Do you know your family?


Do you know your family?

Mar 24th, 2005 4 min read

Do you know your family?


What a silly question, you may think. "Of course we know each other," some parents reply. "We live under the same roof. We see each other daily. We go on vacations together. How could we not know each other?"


A new study, however, suggests that many parents and their children are, in an important sense, almost strangers.


Sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the study comes from the UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families -- and it paints a portrait of family life in crisis.


It's not that parents and children aren't spending time together. It's that the time they do spend together is crammed with wall-to-wall activities. Mothers and fathers ferry their kids feverishly about -- a play date here, a practice there, not a moment to spare -- tethered by cell phones and sustained by meals on the run.


Consider this account that an Associated Press reporter wrote of a typical weekday for the Zeiss family of Los Angeles:

Jake Zeiss bolts from his west LA bungalow before 8 a.m., red hair damp and shirttail flapping.


After seven hours of back-to-back meetings, he volleys for an hour with his tennis pro. Still perspiring, he slides back into his Mercedes, gobbles a nutrition bar and does paperwork on a lap desk while his chauffeur burrows through the nation's worst rush hour traffic.


Jake Zeiss is 9 years old. His paperwork is multiplication tables.


He gropes for a pencil that has dropped down the dark, sticky crevasse of the back seat. And he's tempted by a new yo-yo. It's the kind that beeps and lights up.


"Jakey, is that a good use of your time?" hollers his mother, Kim, as she swerves past a loafing Honda. "How many problems have you done?"


The Zeiss family is late for hockey practice. After that, it's fencing lessons for Madison, Jake's 10-year old sister. Their father, Gary, will meet them at the gym -- hopefully by 8 p.m.


Kim Zeiss has transformed her SUV into a rolling Wal-Mart, with cases of snacks and drinks buried beneath backpacks and sports equipment piled so high she can't use the rearview mirror.

Now, there's nothing wrong with activities per se. Nobody's saying kids should just sit at home. Sports, for example, can be very beneficial for children -- take it from a mother who's cheered her children at track meets and baseball games.


But some parents need to reacquaint themselves with the concept of moderation. You can't really know your children if all your time with them is spent running to and fro in a frenetic whirlwind. Genuine intimacy is impossible under such conditions. Yet still we see parents amazed when they learn their kids have shoplifted, cheated on tests, engaged in sex or taken drugs.


We know the importance of eating a balanced diet for good physical health. The UCLA study shows that it's just as crucial, for the sake of our mental and emotional health, to lead a balanced life.


And how do we restore balance to our frantic family lives? Make a point of injecting some downtime into it -- heck, schedule it. Go for a walk -- not a power walk, but a slow one. Play a game together, preferably a board or card game, with everyone sitting around the table and interacting.


Realize, too, that not every activity must involve the whole group. Take that walk, play that game or whatever with one son or one daughter. Give everybody a turn. In time, you'll find yourself having real conversations with the people who matter most. And don't neglect your spouse! A regular date can really help strengthen your marriage.


It's hard, too, to overemphasize the importance of having dinner together -- sitting down, away from the television, as a group -- as often as possible. The potential it affords to impart lessons in courtesy, hash out problems or just have a good laugh is unmatched. Plus, it can keep kids from more serious problems.


Reviving this balance is also, I believe, crucial to one's spiritual health. It's all too easy, when every minute of our day is jam-packed, to let church and daily prayer fall by the wayside. Big mistake. It's often only by slowing down that we can hope to really hear the voice of God. Taking a formal retreat occasionally is a fine idea, but we also need the "mini-retreats" that God uses to recharge our batteries when we take time to talk with and visit Him.


We can't make our lives perfect, of course, but we can make them better. Now's a natural time to resolve to do so. Millions of people the world over have used the Lenten season to ponder their sins and ask God for help in overcoming them. So why not use the arrival of Easter to make a clean slate and start fresh?


If you're feeling overscheduled, look at your family's time and how it's spent. Is everything crucial? Get together and discuss ways to pare back on outside activities and make more time for each other.

Don't just give your family things. Give yourself. You'll get far more back than you can possibly imagine.

Rebecca Hagelin is Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Heritage Foundation.

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