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By Judith K. Balswick

The old adage "If you don't know where you're going you'll never get there" is an important reason to establish family goals. Whether it is to envision new ways to relate to one another in family relations, to make plans about where to spend a family vacation or to develop the spiritual lives of family members, setting goals is the way to make sure you will achieve what you want to have happen in your family life. A family without a sense of direction wavers to and fro as external circumstances determine its future. A proactive family, in contrast, will make long- and short-term goals to turn their dreams into reality.

We invest ourselves in what we hold precious. For example, parents who value the spiritual growth of their children will make principled efforts to attend church and Sunday school. In addition, they will find ways to incorporate devotional rituals within family life, to celebrate the traditions of their faith and to make special efforts to discuss current events in the context of their religious beliefs. Although these activities may not be written down anywhere as specific family goals, these behaviors emerge out of clearly formed values in the hearts of the parents. But most families need more than a heart desire to convert their values into action. In fact, unless these values are specified in terms of goals and subgoals, they will most likely be left by the wayside.

A purposeful goal not only helps family members identify what is important but also helps them implement concrete ways of attaining their values. Good intentions are never enough! A family needs to agree on specific objectives that will help accomplish what its members hold dear. Family researchers (Delores Curran, Nick Stinnet) have discovered that families who work together toward common goals have a sense of meaning that enriches their common life. Whether it is making plans for a birthday celebration, solving a family problem or accomplishing a specific task, a family reaches a deep sense of satisfaction when it joins together in this common effort. As each family member contributes to the family as a whole, they are appreciated for the unique part they play. The family that works together for common goals reaps the rewards of closeness and unity.


How does a family go about setting family goals? Establishing a family council is a good place to start. This involves the family's setting aside a place and time for members to share their ideas about family needs, values and desires. Using the brainstorming approach, each member is encouraged to freely contribute any and all ideas that come to mind. The invitation to think "outside the lines" brings up many creative possibilities. One family member writes each idea down on a piece of paper until a long list has been accumulated. There are no right or wrong ideas, and even the most outrageous suggestions are warmly received. Every member, from oldest to youngest, is taken seriously and treated honorably in this information-gathering process. This exercise assures that each family member is involved individually and corporately in the creation of family goals.

Next, the family chooses by consensus one particular goal from among the many ideas. Narrowing down the field can be difficult, but it is necessary to prioritize. Once the main goal is established, the family can begin to brainstorm about the specific behaviors that are needed to accomplish this goal. The family formulates subgoals (specific objectives) that will help them execute the greater goal. Subgoals need to be both realistic and "doable." Brainstorming, once again, is the best way to elicit a number of imaginative ideas. Once all of these are listed, each one must be evaluated in terms of whether it is reasonable and desirable for the whole family. In other words, it is a question of whether the family will be successful in following through.

Take the example of a family who wants to develop a deeper spiritual life. One subgoal may be to have devotions every night after supper at 5:30. Now it is time to evaluate. The teenagers may express objections because it interferes with their band or sports activities after school. A younger child complains that it will be boring. Mother says she wants the devotions to include creative activities, but Father prefers a simple Bible reading each night. As each member expresses their thoughts, feelings and ideas, the family becomes more realistic about what needs adjusting. Very often a compromise is made, such as having devotions at 5:30 on the three days a week that everyone is home. The family decides to add variety by having everyone take turns presenting the devotion. The bonus that emerges out of this compromise is that it extends the responsibility to each member. All these modifications serve to increase the likelihood of success. The family now has a plausible way of reaching its ultimate goal that works for it at this particular time in its life stage.

An essential part of goal setting is for family members to make a commitment to keep part of the bargain. When the goal and subgoals have been evaluated together, it is relatively easy for individuals to cooperate. Clear, written objectives help everyone know exactly what is expected of them. Now it is time to clinch the deal.


Once the long-term goal and the short-term behavioral objectives are established, a covenant can be ratified or a contract can be signed to signify mutual commitment. This final step gives each family member a chance to promise, in front of others, that they will make every effort to do their part. This can be done by having a simple ceremonial handshake or by signing a written contract made up by the family at the end of the family council. The essential thing is that each person agrees to the conditions set forth and gives their word to keep the contract.

It is also vital to specify a time frame for this contract. Whether it is after one month or six months, it is best for the family to periodically review the progress made toward the goal. Meeting each week for family council is a good place to evaluate the effectiveness of the contract. The family asks itself, "How are we doing?" "Are the objectives helping us meet the metagoal?" and "Is there anything that needs to be changed?" These questions allow for needed correctives and innovative suggestions. An ongoing fresh perspective will continue to improve or reshape the subgoals.

When problems occur, the family must also agree to come back to the drawing board (family council) to renegotiate. This is not to be a time for blaming or defensiveness, but a chance to make things better. The thing to figure out is why a breakdown occurs. Recognizing barriers (were the goals too high?), considering various courses of action (what can we change?) or looking to alternatives (what haven't we tried?) helps the family figure out a new course of action. Since goals can be reached in a number of ways, changing immediate small steps is often the best way to assure achievement of the long-range goals. Minor setbacks are to be expected, and failure is not viewed as a catastrophe; both are only opportunities to regroup and try again. Flexibility is the key! Listening is the best path to ingenious solutions. It may be that encouragement, instruction or equipping is needed. It is a time for family members to recommit themselves, to join hands and to take up the task once again.


Family goals are only as effective as its members' commitment to each other. Steps of action toward long- and short-range family goals require that everyone reach beyond individual goals. Family members must work together to be a family unit. As the apostle Paul explains, each unique part has something essential to offer the whole body and no one part can function effectively without the others. When we give of ourselves, set time apart, put forth effort and contribute our special giftedness, we serve the whole. Converting our values into goals requires a vision. Family members must draw a landscape, plant the seeds, remove the obstacles and play their unique part in making their ultimate family dream a living reality.


D. Curran, Traits of a Healthy Family (Minneapoli