The Sinhala and Tamil New Year festivities are still on. This is the time of family togetherness. Years ago, I remember how our Avurudu festival was filled with cousins, aunts and uncles, and fifteen to twenty people would crowd in the big open veranda chatting joyously with each other. Those were nice and memorable times.
Today, we don’t have big, happy families anymore. Our lives seem busier than ever, and family bonding time seem hard to find. However, research has proved that spending more time as a family can improve children’s physical and mental health.
A research study by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in USA found that compared to teenagers who have frequent (5-7 per week) family dinners, those who have infrequent (less than 3 per week) family dinners are more than twice as likely to say that they have used tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, and also, have friends who use these substances. The same study discovered that family togetherness is also associated with higher grades and self-esteem in children.
Quality family time
Family time really matters. In fact, family time, incorporating elements of both quality and quantity, is so important that it shouldn’t be reduced to an either-or, proposition.
Quantity time creates a safe environment where children can feel accepted and valued for who they are. It communicates availability and fosters a sense of security. It establishes a solid home base from which children can launch out into the world with confidence and strength.
Quality time, on the other hand, is essential for the process of family bonding. It’s the stuff of which relationships are made. It’s the polished gem that caring parents fashion from the raw material of moments, hours, and days spent together. The thing to note is that it’s difficult to have one without the other.
A strong family finds that opportunities for quality time emerge from quantity time. The more time we spend together, the better chance we have of sharing quality experiences. Having meals together, talking about the events of the day, sharing joys and defeats, doing household chores together and spending some evenings popping corn and watching movies are examples of shared activities. Some families even schedule an evening every week for special family events.
It’s a good idea to identify the things family members want to do together. Perhaps, they want to play a board game, visit grandparents, visit friends or go for a day’s outing. I know of a family where they have allotted the last Sunday of the month as family outing day, unless there are other intervening important assignments.
How much time should families spend together? Families with young children need to spend the most time together because young children need a great deal of physical care and guidance. Families with teenagers may spend less time together because teens naturally want to spend some time with their friends and on other activities, including study schedules.
When teenagers are involved, a “positive” relationship is needed. The study by researchers from the University of Toronto has found that a minimum six hours a week “family time” made a significant difference to a teenager’s well being and achievement.
This means, more than time spent on teenager care, making emotional connection and establishing a secure parenting relationship are important.
Healthy families keep a good balance between “too much” and “not enough” time together. They spend enough time to satisfy all family members.
Children learn to bring balance to their lives when they see parents setting aside time for what they value. It is the emotional connection that parents have with children that counts.
However, none of this happens automatically. It’s possible for a family to spend lots of time together and come away the worse for it. This is especially true if their interactions are marred by constant strife, anxiety or abuse. The key to success is intention.
It means, making up your mind to be present in the moment, and make the most of it.
Today’s parents lack time, quality and quantity, for many reasons. They pursue endless material things that require increasing amounts of money. This translates into more hours at work and less time at home. Couples “grow apart” as their lives travel down separate, but parallel tracks.
Today’s parents display a ‘task-oriented mentality’ that communicates an unmistakable message to the children: take care of your duties and obligations first. Then feel free to retreat into your own (electronic) stimulation, recreation, or leisure-time activity.
If such parents want to escape this numbing pattern, they need to revamp their schedules.
They need to engage in some serious lifestyle planning. They need to revisit their basic values and priorities. They need to resolve to make some difficult choices, reduce their outside commitments and block out weekly family time on their calendars.
They should not worry about how it looks to “other people” if they limit themselves to one or two selections from a long list of temple/church/club/work activities.
They should carve out spaces and create margins and not be scared of ‘voids.’ The family should agree to turn off all communication devices at certain times of the day or on certain days of the week.
Instead of watching TV, they can read together, play board games, take a walk to a local park, or sit and talk.
Above all, parents should get into their children’s space and hang out with them and find out what excites them. This is all part of the process of turning quantity into quality time.
At the same time, parents should not forget to take full advantage of simple everyday interactions.
Driving time, mealtime, meal preparation, bedtime - all can become opportunities for shared discoveries and precious, unforeseen, and unique conversations between parent and child. It’s a matter of learning to savour life’s ordinary moments.