Family Time and Relationships
My wife, Cathy, and I stared at each other in disbelief as our oldest daughter, Christy, told us she was running away. When she started packing her suitcase, we knew she was serious. Cathy and I weren’t sure if we should laugh or cry — after all, Christy was only 6.
Our daughter told us she was moving to Julia’s house across the street because her mommy and daddy were nicer. My wife called Julia’s mother to tell her what was taking place and that Christy was on her way over. Then, we stood on our sidewalk and watched our little girl carry her suitcase and favorite doll across the street where Julia’s mother waited outside the door to greet her.
A few hours later, Julia’s mom reminded Christy it was Monday night and that our family always went to the Golden Spoon for frozen yogurt after dinner. It was a tradition my three girls looked forward to — including Christy. To our delight, she called and asked if she could go. It was a joyous reunion!
The weekly yogurt run was part of our family identity — part of what made us who we were. Even the neighbors knew our routine and sometimes shouted to-go orders as we pulled out of our driveway. Our three daughters are now grown, but when our family gets together, we still make trips to the Golden Spoon. It’s one of those simple traditions that have kept our family bonds strong.
Not surprisingly, a strong family identity also helps children develop a strong and healthy self-identity. Knowing what makes their family unique — traditions, values, ways of relating to one another — gives children a clear starting point for discovering their own place in the world. Studies even show that kids who identify with their family’s values tend to be less promiscuous and face less risk of drug and alcohol abuse.
Perhaps you’re wondering, How can we build a strong family identity? Here are three principles to get you started.
Your presence matters. Children regard your presence as a sign of care and connectedness. Families who eat meals together, play together and build traditions together thrive. Does your family eat together at least four times a week? If so, there is a greater chance your kids will perform better in school and be less likely to exhibit negative behavior.
Although it may seem trite, a family that plays together, stays together. I’m not talking about just cheering on your kids at soccer games or dance recitals but actually playing together. One family I know has a pingpong tournament each week. The winner doesn’t have to do the dishes for a day. Our family had a Fun Day once a month. One of the girls picked an activity, and the rest of the family participated.
Celebrate everything. Don’t miss a single chance to celebrate your family. You can celebrate rites of passage and other events such as Little League victories and graduations — from any grade
On birthdays, we go out to dinner then play a game called Affirmation Bombardment, in which each family member shares three words of encouragement for the birthday person.
Talk about faith. Spiritual topics don’t always come naturally for families. Discussions about God, however, can help build family identity. They also help kids have strong convictions as they get older.
Maybe you have some anxiety about starting a faith conversation with your children. Remember, your talk doesn’t have to be forced or lengthy; it can be simple, short and spontaneous. Let the discussion be as natural as possible. Getting preachy with your children can be just as unhelpful as avoiding the topic of faith.
One way to create opportunities to share your faith with your kids is to pray with them every day and do a weekly family devotional, even if only for five minutes. When your children are exposed to God’s truth in small amounts, it can, as a friend of mine says, “help them develop a sweet tooth for Jesus.”
Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).
This truth applies to families. At some point, storms will come to every family. But when you proactively build a strong family identity on the rock of Christ, your family can withstand whatever winds and rains come your way. A strong family identity will give your kids a solid foundation to cling to during those difficult times.
Family Talk and Identity
Talking together about mutual interests and accomplishments brings the family together.
Kids are cute, funny, angelic (especially when they’re sleeping) and provide a steady stream of quotables for their baby books. But somewhere between potty training and the prom, communication breaks down. Maybe that’s why moms stop writing down all the things their offspring say as they get older. Sure, it could be that the phrases they utter are no longer novel. But it might also be that they’re no longer heartwarming.
Something to Talk About
Family hobbies can help maintain the communication that flows between parent and child, even when they hit puberty. A friend of mine with grown children tells of their shared interests in camping and mountaineering and rock climbing. She describes their hobbies as “a thread of continuity throughout the changes.”
Opportunities for open communication will arise from:
- Shared Accomplishments — Finally conquering the double black diamond, scaling a challenging rock or even finishing a 1,000 page novel can be an emotional high that acts like relational glue.
- Shared Memories — Engaging in activities that have been part of your routine for years has the potential to bring back good memories and feelings from days that were less complicated. I suspect we’ll always make reference to the time I almost stepped on a snake during one memorable hike. The kids talked about my reaction for days and still bring it up whenever we’re on the trail.
- Stories — There’s nothing better than going to school with a good story. That snake encounter was the first thing out of my son’s mouth when he got to preschool the following day. For the teen, being able to talk about his accomplishments in the context of family — “me and my dad ran a marathon together over the weekend” — is a mark of identity and pride not common among today’s youth.
Beyond the school yard, those stories are great dinner-table conversation.
When family activities are built around mutual interests and mutual accomplishments, they create opportunities for affirming, positive, relationship-building conversations that build bonds of trust.
Family Identity Matters
Kids need to belong. If they don’t feel like important members of your family, they’ll look for other ways to play that role. The most obvious alternative to family membership is the peer group, the extreme example being gangs.
On the website gangsandkids.com, ex-gang members serving long prison sentences tell their stories in an attempt to discourage a new generation of teens from making the same mistakes. Among the top reasons they say kids join is “Some find a feeling of caring and attention in a gang. It becomes almost a family to them.”
