CFLE in Context: Blended Families

by Lori Hayungs, M.S., CFLE
CFLE Network

Blended families: I am pondering what it really means to me as a family life educator. What does it mean to all our fellow professionals concerned with family life in its many forms and contexts?

Creating understanding in others is part of my professional role. Even as a child, I would try to help clarify someone else's perspective or point of view. "Can't we all just play together" might have been a phrase you would hear me say. I wanted my peers to see value in each other no matter the circumstance or situation.

Having an understanding of each other, or at least having the knowledge that others are different and that's all right, was important to me. I recognize the things in my childhood that brought me to that place and why I 'do what I do' in family life education. In college it took some trial and error to find the major that would represent my calling. I steered towards being a helping professional who would also facilitate understanding about and respect for others.

I started out in a four year program as an Elementary Education major, but the prospect of teaching sixth graders was terrifying. I changed to Early Childhood Education, deciding smaller children did not have as rich a vocabulary as their older peers. Deep down, I really wanted to 'teach adults how cool kids are' but at that time no one could name a career with that identifier. To avoid the full semester of student teaching I opted for Child, Parent Community Service. This degree offered me two months with a Community Service program. It was in those eight weeks I discovered where I belonged. My eight weeks as an intern in the world of Head Start solidified my calling.

Families come in all shapes and sizes. They all have strengths and weaknesses. And inherently, at their core, families desire to support each other. I learned that 25 years ago and I believe it to this day. After graduating, I searched for a Head Start program in the city I moved to. Without the magic of Google it was simply too hidden while I was too green. I began my career as an infant toddler teacher in a child care center. Young and naïve, I created upheaval by asking the center's cooks to serve my toddlers family style meals. Oh silly youth! Who was I to think I could fix something that was not broken. On the flipside, they still serve family style meals after the initial resistance. I loved my toddlers but continued to search for that elusive Head Start program.

I worked my way up the early childhood ladder and began teaching in a three-year-old classroom. Those students are my pride and joy. I still use the examples of their antics and capers as a foundation for my family life workshops. While attending a professional development in-service, I stumbled upon someone called a Family Life Educator. I remember that workshop like it was yesterday. The woman at the front of the room was doing what I wanted to do! She was helping adults understand young children. She was helping adults understand themselves. She was helping adults understand each other. That is what I wanted to be when I grew up! A family life educator! She would soon become my most important mentor. She advised me to keep gaining experience through my work with young children. Keep teaching preschool. I took her guidance to heart and continued teaching and attending more professional development in-services.

It was at those in-services I finally found Head Start hiding in plain sight within a local school district. Soon I became their Parent Involvement Social Service Coordinator and felt that my 'real work' with families was beginning. All kinds of families: amazing, dysfunctional, fabulous, struggling, strong and distinctly different families. I loved my work with these families. I was a family life educator teaching families to believe in their uniqueness and value their differences. I still desired to do more, so I kept in contact with that very first family life educator - the person who had finally 'named' my career.

As family life educators we are always looking for ways to serve families. We see things in families and people that others cannot or do not want to see. We continue to learn about families and people in general, sharing their strengths when they lose sight of them. Years went by, but eventually I worked for and with that first mentor.

We would collaborate to create programs for parents, for child care providers, for professionals, and for businesses in the family life arena. I watched as her vision to teach adults 'understanding' of others and how it would come to fruition in programs that strengthened relationships between adults and children. I was blessed to learn from her, while at the same time encouraging and growing others to develop as family life educators. Family life educators do that; they grow others. They grow their clients, their students, their audiences, and their staff. It seems to be inherent to this profession.

Along the way, I taught college students. I told them: "Family life education is not a career with its own column in the classifieds. You need to dig deep and apply your understanding of human beings. THAT is what you need to sell to the employers in the classifieds. You know what makes people tick. You know why people make the decisions they do. You understand so many different things about human beings. Be the best at understanding and you will find your career right in front of you."

Now I find myself four years into a new career with family life education. Four years removed from what I thought was my dream job in family life education. Four years into a career that continually evolves into greater understanding of human beings. As a Family Life Specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Human Sciences, I cannot tell students and young family life educators enough about continuing to grow as persons. Family life as a field has evolved since the almost quarter of a century that separates me from my undergraduate work. Today, my work consists of not only creating understanding between adults and children, but also between community members and constituents.

As Human Sciences Family Life Specialists, we work with all families. Young and old. Large and small. Blended and traditional. Blended families give us a unique opportunity to look at the intricacies of relationships when two families come together with already established adult-child bonds. Helping adults and children navigate the world of forming new relationships with a step-parent and step-siblings takes understanding. As professionals in family life, we have knowledge of that understanding. Our role is to be an educator, supporter and encourager of healthy family dynamics. That is what we do. Educate. Support. Encourage.

Specifically, in trying to answer the question "What is it you do?" here is a quick bulleted list of things I have done as a family life educator over the span of 25 years:

  • Written and presented workshops, curricula and classes on anything from early childhood development to working with difficult team members.
  • Created newsletters and publications to educate parents, teachers and administrators on children and families. This includes Science of Parenting,
  • Brainstormed with community boards, coalitions, and councils on creating programs for children and families.
  • Provided one on one consultation with those caring for young children. Shared ways to create positive learning environments and educational opportunities.
  • Built community capacity by assisting and growing the volunteer base of local facilitators teaching programs to families with young children, families with teens, and families taking care of aging members.
  • Mentored staff and students on what a fulfilling career the family life field can be.

Family life education takes on a larger role than the mere education of individuals. Individuals live within families. Families form communities. Communities reside in states and so on. Family life education has far reaching implications. We may start small, but we should think bigger.

As family life educators, we are about creating an understanding in and of others. Along the way we may find that we may even understand others differently. Our new found insights may alter our direction. Our new direction may change our focus. Our new focus may transform our lives. But that is what family life education is ultimately about: transforming lives.

Lori Hayungs, M.S., CFLE received her Bachelor of Science Degree from Iowa State University in Child, Parent Community Service in 1992. She received her Master's in Human Development and Family Studies from South Dakota State University in 1997. In May of 1999 she became a Certified Family Life Educator through the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) and since 2011, she has been a Family Life Specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Human Sciences.

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