It takes some families more than a turkey and some mistletoe to make the season bright

At this festive time of year, the collective American consciousness turns to thoughts of family.

My job as a social worker and parent educator has me intensely focused on the concept of family — every day. For the past couple of years I have been a group facilitator for the Health Promotion Council's 12-week Focus on Families' REMix (Relationship Education in the Mix) healthy relationship class at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services' Achievement Reunification Center (ARC) in Center City.

Most of the participants at the ARC are mandated to be there, but we have also conducted groups with voluntary participants at other locations.

This represents, for me, months and months of listening to the stories of the inner-workings of numerous families and the varied relationships therein. Some of the stories were unbelievably heartwarming; some of them were horrifying. All of the stories are the stuff of ordinary lives.

Examining relationships in conflict

Couples who attend the REMix class together offer particularly startling insights into the often conflicting dynamics of close relationships between partners and between parents and their children. With the REMix course, we hope to impart some strategies to the families that they can use to improve their daily interactions within those relationships.

For many of the people taking the course, it is possibly the first time that they have heard concrete examples of what constitutes normal, healthy relationships. Many of them have endured crippling traumas in their lives that they, in turn, play out in various forms in their dealings with their own mates and in their roles as parents.

Our hope is to help them more closely examine their lives and perhaps break some of their known negative habits, or perhaps even those bad behavior patterns of which they may not be aware.

My experience teaching the REMix class has demonstrated one critical and undeniable fact to me: the enduring importance of family to the healthy development of children and adults. Many of the participants in our classes (mandated or not) are confronting harsh relationship crises, and it is heartening to see how hard people struggle to maintain their family units, no matter how tenuous their bonds may be, or how they define family for themselves.

The issues these families confront are not unique. They are often good people who may (or may not) have made a mistake. Their plights suggest that we would all do well to consider whether or not we are guilty of taking our families for granted.

However defined, the importance of 'family' endures

Very often, the class participants tell me that they feel the other members of the group become like family to them. The classroom setting is a sort of "laboratory family experience" where they can collectively work on issues of communication, values, conflict resolution, etc.

Our discussions around family are sometimes quite emotional, which underscores the critical nature of the subject. For so many of our participants, their legal troubles in the Family Courts have forced them to examine more closely their family connections, sometimes for the first time in their lives.

Whatever one feels about the importance of family, it is clear that the definition of "family" has morphed immeasurably in this country. The modern family may not conform to traditional standards, but it remains somehow "family" nonetheless. The idea is still relevant, and it still forms the backbone of modern life — particularly for our children.

It is interesting to see these REMix participants fight through their family traumas and (usually) find a way to hold their family units together. It doesn't always work out perfectly, but I do see many of them come to the realization that their families are what they treasure most.

With all of the unavoidable changes in this world, it is comforting for me to know that family still matters.

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