in upon themselves in personal stagnation. Between forty-five and fifty-five most couples face the challenge of establishing a new kind of family identity minus children in the home. This tests the inner vitality of the marriage relationship. The "crisis of middle-age" is often acute for women because of the near-simultaneous occurrence of menopause, death of parents, children leaving the home, and the confrontation with inescapable signs of aging. The crisis for men centers on fear of aging (and death) coupled with feelings of not having realized the dreams of youth in vocational achievement.

Successful resolution of the growth crisis of each stage is dependent on adequately handling the previous stages. Ego integrity, the goal of the eighth stage, is the fruit of psychological success in the previous seven stages. It is the means by which one handles constructively the awareness of aging and inevitable death. The essence of ego integrity is experiencing oneself as a center of meaning and value. In the presence of this experience, death loses its sting. During the second half of life the Jungian emphasis on the necessity of discovering inner meanings, values, and creativity is another way of approaching the same truth. Certainly a church has a vital role in helping middle-aged and older persons achieve the essential reorientation of their lives from centering mainly in the outer world to finding rich satisfaction in the world of the spirit.

The lifelong process through which individuals and families pass can be understood as the evolution and fulfillment of the capacity to love. Evelyn M. Duvall (Evelyn Millis Duvall, Facts of Life and Love for Teen-Agers (New York: Popular Library ed., 1953), pp. 138ff).

describes the development of love as a ladder on which the first rung is the narcissistic, self-love of the infant. Successive rungs upward include parent-child love (the primary focus shifting from one to the other), sibling love (and rivalry), affection for playmates, acquisition of "best friend," attraction to the opposite sex, selection of a marriage partner, devotion to one's children, and altruistic love for mankind. The flowering of the capacity to love occurs most readily in the social womb of the family. Wholeness in the capacity to love is identical with the flowering of mental health. Tillich describes the theological dimension of this process: "Man can love himself in terms of self-acceptance only if he is certain that he is accepted.... Only in the light and in the power of the 'love from above' can he love himself." (Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice (New York: Oxford University Press 1954), p. 121.) It is this vertical reinforcing of the horizontal love relationships in a family that is religion's unique contribution to family life.

There is something precious about the empathic understanding of their children (and each other) which parents often acquire through family life groups. Before moving across the country with the family one mother was concerned about the effects of the move on her six-year-old. Fortunately, she had learned, in a parents' group, to listen to her child. One day she overheard him carrying on an animated conversation with a caterpillar on a tree branch outside his window. He began, "Mr. Caterpillar, would you like to move to a new house?" She felt an inner glow as she realized that he was playing out his unhappy feelings, as all healthy children do. She sat silently, sharing in the God-given healing process by which a child copes with life.

Developing Positive Attitudes Toward Sex

Sex, as Freud made crystal clear, is a powerful, ubiquitous phenomenon in human life with profound effects on mental health. One of the church's major contributions to mental health is to help youth and adults appreciate sex as one of God's best gifts, to be used appropriately, like all his gifts. Reuel Howe speaks from both a psychological and Christian perspective when he says: "The power of the sex drive springs from the longing of the incomplete being for completion.... a divided creation groans and suffers, longing for union and fulfillment. The union longed for, however, is more than sexual. It is a longing for personal union of which the sexual is but a part and not the whole." (Reuel Howe, The Creative Years (Greenwich, Conn.: The Seabury Press, 1959), p. 95.) William Genne gives this definition of Christian love: "The overwhelming desire and persistent effort of two persons to create for each other the conditions under which each can become the person God meant him to be." Sex finds its delicious fulfillment and life-enhancing beauty only within such a context of mutual love, respect and responsibility. Sex in marriage has at least three vital purposes: (a) Procreation -- continuing the race and fulfilling ourselves in our children. (b) Pleasure -- a satisfying sexual relationship adds a dimension of ecstasy and wonder to marriage. (c) Unification -- a way of overcoming our separateness, of both expressing and strengthening the communion of two spirits. It helps to bring into being what one of T. S. Eliot's characters describes as "The new person -- us!"

