One of the biggest challenges that modern parents face is getting enough time to actually parent their kids. It used to be that school started at 9:00 and ended at 2:30. Most jobs ran 9:00 to 5:00. Sports and activities happened in the afternoon and by 6:00 or so, families could expect to gather for dinner. So-called blue laws kept stores closed or hours greatly restricted on Sundays, so there really could be a day of rest.
Today, of course, life truly is 24/7. Kids get dropped off at school early and picked up late from after school care. Activities run late into the night making it hard to get kids to bed on time. My local Walmart is open 6am to 11pm, and the Safeway a mile from my house is open 24 hours a day. Don’t even get me started on mid-dinner texts and middle-of-the-night business calls to Europe or Asia.
A country that never shuts down leaves very little for room for family time. That is why families have to decide to prioritize family life and then establish some clear boundaries in order to first get more time for the family and then up the quality of the time they do have to spend together.
Carving Out More Time in the Week for Parenting
Since we can't actually get more minutes in an hour or hours in a day, we have to find some more time to parent. Here are my ideas.
1. Involve your children in household chores.
Anytime you are are cooking, cleaning, doing laundry or generally straightening up, have your children right there beside you. Yes, in the beginning it takes more time and effort to train and supervise a toddler or preschooler, but before long, your kids will will become truly competent and will be a big help. As you work together to prep dinner, make lunches for the next day or fold laundry, you can share stories of your day. (If you just can't see taking the time to train your kids during the week, use weekend time to build household skills.) Likewise, from the very beginning teach your kids to get dressed, do their ablutions and pack their own school bags independently.
2. Limit the extracurricular activities that your kids are involved in.
Yes, your kids love the activities they are signed up for and, yes, they are learning lots of skills in them, but your kids have lots of time to figure out what they love. If they are doing one or two activities a week, that is plenty. (And the more children you have, the fewer activities each one should do). Choose activities that do not interfere with dinner. While the car can be a great place to have uninterrupted conversations, driving all over town to and from activities is not the best way to spend your family time.
3. Block out chunks of weekend family fun time and keep that time sacred .
By the time parents have driven their kids to separate soccer games in the opposite direction and then dropped one kid at one birthday party and stayed with the other kid at another birthday party, more than half the weekend is gone. Throw in a run to the grocery store or Costco, and there might only be an hour here or there when the whole family is home. If the season's games aren't announced far enough in advance for you to plan, don't shy away from keeping your child from playing. If your family has planned to go to the beach or stay home and plant a vegetable garden, do that. In the long run, time with family is more important. Ask your child to pick and choose which birthday parties she is going to go this year. Do not feel that you have to go to the party of every kid in the class.
Making the Time You Do Have Count
Once you have protected what little time for parenting you do have, the next step is to imbue that time with bonding and connection.
1. Use playfulness and imagination to make even mundane tasks fun.
Most of us charge through the day going from item to item on our check list until we collapse into bed. It's time to lighten things up! The whole family whistling "Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it's off to school we go" as you file out the door gives everyone a boost of energy as does cranking the tunes and doing a happy dance as every one finishes off the cleaning with a dust rag in hand. Little kids love to enter another world: Don't just make soup; pretend to make a magic potion! Give older kids a chance to add their own personal flair to make an old recipe new.
2. Add ritual to add significance.
One of my favorite families lights a candle for each person at the table (even guests!). As that person's candle is lit, he shares something good about his day. Even if dinner is only fifteen minutes, this ritual slows every one down. The candle sends out warmth, calming light and gives everyone something to focus on. Knowing they will each get their turn, the kids listen to each other patiently. In that way, in about three minutes each family member has been seen, heard and acknowledged.
3. Turn off the electronics.
There is no doubt that the biggest sapper of family unity and connection are our electronic gadgets. Whether that is the television or radio droning on in the background or our smart phones' interminable pinging, electronics pull our attention away from each other. They keep us from being fully present. Personally, I find it easier to make blanket rules like tv off and no cell phones at the table or no electronics after 8:00 p.m., but each family has to decide what boundaries they need in order for electronics (whether the kids' or mom and dad's) not to corrode family time.
4. Give activities more bang for the buck by creating routine.
Studies have shown that one source of our happiness is anticipation. Looking forward to something we are going to do can provide as much pleasure as the activity itself. If kids know, for example, that Friday is Family Fun Night, that becomes something they look forward to all week. They tell their teachers and their friends about it. They plan out in their mind what exactly they'd like to do. Perhaps you have a list of fun things you can do for different kinds of nights--rainy nights, starry nights, summer nights. Having Family Fun Night regularly (and naming it with capital letters) helps build the importance of something as simple as playing cards.
Just do it!
Life can get so serious and so heavy. What's the point of it all if we are not stopping for the love and joy along the way? When adults reflect on the positive aspects of their childhood, memories from doing things together as a family are among the most common and the most powerful. Interestingly, it is not usually the big, fancy trips that people tell me about. Rather, the memories that stand out start "We used to stop every week..." or "On summer nights we'd..." Quality time is not the big, grand gestures. It is all the little things we do day in and day out--stopping for a squeeze or a snuggle, working together to make things nicer for the family as a whole, having a daily prayer or moment of gratitude.
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