I thought I was close to my kids. Then I bought my daughter a toothbrush. That's when I found out how clueless I really was.
"Mom! A Barbie toothbrush! How could you buy me a Barbie toothbrush?" Kimberly shrieked.
"Sweetie, you like Barbie. You just asked for a Barbie for your birthday," I said sweetly, trying to not let my aggravation show.
"Mom, that was two whole months ago. I don't play with Barbies anymore," Kimberly said, stomping off.
With hectic schedules, overbooked kids, and worn-out parents, it is hard for us to keep up on toothbrush styles, much less work on shaping our children's character. But carving out time to spend with our children is a must.
Recent research shows that children who spend time talking to their parents, taking part in family activities and meals, and building family traditions with their parents are less likely to engage in harmful activities. During these times of simply hanging out with their parents, kids tend to open up more easily about sensitive topics and explore issues in greater depth. Those same conversations about school, God, friends, and science projects rarely take place solely in a 10-minute chunk of "quality time" at the end of a long day.
As Dr. Janice Crouse, a respected authority on family issues, explains, "Kids learn our values when they are spoken to respectfully and feel free to ask questions. When we spend time with our children, we can be sensitive to the teachable times in their lives. Even while I watched television with my kids, I would ask them leading questions. 'Did you see how that man treated his wife? How could he have handled that situation better?' Those discussions helped my children become more discerning and discriminating in what they watched and the activities they participated in growing up."
To avoid a repeat of what is now referred to as "The Barbie Incident," and to keep the lines of communication open between the members of our family, we have come up with eight ways to stay connected with each other. Try them out in your family, or use them to inspire bonding time that's unique to your family.
1. Take a One-on-One Vacation
My friend, Kim, and her husband, Jim, had long promised their children that when each child turned 16, he or she would go on an extended vacation with one of their parents; their daughter, Sarah, would go with Mom, and their son, Ryan, with Dad. The only requirements were that it had to be in the continental U.S. and that the kids had to help plan the trip.
"Money was tight, and we had to give up a lot in order to afford the vacations," Kim explains, "but we knew how important it was to spend that time with each of the kids." Time alone with a parent during the teen years can be just the ticket for a teenager who needs to be reminded that she'll always have a safe haven as she moves out into the world.
If an extended vacation is impossible, try a long weekend with each of your children, like my friend Lynn. She and her husband, Mark, have taken turns going on a weekend getaway with their boys, Jake and Ben. Lynn got the first opportunity when each of their sons turned 10, and Mark two years later when the boys turned 12. Lynn says the best part about the trips was getting to see the uniqueness of each of her boys. While Ben wanted to get dressed up and go to the area culinary academy with his mom to try new and exotic dishes, Jake was thrilled to pedal across northern California on a guided bike tour with Lynn bringing up the rear.
Finally, if a weekend away won't work, an overnighter in a local hotel or campground can go a long way toward strengthening the bond between you and your child.
2. Plan a Family Night
Once a week, we have a "Family Fun Night," with one family member in charge of the planning. They get $15 to feed and entertain the troops. Our family has experienced everything from a bake-at-home pizza and a video rental of The Princess Bride to a home-packed picnic at the duck park followed by an afternoon at the local nickel arcade. Not only does Family Fun Night give us an opportunity to spend some time together, it forces our kids to plan, budget, and take other people's likes and dislikes into consideration. We also find that giving the children the chance to plan the event helps them enjoy this time a whole lot more.
3. Eat Dinner Together
It sounds so simple, but when our family is balancing work, kids' band practice, the golden retriever's vet appointments, and church choir rehearsal, our van passes beneath the Golden Arches more times than I care to admit. Now we make it a priority to sit down and eat a meal together at least five times a week. These range from dinner at a local restaurant to pancakes and bacon on a school morning to a Saturday tailgate before the big game. Not only is this a time to nourish our bodies with food, we nourish our family with good conversation and fun.
Not long ago, we were seated around the dinner table, discussing what it was like to be a kid when my husband and I were in elementary school. "You didn't have computers?" our son asked incredulously. "That's right," my husband replied, "we didn't even have a microwave." Justen thought about that for a moment, "Then how did you cook?" I am sure that he was not commenting on my culinary talents.