Basic attitudes and feelings about sex (and the physical side of human life in general) are caught by children in the home. Parents' responses to their child's normal exploratory and pleasure-producing sex play color the child's feelings about sex. The parents' warm appreciation of their own sexual complementarity helps children to realize that sex, when linked with love, is very good. In subtle ways, the parents' positive or negative attitudes toward their own sexual relationships will be communicated to their children. An excellent volume which can enrich the sexual side of a couple's relationship is Sex in Marriage, New Understandings.( Dorothy W. Baruch and Hyman Miller (New York: Harper & Row, 1962). If a couple has serious problems in this area, they should seek professional counseling. In her valuable sex-education guide for parents and teachers, New Ways in Sex Education, Dorothy W. Baruch writes: "This is the aim of sex education: to find full-hearted and full-bodied satisfactions in mature and warm mutuality, securely entered into and happily complete. The END and AIM of sex education is developing one's FULLEST CAPACITY for LOVE. (New Ways in Sex Education, p. 7.)

Family Centered Church Programs

Here is an announcement from a church bulletin:

Premiering the New Family Group: To meet monthly in the gym, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m., featuring devotions, volleyball, games, films, and occasional potlucks. Bring the whole family.

This is one of many patterns for encouraging family church activities. Such all-family events have the greatest value if they are planned in moderation to avoid burdening the busy schedules of the kinds of families who most often attend such functions.

Family participation in meaningful, enjoyable church activities develops their awareness of the church fellowship as a part of their extended family. Studies have shown that a valid way of measuring the vitality of a given family is to evaluate the strength of its relationships with the circle of friends immediately outside the family. Many students of our culture have pointed to the rootlessness and aloneness of contemporary families. Ackerman observes: "Individual identity requires support from family identity, and family identity in turn requires support from the wider community." (The Psychodynamics of Family Life, p. 21.) The support of the small county-seat town and the clan of nearby relatives is no longer available to most families. This loss contributes to upsetting the equilibrium of family relations, reinforcing internal conflict, and increasing the traumatic impact of family crises. Uprooted and mobile, the contemporary family needs a group where it can find friendship and support quickly. A family-centered church is the best way of meeting this need.

Those Without Families

The emphasis on couple and family activities raises awkward problems for those without family ties -- for example, the nine million Americans who live alone. A strong family-oriented emphasis unwittingly creates an excluding climate which tends to increase the heavy loneliness load of such persons. Meeting the needs of non-family persons is a challenge to any church. In a sense, this is the acid test of a church's person-centeredness. Can its group program be so varied, inclusive, and need-satisfying that it will provide a substitute family for the family-less?

Single people need groups where they can satisfy social needs with other single persons, but they should be included in every other group in which they have an interest. One of the most lively church groups of my acquaintance is composed of single persons from forty to sixty. Most of them are widows, widowers, or single persons who have accepted their singleness. This allows them to relax and enjoy social, educational. and service activities together. The group includes enough men to give it an interesting coeducational atmosphere.

What is a "Happy Home" ?

What sort of home tends to grow happy, well-adjusted, emotionally healthy children? A study was made at a state teachers college in Wisconsin of 261 children who seemed to fit this description.( R. M. Goldenson, "Why Boys and Girls Go Wrong or Right," Parents Magazine (May, 1951). These criteria were employed in choosing the well adjusted children: Plays well with other children, appears to be a happy child, has reasonable control over his emotions, can be depended on, is achieving somewhere near his capacity, is able to think for himself, is kind and helpful to teachers and classmates, is liked and respected by his peers.) They came from all economic and occupational levels and a wide variety of religious, racial, and national backgrounds. The economic advantages which most parents struggle to give their children seemed to be of little importance to the emotional health of the children studied. Fifty-six of the children were only children. Others came from large families. The homes had their share of misbehavior, jealousy, and bickering, but the stormy periods didn't seem to last long or cut deeply into the underlying foundation of family unity.

The families studied were found to share a large number of activities as families. They liked doing things together, The typical pattern of religious activities was expressed by one parent: "We participate in religion as a family just as we do in everything else." The parents agreed in general on the importance of respecting the feelings and opinions of their children. They differed on methods of discipline, but most of the parents showed reasonable firmness without being heavy-handed. Orderly living was far more the result of positive planning and working as a family than of negative restraints and punishment. There was almost universal agreement that a child needs responsibilities commensurate with his age. Whether or not there were formal religious practices in the home, the parents put effort into encouraging basic values such as fair play, honesty, helpfulness, and respect for all sorts of people. In the variety of family life patterns represented in the study there were certain common threads of respect for privacy and the willingness to talk out grievances. The parents thought of themselves as "just everyday parents," but it was obvious that parenthood was something they enjoyed.

