Once, Stephen Covey travelled to Chicago for a business presentation. The same night, his fourteen-year-old daughter was to act in a side role in a school play. He knew that Colleen was not in the lead and realized that probably she will never be. But that night was her night. He was guilty of not being there, when the audience would cheer for her. He could have arranged his schedule to be there, but somehow Colleen’s play had gotten lost in the pressures of his work demands.

Stephen called up his daughter to wish her well. He realized that as a parent it was important for him to be there for praising and affirming his child, even though he could not attend the event.

It’s not enough just to claim that “family” is important. You need to show your commitment by actions. In his words: “One of the worst feelings in the world is when you realise that the “first things” in your life – including your family – are getting pushed into second or third place, even further down the list. And it becomes even worse, when you realise what’s happening as a result.” Things that matter most should never be at the mercy of things which matter least.

The question then arises: if family is what we can die for, why does it get subordinated to other values, work, friends or private hobbies? Why don’t we give our primary attention and focus to what matters most to us?

Imagine, in an average American home, a child spends seven hours daily watching TV and five minutes with dad. Unbelievable! But Pakistan is not too far behind. I still remember that a friend of mine always used to joke about her husband’s late arrival from work. “One day, when he will ask me after arriving late at night as usual: ‘Where are the girls (referring to his daughters)?’ I will tell him: ‘Oh! Don’t you know? They were married off, while you were busy in a board meeting.’”

She always laughed out loud, but I could feel her underlying pain – the pain of being left alone to head the family and fulfil the role of a father and a mother, while her husband thought that his family needed more of his money than his time and presence. The standard of living was being raised, while the quality of relations was being dropped.

Also, people seldom forget their miserably lonely childhood. If their parents have abandoned them for some other mission in life, these kids carry the bitterness all the way, until they express it in some form or the other.

In May 1997, U.S. News and World Report published a hard-hitting article entitled “Lies Parents Tell Themselves About Why They Work”. Today, we have a similar case in Pakistan and many other countries. Here are some of the lies mentioned in the report:

  1. We need the extra money. (But research shows that better off individuals are nearly as likely to say that they are working for ‘basic necessities’, as those who live close to the poverty line.)
  2. Daycare is perfectly good. (Cases of physical and emotional abuse of minor children have never been this high in the country.)
  3. Inflexible companies are the key problem. (Many people willingly spend more time at the office. Homes have become an efficiently run joyless workplace, while the actual workplace with empowerment and team work is more like family.)
  4. Careers cannot be sacrificed. (This is a new breed of women, who have been raised like men. Their family is negotiable but their careers are not; hence, their kids are raised by others for them.)
  5. Role reversal. (Men don’t mind their wives stepping out and supporting them earn the desired lifestyle.)

Many fathers slave it all day with very noble intentions for their families. But as it is said – bad judgements cannot replace noble intentions. If you are not present at the helm of affairs, someone else will look after your familial needs. Something always fills a vacuum. Children do not just need to be fed, clothed and schooled – they are humans with sentiments, dreams and fears. If they do not have reliable and understanding parents to turn to, they will turn to something else. It will be friends, gadgets, gizmos or pastimes. These children will not judge or question the sincerity of others – they will simply go with the flow to be accepted, because of an emotional starvation at home.

How can we, as heads of our respective family, address these critical issues? Surely we can’t quit our jobs and nest with the rest at home. What we need today is a more dynamic set of solutions for facing the new challenges of leading a family. We need to support, advise, use our judgement, and offer our experience, our strength and our decisiveness to them. This requires us to offer our quality time to the family constantly and consistently.

Stephen Covey suggests: “In a family, order means that the family is prioritised and that some kind of structure is in place to make that priority happen. The creation of a family mission statement provides the foundational structure for the inside-out approach to family living. Additionally, there are two major organising structures or processes that will help you put the family first in a meaningful way in your daily life: a weekly ‘family time’ and one-on-one bonding times.”

The main purpose of ‘family time’ or ‘family night’ (whatever you prefer to call it) is to have one time during the week that is focused on being a family. This facilitates you to meet four of your needs: spiritual (to plan), mental (to teach), physical (to solve problems) and social (to have fun).

In one-on-ones, you allow the other person to have his or her interests and goals expressed or worked on. The one-on-ones are where most of the real work of the family is done. This is where the most significant teaching, the most profound sharing and the deepest bonding take place.

May Allah (swt) guide us to become responsible and dexterous craftsmen, who mould the souls and lives of their families, and most importantly, help us to remember that if we don’t, someone else will – and everybody will have to live with the results.