On March 26, 2002, the town of Ridgewood, New Jersey, declared an official “Family Night.” The idea was to set aside free time for families by encouraging them to “push the pause button on busy suburban lives.” Ridgewood community members, leaders and school officials spent several months pulling the strings necessary to make it a citywide effort, but Marcia Marra, one of the event’s key organizers, says they will make it an annual tradition.“This is really an awareness event,” says Marra, who explained to Vision that the organizers were not attempting to legislate family time, only to encourage it. After receiving feedback from more than 500 Ridgewood families who had participated, Marra found that many parents were relieved to find they weren’t the only ones who felt their lives had become too busy.
Similar programs have been promoted in other American communities. Fortunately, we don’t need a community program, however, to begin pushing the “pause” button in our own lives.
Start by recognizing how important it is to spend time with your children. Be willing to make it a top priority. If you have to, schedule time to be with your children, just as you would schedule a meeting to be with your most important client. Pencil a date on the calendar, if that will help you make the time to be with your kids. Plan for it to be a special time for your children, where you’re giving them your full attention, rather than just having them ride along with you when you’re out running errands.
Before you sign up your children for outside activities, ask yourself why you want to do it. “If you felt pangs when you heard another parent talking about what his kid is doing, and so you’re enrolling your kid in the same activity to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’ that’s not a reason to get your child involved in an activity,” Alvin Rosenfeld says.
As a parent, you will need to decide what you value most, and what’s most important in the long term for you and your children. Ask yourself: Will the activity add something positive to your child’s development or to your family life? How would the activity impact family time? If you and your spouse already have an overpacked work schedule yourselves, do you want to spend two nights a week driving your seven-year-old to soccer practice? Know whether you can truly handle adding more commitments to your schedule.
“If you say ‘yes’ to too many enrichment opportunities, the whole family will pay the price,” Rosenfeld warns. “Weigh the benefits of participation against the cost, time, energy, logistical effort, stress, and expense—to you, your child, and the rest of the family.” Some families make firm rules (such as one sport per child per season) while others make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Be sure to allow for some downtime every day. This might be time when you would go for a walk with your children in the park, read a book together, do some baking, throw a few basketballs into the hoop outside your garage, or just sit at the kitchen table together while drinking hot chocolate.
“The unstructured, unplanned time is normally the happiest—and possibly most important—time of all for both children and parents,” family counselor Isabelle Fox says. “Doing these sorts of things spontaneously can allow families to relax and enjoy each other.” Not only that, she says unscheduled time allows children the opportunity to use their imagination and be creative, and teaches them to fill their own free time enjoyably.
“Childhood needn’t be an endless treadmill of productivity and self-improvement,” Rosenfeld remarks. Kids need relaxed, carefree time with their parents—time when they aren’t involved in some kind of sport or structured activity where they are expected to perform. “Allowing your kids to be ‘unproductive’ convinces them that you love them for who they are, that they don’t have to perform, and that they don’t have to get awards or be the lead in the school play to have your love,” he says.
If all the other parents you know have their kids booked in constant activities, don’t allow yourself to feel guilty because you’ve got your child in only one or even no activities. “Your children have their whole lives ahead of them to pursue outside interests and build careers,” notes William Doherty. “But they’re only going to be young once.”