One of the fathers interviewed in this study expressed what may be the master clue to why the children were happy and emotionally robust: "Most important of all is loving your children and letting them know it, thinking of them as people and treating them so, appreciating what they do and trusting them and telling them so -- and above all, letting them know they are wanted." (Ibid., p. 81)

A Family Lives its Religion

When relationships like those just described exist in a family, that family is living religiously. This is more important to the personality health of its members than for them to engage in formal religious practices in the home. Such practices can have value only if they are consistent with the relationship climate of the family. If a family's interaction is leavened by respect for persons, wise love, creativity-stimulating freedom, mutual trust, and concern for the wider community, then family prayers and rituals can be a meaningful way of drawing together and enriching the family's experiences.

The way a family handles its non-loving feelings often reveals its religious quality most clearly. Peter, age four, has his "nose out of joint" because of the arrival of a baby sister. If his parents make him feel that his natural jealousy is bad, he will be forced to hide his intense, painful feelings from them, in order to retain their love. Fortunately Peter's parents respond in ways that protect his personhood. They know that all children feel jealous under these circumstances and that it is important that his feelings be kept in the open, so that he can learn to deal with them constructively. By giving him extra attention and warmth, they help to quiet his fears that his baby sister will take over completely. By expressing their love for him, rather than punishing him for his jealousy, they lessen its intensity. Further, they provide him with substitute ways of expressing his feelings -- a board to pound and clay from which to model squashable little figures. They reflect and accept his feelings but they make it very clear that he must not express his feelings in ways that will hurt his sister. Learning this distinction between having destructive feelings and acting on them is very important to Peter's mental health and his ability to live with others.

Let us suppose that Peter's parents handled his jealousy in a moralistic, repressive way and had subsequently, during the saying of grace before a meal, thanked God for the "gift" of a baby sister. Their intention would be to help Peter love his sister and share in what for them is a "blessed event." Undoubtedly they would be baffled by his temper tantrum and his refusal to eat his meal. Because they did not understand his inner feelings and needs, they would have done something irreligious (in its effects on personality) in the name of religion. Unwittingly they would have made Peter angry at God and guiltier about his jealousy.

Since Peter's jealousy is being handled constructively, the day will come when he will be glad for the new life that has joined his family, though as in all human relationships, he will continue to have mixed feelings about his sister. Eventually -- perhaps when he becomes a father -- a wider world of wonder will open in Peter's mind as he senses the miracle of new life in which a whole family participates. The awareness that a family, in all its creative experiences, is organically related to the creative forces of the universe is a moving religious experience. There is a security which comes to a person with this awareness of the way in which the person-regarding values in the family are supported by values in the universe, giving ultimate meaning to family life. This security is particularly important at times when the family organism is threatened by inner crises or outer pressures.

Regina W. Wieman summarizes: "The family that lives for the sake of great things itself becomes great.... Complete commitment to the Creativity of God is the great source of security, of freedom, of richness, and of meaning for the family." (The Family Lives Its Religion (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1941). pp. 216-17.) The commitment of any person or any family is a process with successes and failures, ups and downs. When a family is living its religion the prevailing direction of its guiding concerns is toward those relationships which cause persons to grow.

Martin Buber has a choice passage which illuminates the importance of creative family life:

Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other. The human person needs confirmation because man as man needs it.... Sent forth from the natural domain of species into the hazard of the solitary category, surrounded by the air of chaos which came into being with him, secretly and bashfully, he watches for a Yes which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another. It is from one man to another that the heavenly bread of self-being is passed.(Martin Buber, "Distance and Relation," trans. Ronald G. Smith, The Hibbert Journal, XLIX (January 1951), 113)

The healthy family is the womb of healthy personality, a haven of relatedness, the place above every other place where "the heavenly bread of self-being is passed."



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Baruch, Dorothy W. How to Live With Your Teen-ager. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1953.

Baruch, Dorothy W. New Ways in Discipline. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1949.

Baruch, Dorothy W.New Ways in Sex Education. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1959.

Baruch, Dorothy W., and Miller, Hyman. Sex in Marriage, New Understandings. New York: Harper & Row, 19G2.

Erikson, Erik H. Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press, 1959.

Fairchild, Roy W., and Wynn, John C. Families in the Church. New York: Association Press, 1961.

Howe, Reuel L. The Creative Years. New York: The Seabury Press, 1958.