Finding Life Balance: Family Time

Young family painting together

Building a family takes a deliberate effort. It’s easy to neglect family a little here and there until you realize what you are losing. It is important to include family time in your measure of life balance.

While the actual meaning of life balance can and must vary among us, all can understand the need to step back from the busy-ness of our lives to check whether we are giving each area of life the time and nurturing it needs. Balance doesn’t mean that you give exactly equal time to an exact number of life areas to be covered. It just means that you continually strive for the mix that brings you the greatest happiness and wellbeing.

Family Is Essential for Life Balance

In my experience, a new family—a family that includes a newly married couple or young children—is the least able to make major contributions of time to their community, and yet we are often most in demand. Young families should be especially careful to protect family time. We are modeling what life balance will mean for our children into their future. We are creating the foundation they will need to build their own balanced lives. They need that deep, enriching sense of family.

Family isn’t automatic. You need to define what family means for young children and nurture your intentions with activities and love.

Learn to say “No”
At some point, as I tried to figure out the chaos around me, I realized that this young family period of one’s life is the busiest and most difficult to protect. When you have babies, you might not realize how much time you will need to spend with your children as they grow. Before you realize what is happening, you are in charge of the co-op delivery, you are singing in the choir, you are arranging three different play groups, and you’ve started a home business. Then you wonder why your children tell you that they miss you as soon as they can talk. It is OK to turn down many, even most, opportunities for outside commitments. Prioritize, and just choose one or two activities that mean the most to you.

Plan Family Time
I’m with my children all day because we homeschool, but that isn’t the same as planned family time. We need time together when everyone is free from stress. We need all four of us. So, we protect our Saturday night. We camp out and watch movies every Saturday night. Other times, we read a book together (1001 Arabian Nights and Lord of the Rings took more than a year each), play board games, or invite a neighbor over for dinner. What we do is far less important than doing something deliberate together at least once a week. Put that time on your calender, and don’t bring your phone. Schedule it, mix it up, ask for ideas from everyone, and find your groove.

Recognize the Moments
Pull yourself into consciousness of those beautiful moments with your family. When my children were very small, I remember distinctly that my favorite time in every day was falling asleep with them, laying in bed with an arm wrapped around each child. I could hear them breathing softly as they fell asleep, and my happiness was profound. Stop at those moments. Recognize and gather them.

Keeping family time in balance doesn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of time. I adore the TED talk by Nigel Marsh on work-life balance. Be sure to listen until the end to hear how he recognized one of those beautiful moments with his son after a simple day together.

“Being balanced doesn’t mean dramatic upheaval in your life. With the smallest investment in the right places, you can radically transform the quality of your relationships and the quality of your life.”
Nigel Marsh, “How to Make Work-Life Balance Work”

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How to Help Your Family Stay Healthy

Active family playing in the snow

Keeping your children and your whole family healthy most often falls to you. Of course, we have the best of intentions as parents, but time gets tight and actions slip. Don’t let it happen. Always cover the basics. Your child’s developing body and mind depend on the accumulation of your family’s actions, and your child’s future depends on healthy habits you set in motion.

The basics of helping your family stay healthy are so simple that every one of us can start today. Cover these then you are ready to move on to the details.


Eat Right

The basic rules couldn’t be simpler. As Michael Pollan put it in his Eater’s Manifesto, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Food is fuel, but it is also important to culture and community. Respect the importance of eating well as the core of a healthy living.


Stay Active

Do more than just exercise. Choose the active options. Chase the kids, run the dogs, and take the stairs. It doesn’t take a lot of time or a lot of activity to keep yourself and your family in decent shape, but it makes all of the difference in your long-term ability to move well.


Sleep Well

Getting the right amount of sleep is as important to your health as eating well and staying active. Not enough sleep and your body won’t function as well. Your immune system, your weight, your blood pressure, and your basic ability to think straight depend on getting enough sleep. Too much sleep can lead to back pain, diabetes, heart disease, and depression. To make it more difficult, not everyone needs the same amount of sleep. Finding your way down that sweet center is yours to figure out.


Limit Toxic Exposure

Toxic exposures to avoid include those in your house, like lead and pesticides, as well as those larger environmental exposures due to air quality and water quality. Give your child’s developing brain and body the best possible chance.


Have Fun

In part, having fun is a way of managing the inevitable stress you face, but it’s so much more than that. By taking the time and creating the space to have fun together as a family, you strengthen those ties that hold you all together. That creates your larger safety net. Don’t let it slip. Schedule time together and try a variety of activities.

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Importance of Family Meals

Family Mealtime

The average family mealtime lasts only 20 minutes, but that time spent together builds a foundation for a child’s health and well being. Benefits range from nutrition to language, culture, and even mental health.

Who wouldn’t want to set their children up for less likelihood of substance abuse, greater vocabulary, fewer behavior problems, less likelihood of asthma, less obesity, and better balanced meals with fewer calories than fast food.[1]

Family meals can do all of that? Yes, that is what research shows. Your investment now while your children are young will continue to benefit them as individuals and all of you as a family. As your children reach their teen years, you will be glad that you have created a strong family routine of sharing during mealtimes.