4. Have a Date Night
My son, Justen, and I began this tradition when he was 7 years old and we still do it now that he's 13. About once a month, we choose a night to go out on the town, just the two of us. It may be hamburgers and strawberry shakes at the '50s style diner in town, picking up mystery novels and hot chocolate at our favorite bookstore, or playing Skee-Ball at the local arcade. Whatever the activity, it gives us a chance to talk without the distraction of the phone, his siblings, or the Cartoon Network.
To create your own date night, ask your child what type of activity he'd enjoy. Maybe you both love Japanese food and want to try out the new sushi restaurant in town. Maybe you're astronomy fans; take a star walk sponsored by a local planetarium. The object of your evening is to get out of the house and do something you will both enjoy and can talk about in the years to come.
5. Pray Together
It sounds like a given, but it took many years before we got into the routine of praying together as a family. So we made it part of our regular routine. We decided to have everyone write out any prayer requests on an index card and place it in a basket on the breakfast table. Each morning, we divide up the cards, and have each family member pray aloud for the request. We pray for missionaries and math tests, friends who are sick and puppies who are about to be born. No request is too trivial.
My friend, Kimberly, prays with her son, Matthew, each night before he goes to bed. He refuses to put his head on the pillow until all of his friends, grandparents, and stuffed animals have been upheld in prayer. It certainly makes bedtime last a little longer, but this is a special time of closeness for Kimberly and Matthew that is rarely missed.
6. Write a Love Note
In the middle of our cluttered kitchen counter sits a small, lidded basket, better known as the "family mailbox." Often when I check our little basket, there will be a sticky note with the words "I love you, Mommy," written in my daughter's best 9-year-old cursive with green glitter pen.
Our family mailbox is a great way to encourage each other and brighten our kids' days. My son is long past the age of wanting notes in his brown paper lunch bag where his friends can see them, but he never minds finding a note or a small treat in the family mailbox.
To start your own family mailbox, all you need is a basket, a pad of paper, and a pen. Start the ball rolling by writing notes to each member of your family. You could start with a note of encouragement, or maybe a Bible verse. End the note with a question, such as, "If you could be invisible for a day, what would you do?" I promise you will get some fascinating mail in your little basket.
7. Break for Coffee
after a long day at school, my kids need a chance to unwind before diving into their history and algebra homework. Once they've had a chance to pet the dog and put away their backpacks, we gather around the kitchen table and have our after-school coffee break. We have popcorn and hot chocolate, cookies with a tall glass of frosty milk, or pretzels and lemonade. This is when I find out about the day's happenings at school, how much homework there is for the evening, and, most importantly, how I can pray for my kids while they are at school.
To have your own coffee break, all you need to do is prepare a simple snack and be ready to ask open-ended questions. Instead of "How was your day?" ask, "What did you and Haley talk about at recess this morning?" or "I know you studied really hard for your chemistry test; was it as tough as you thought it would be?" Try to stay focused on your kids during this time. Look at them, listen to their stories no matter how convoluted they get, and make sure you share a little about your day as well.
Some kids just need to decompress after school and don't feel like replaying their day right away. For other families, it might be nearly dinnertime before everyone is home. The point of the coffee break isn't to add more stress to your lives, but to give you a regular time to talk through the day. So fit your coffee break in where it works best for you and your children.
8. Start a Parent-Child Journal
When my daughter Kimberly was 8, we started sharing a mother-daughter journal. One night she would lay it on my nightstand for me to write in; the next, I would tuck it under her pillow for her to record her thoughts and dreams. Through the pages of that little book we've shared secrets, settled arguments, and discussed life. It's been a great way to talk about all the fun and not-so-fun issues going on in my little girl's life. It has also given me the opportunity to share Bible verses, advice, and love notes in a non-threatening way.
It's easy to get the ball rolling on a parent-child journal. Find a notebook, attach a pen, then write a question to start the conversation. Ask about school, friends, books, or anything else that interests your child. Ask open-ended questions, like "Tell me about the best book you've read in fourth grade." This will help you get more in-depth responses, as well as having even more to write about the next time you share journal entries.
All of these ideas take planning and time, and there have been times that I've wondered if it's worth it. Yet those seem to be the days when my daughter comes running in to tell me about the new elephant joke she heard at school, or asks my advice on how to handle a problem with her best friend. With a chuckle I realize all that effort has created a deep, lasting bond that will keep our family connected for years to come.
Kathi Hunter is a frequent speaker at retreats and MOPS events. She is the mother of two and a contributor to More Humor for a Woman's Heart (Howard).
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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