Dordt College News

Family communication course gets students thinking about their families

May 10, 2009

Dr. Charles Veenstra hopes that his students will form their families of the future purposefully—or in his words

It’s not just because the volume of research on family communication has grown exponentially in the past decade, or the fact that only twenty-five percent of nuclear families remain intact in the United States, or even that the four major predictors of divorce relate to how families communicate that Dr. Charles Veenstra has begun offering a course in family communication.

It’s all of those things, and it’s more.

“I believe we should prepare students for more than their career,” says Veenstra. “Family life has become more complex than it was a generation ago.”

During the communication department’s last program review in 2006, the faculty agreed that students could benefit from learning tools to help them maintain healthy relationships in the families and marriages they might be about to begin.

“I have recently gotten married and  thought it would get me thinking about things that my husband and I have not yet encountered. We have talked about the importance of building family traditions and coming up with a family theme. This course got me thinking about what I want for my own family,” says Senior Jana Postma.

Veenstra acknowledges that his generation could have used the same tools. Physical attraction and having fun get relationships started, but soon couples and then families have to plow through the joys and challenges of living and loving together. Veenstra hopes that what his students learn will help them through the stages of their lives in the years ahead.

Veenstra points out that Communication 322 is not a psychology course and, in fact, he warns his students against trying to fix others’ relationships. But armed with what scholars have learned about how families relate in good and bad ways, he believes young people can learn communication habits that will benefit their future marriages and families.

“Part of the fun of teaching this course is that everyone has experience,” Veenstra says. He draws on that experience, both his and theirs, as he teaches. Instead of laying out all of the information he wants to cover by lecturing, he asks students to think with him about the topics of the course. For example, early in the course, after leading devotions related to the topic, he asks his students what some biblical norms for the family might be. Based on their backgrounds, students come up with many topics, among them headship, equality, forgiveness, honoring parents, devotional life, respect for one another, and even eating meals together.

As they look at the different stages of family development, Veenstra and the class focus on the particular needs and challenges common to those times. For example, Veenstra points out that research shows that families are often strongest and have the most opportunities for growth and nurture during their children’s school-age years.

It’s the time when members are usually most happy to be part of the family and the time when the family has the best opportunity to do the things that it does best: care for one another, play with each other, teach and learn the basics of faith, ingrain values, establish a work ethic, nurture respect for one another, develop habits of cleanliness, and exercise creativity.

“That crucial stage is the best time to build for the future and has implications for family interaction and involvement,” emphasizes Veenstra, noting that the stage is relatively short before the cohesiveness of the family unit becomes less so.

Another interesting time is after the children leave the home. Veenstra says couples can prepare for it by remembering that careers and children should not take up all of a couple’s time and energy. Divorce rates are high for couples after their children leave the home. Communicating caringly and effectively through all stages can help them move from one stage to the next in a healthy way.

Dealing with conflict is an important part of family communication too.

“Conflict is not bad in itself and, in fact, can show you care,” says Veenstra. But he cites research that lists criticism, contempt for one another, defensiveness, and withdrawal as corrosive and constituting some of the major predictors of divorce.
The list of communication-related topics that could be discussed in a class on family communication is long. Some of them come up in student journal entries and others get addressed in individual student presentations on topics such as in-laws, death in a family, differences between communicating with boys and girls, and living with denominational differences.

Although Veenstra knows that even within a smaller, Christian college like Dordt, not all people have the same views of how marriage and family relationships should work, he keeps pushing his students to think about how they live together with their families and how their values should shape how they communicate with one another.

“I really enjoy the course because we address such a wide variety of issues and joys that affect families. We also get to see the way in which relationships formed within families extend to the way cultures operate,” says Senior Bridget Smith.

“Professor Veenstra allows flexibility in our discussions,” she adds. “The other day we were discussing roles within dual career families, and I asked if we were going to address the topic of daycare. Even though daycare wasn’t up for discussion in the syllabus, Professor Veenstra set aside the agenda so that we could address the issue. I very much appreciate being able to branch off the main topic of conversation to deal with side issues.”

“By the grace of God, I hope that the things we study can help students go into their families of the future with clear, purposeful thinking. Falling out of love is as easy as falling into love,” Veenstra says. “They need resources when things don’t go as planned or dreamed.” And challenges will come, he adds.


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