I’ve always been a sucker for Westerns, especially when you add my favorite actors, Kevin Costner, and Harrison Ford. I’m totally hooked on the Paramount+ shows Yellowstone and its spinoffs, 1923 and 1883—and I know I’m not alone.
In one of the episodes of the show 1883, when the Dutton family joins a caravan of other migrants moving across the country through the Great Plains, there’s an exceptionally intense scene when they brace for attack from a band of marauders. While they get ready to fight off an attack, they do something that I have to admit I didn’t know what something that actually happened in history. They circled the wagons. I started laughing to myself and muttering, “Huh, I guess it’s not just a phrase.” With a quick Wikipedia search, I discovered that the idiom had been around since the mid-19th century when families traveling together would do the same thing every night when they stopped to camp. They were vulnerable and defenseless in a long line but protected and strong in a tight circle.
It turns out that ‘circling the wagons’ wasn’t just a wise thing to do to make it to the West; it’s also smart to do with your families today.
Summer break is quickly approaching, but before then, we have over 9,000 events, activities, and occasions to attend to between our three kids. It’s true—I counted them up. It’s time to circle the wagons as soon as summer break starts. Each year we get out of Dodge (see what I did there, using another old-west phrase) and go away on a family vacation. The first half is pretty rough; in some ways, we’re all decompressing from the hectic pace, and in other ways, we’re getting used to being together all the time again. But in the final couple of days, we always see a shift. We start enjoying each other again, making new memories, and strengthening our relationships.
Sometimes we shouldn’t wait for a natural break in the calendar to circle the wagons. We have to do it intentionally. Something happens to one of the kids that’s extraordinarily difficult. You find yourself stuck in a rut of constant bickering, arguing, and friction. Perhaps that looks like canceling the weekend plans. Or maybe it looks like, heaven forbid, pulling the kids out of school for a few days.
We all experienced this at the same time a few years ago. Remember those first few weeks of the shutdown? Every family in the world was circling the wagons, drawing close together to make sure everyone was safe. Inasmuch as we look back at that surreal moment with trepidation (or worse), I know I’ve talked with so many families who appreciated that time they spent together.
What are the benefits of circling the wagons?
Perhaps most importantly, circling the wagons gives your kids a strong foundation to return to a complex world. It helps them have an implicit sense that they belong somewhere, which is the pillar of resilience. The more they feel connected to their family, the more capacity they will have to handle stressful situations in their everyday lives.
Whether you use the phrase or not, circling the wagons is a principle every family should commit to.
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