What is a family? I decided to do what you often do when you want to find the meaning of a word. I checked the dictionary and, admittedly, I was disappointed. Webster defines family as, "a group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head; a group of persons of common ancestry." This definition was not much help.

To be more thorough, I dusted off my giant, exhaustive Oxford English Dictionary, found the entry for family, pulled out my magnifying glass, and read, "The body of persons who live in one house or under one head, including parents, children, servants, etc." Okay, that was not my childhood home! As I recall, I was the servant! Maybe that fits Oxford, but it does not describe most of us.

Let's begin to unravel this little mystery. See what you think of my working definition.

Defining family

The family is where you put down your first roots, where you form your most lasting impressions, where you put together the building blocks of your character, and where you determine whether you will view life through the eyes of prejudice or acceptance. Family is where you learn to laugh and where you are allowed to weep without losing respect. Family is where you learn how to share, how to relate, and how to treat other people. Family is where you learn how to interpret your surroundings correctly. It is where you discover how to draw the line between right and wrong, between good and evil.

Dysfunctional families blur that line, and boundaries become unclear. Solid, secure families have a clear view of the difference so that its members have little ethical confusion. Moral dilemmas will challenge you, but if you come from a healthy family, you are seldom unclear about what is right or wrong.

Eight characteristics

Having studied the work of a number of respected sources, I put together a list of eight characteristics that describe a healthy family. This is a composite of characteristics that consistently appear on the lists of those who have spent half of their lives working in the trenches with families — counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, researchers, and authors. This certainly is not an exhaustive list, but it includes the most significant traits of a healthy household common to the cross section of experts I studied.

1. The members of the household are committed to one another.

The family, therefore, is a unit with members dedicated to living their lives in support of one another with unquestioned loyalty.

2. A healthy family spends time together.

A wholesome, healthy family believes that time together cannot have quality without sufficient quantity.

3. A healthy family enjoys open, frequent communication.

No question is inappropriate, no opinion is disrespected, and no subject is considered off limits. Important, life-determining subjects are naturally intermingled with the mundane.

4. The healthy family turns inward during times of crisis.

Members of wholesome, healthy families work through difficulties together. A crisis brings them closer because they look within the family for strength rather than looking to something outside.

5. Members of a healthy family express affirmation and encouragement often.

"Good job!" "I admire you for that!" "You mean a lot to me!" Notice that affirmation and encouragement are different. You affirm who people are, while you encourage what people do. Both are necessary to help others discover who they are and what they do well, which builds a strong sense of personal security. You are not born with a well-defined sense of self; you discover yourself through the influence of those important to you.

6. The members of a healthy family share a spiritual commitment.

The family members are bound in unity by their shared relationship with God, and they learn to nurture it as a result of mutual encouragement.

7. Each person in a healthy household trusts the others and values the trust he has earned.

This trust is built upon mutual respect and a dedication to truth.

8. The members of a healthy family enjoy freedom and grace.

Each has the freedom to try new things, think different thoughts, embrace values and perspectives that may be new to the family, and even challenge old ways of doing things. All of this is built upon grace. Everyone has the freedom to fail, to be wrong, and to have faults and weaknesses without fear of rejection or condemnation. In a grace-based environment, failure is kept in perspective so that members of the family have enough confidence to recover, grow, and achieve.

Family appraisal

As you look back, how well did your original family prepare you to have a family with these eight characteristics? Do not look to blame anyone, but simply take a realistic inventory of the training you received in the art of marriage building. No family is perfect. You can look back and find at least one characteristic that will not come naturally because you never saw it modeled or you saw it modeled poorly.

Looking at your household now, what healthy and unhealthy characteristics have you brought along without realizing it? Every family has some good to build upon as well as some things they need to change. Honestly appraise your marriage as it is today. What responsibility can you take for those characteristics that are lacking in your marriage?

As you look to the future, keep your focus on your marriage. Whatever you do to restore your marriage will restore what is broken among the other relationships. The changes you make in your marriage will affect the rest of the household more quickly and dramatically than you think.

Chuck Swindoll is the featured speaker of the nationally syndicated Insight for Living raido broadcast. He is the author of more than 70 books and serves as senior pastor of Stonebriar Community Church, Frisco, Texas.