“A meal is about civilizing children. It’s about teaching them to be a member of their culture.” Robin Fox, anthropologist at Rutgers University in TIME Magazine.


Family Mealtime Education

At mealtime, parents share information about food and family without the children really realizing it. Just in passing, as kids ask “Why are we eating this?” we talk about our choices. Sometimes we might tell children why one choice is more healthy than another. Sometimes we might help them understand why we need quick meals on busy days.

My children love homemade rolls. They would love to have rolls every day at every meal, but this is a food that takes time to prepare. So, this is a Sunday routine because that is the day when we have more time. As they help prepare the rolls from live yeast, they learn the science of baking painlessly. I’ve also noticed over time that they smile just at the smell of baking bread. Baking bread means family and home for my children, and I think that is a great start.

When we eat foods from our own childhoods, we share information about multiple generations of our families. I like talking to my children about the foods my mother and my grandmother made. This often leads to talking about where our families came from, since food traditions are often passed down through mothers. We no longer eat a lot of heavy German food passed down from my mother’s mother’s family, but, when we do eat those old foods on occasion, I talk about how and why my family came to North America.

If my children moan about helping prepare meals, I like to remind them that by the time my mother was their age, she was in charge of making dinner for herself and four brothers. Sometimes this just quiets them into helping, but other times they ask more questions. Why was grandma cooking? (She was home first while her mother was working and her brothers were working on the farm.) What did she cook? (She told me the meal she cooked most often was pepper pot soup.) Can we make that? (Certainly!)

In addition to the benefit of healthier eating for families that sit down and eat together, the rituals families develop create a family identity and a closeness for all.


Dinner Time Fun

Here are a few quick tips to keep family dinner time fun.

  • Keep the meal stress free. Don’t spend more time than you have preparing a meal. Save elaborate meals for days when you have time to spend.
  • Involve children in meal preparation. This does take a bit more time, but the long-term investment is worth it. Children take pride in the work they’ve done—and they may find themselves less picky when they’ve helped make the food.
  • For young children, make the mealtime experience visual. You can do this simply in the way you arrange their food.
  • Don’t focus on foods your child doesn’t like. If you serve a food you know your child hesitates to eat, start a conversation about something completely different as a diversion. Involve the child in your stories to keep the focus off the food itself.
  • If your child is a fast eater, keeping them involved in conversation can help them understand that they are still valued at the meal even when the food is finished. A family meal, after all, is about far more than food.


Resources

I don’t usually suggest that you read an academic paper, but the one I read in preparation for today’s post is just fascinating because it reviews studies on family mealtime then goes on to make recommendations for public policy based on the irrefutable benefits. If you need to be convinced how very important it is to start sharing mealtimes with your children while they are young, read this article.

To read similar conclusions in a more popular format, see TIME Magazine.

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Saturday Night Camp Out

Family bed pillow fightEvery Saturday night, my family fills our living room with every couch cushion in the house, wall to wall, and we camp out. We always fall asleep watching a movie we intend to see to the end, though we always fall asleep, and we always wake up and have breakfast back on the big bed. It’s scheduled magic.

I’m back to reading The Creative Family: How to Encourage Imagination and Nurture Family Connections, from the Baby by Nature store.

In her chapter on “Everyday Rituals,” Amanda Blake Soule makes the point that finding time for our creativity and family closeness is often an obstacle. She suggests making appointments and planning for those activities that nurture us.

One of the family rituals she suggests is meeting in bed at the beginning of the day, crayons and paper in hand, to come up with a prioritized list of the day’s activities.

In my family, we start our meeting early.

Once we fit every cushion in the house together around the furniture, like a giant puzzle, we cover it all with a sheet and a king-sized comforter. It looks remarkably like the set up when my children build a fort. We sit on top of and around one another, piled like puppies (including the puppy), have a snack, and watch a movie. Sidney Poitier and Cary Grant are household names; my children know the difference between Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn. We watch the same movies over and over, and we talk and sing along. Then, we fall asleep.

It’s completely predictable, and we love this time together. We protect it. We turn down invitations for Saturdays.

Until a few years ago, we all slept in a king-sized bed together. Some of my dearest memories of my children as toddlers are falling asleep between them, listening to them sleep, holding them both in my arms. When we moved, we didn’t have a bedroom big enough for our family bed, so we just have an open invitation to children. But, that doesn’t happen often.

Now, the Saturday night camp out gives us that close time to look forward to every week.

I appreciate the reminder from The Creative Family that we need to schedule that family time before busy tasks. Those family rituals that keep us close are a higher priority than grouting the kitchen or sweeping up stray leaves, though we have those fun chores scheduled this weekend as well.

“In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don’t try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present.” ~Tao Te Ching, quoted in “Everyday Rituals,” The Creative Family

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