A 15-year-old boy looking for advice writes, “I would like to ask a prisoner why he/she joined a gang besides respect or love. I was wondering if there are other reasons why people today are joining. I was thinking about joining because I feel like a misfit in my family. I am the only one in my family that makes bad grades, does drugs, drinks etc. No one else in my family has done them. (http://www.gangsandkids.com/gquestion0j.html)
My friend with the grown kids says they remember their outdoor adventures as an antidote to the teen culture. Looking back they say, “We were never tempted to drugs or drinking because we had tasted the high of nature and the mountains, in the context of family love.” When kids identify with their family they have:
- security from knowing they belong to a group
- strength — it’s easier to resist peer pressure when they know other people beyond their friends are counting on them
- perspective — life is about more than the issues discussed in the locker room
When we were dating we heard a pastor talk about the importance of teaching his kids how to have genuine fun. He wanted them to so enjoy their time together as a family, doing family activities, that when friends would come along to invite his offspring to go carousing, breaking windows and other unlawful things, they’d recognize the sham and say so: “Fun? That’s not fun! Fun is skiing for the weekend, reading a good book or going to a ball game.”
If membership in your family is fun, challenging and important — something valuable — your kids will be less likely to pull away.
The Impact of Everyday Interactions
Ordinary moments may become the biggest treasured memory for a child
Do you ever wonder what memories your children will treasure when they become adults? Down the road, you may be surprised by what they recall.
Picture this scene: It is your daughter’s 10th birthday. You want to make her party extra special. After all, she has told you every day for the past month that she is finally in the double digits and “no longer a child.” You have plotted a surprise birthday party for weeks. You’ve invited her friends, bought snacks, hung pink and purple streamers, blown up balloons, spent hours meticulously decorating the cake and hired Sparkles the Clown. The guests arrive, and the party is a huge success.
Years later, as the two of you swap your favorite memories, your daughter mentions her 10th birthday. You assume she will rave about the beautiful cake and Sparkles’ funny balloon animals, but instead she recalls how much fun it was to ride in the van with you to pick up doughnuts for breakfast. Not only were doughnuts a special treat, but the one-on-one time she had with you was also priceless. You sit dumbfounded and wonder what other simple memories she holds dear that you do not even remember.
Everyday interactions may be more meaningful than many parents realize. Most children find just as much, or even more, joy in the little things as they do in life’s big events. Eating a special breakfast of chocolate-chip pancakes, picking out the perfect backpack for the first day of school and singing silly songs in the car could be the highlights of your children’s younger years.
Busyness can make it difficult for parents to savor life’s ordinary moments. But it is precisely those moments that your children will treasure forever.
I am speaking from personal experience: That little girl enjoying a trip to the store was me. And to this day, that simple event remains one of my favorite memories of time spent with my father.
Build Relationship With Your Child
A close parent-child bond doesn’t just happen.
When our children go out on their own, having landed their first job and signed a lease for their first apartment, we hope that we have trained them to: respect authority, think for themselves, drive a car, hold a job, make dinner, pay bills and carry on mutually respectful and loving relationships. And that’s the short list.
Parenting is a big job; serving as a child’s personal ATM or behavior umpire isn’t enough. We need a relationship where we can tell Johnny it’s wrong to hit Susie but then find out why he struck her. We need a relationship with enough emotional strength to share hopes, dreams and convictions and be heard when we do so. We need a relationship that makes it easy for them to come to us with questions and concerns. We need a relationship where there’s not just respect, but also love.
This kind of parent-child bond doesn’t just happen; it takes wisdom and intentional effort. Here are some tips I hope will encourage you in one of the greatest pursuits of your lifetime — building a relationship with your child.
Pray, pray, pray.
There are moments when I’m completely baffled by my kids, ages 15, 11 and 5. I ask God to reveal His wisdom about their behavior, their problems with friends, their spiritual lives. Then during a quiet instant between my prayers, God will disclose a question to ask or a strategy to try.
For instance, I found myself refereeing a dispute between David, my oldest, and Bethany, the middle child, over David’s video game console. As the words grew heated, my frustration level shot up like a thermometer’s red line in August. I was ready to click off the power button and send them their separate ways. But the Holy Spirit said, Pray. So I did — and gained insight.
I asked David why he didn’t want Bethany playing his video games. It turns out she had made negative comments about his game playing, which he viewed as relaxation from schoolwork. My daughter apologized, and David forgave her. Because I prayed instead of adjudicating, my children quickly reconciled and our relationships were strengthened.
Get into their space.
From infancy through about age 8, kids spend a lot of time on the floor. We should be down there, too — playing games, pretending with dolls, building block forts. Fight the feeling that you’re acting stupid; crawl through those embarrassed feelings and meet your kids.
Be careful not to transition into buddies, however. It’s good to enter their world, but you’re still the parent. You may need to set time limits on this kind of play, and if whining ensues, a time-out might be necessary.
Getting into the world of older kids is different. Watch their TV shows or movies. At first your kids may wonder if you’re spying on them, but explain you just want to hang out.
You may need to resist the strong impulse to get up and do something else. Even if you’re not fascinated by Robot Warriors 3000 or The Princess Posse, ask questions about characters and storylines to start conversation with your kids.
Keep it real.
As hard as it may be, recounting our missteps can help kids who are 12 and older learn from our errors. They also get to see we’re not perfect.
One day I shared with David some history about my friendships. I told him about my best friend in elementary school and how we drifted apart in high school, and about my two best friends in college and how we’ve lost touch. The point? Friends come and go, but don’t let a friendship die because of bitterness or lack of attention.
Such personal information can be embarrassing to tweens or teenagers. If your kids feel awkward, try talking in the car, where the conversation isn’t face to face.
Enjoy family time.
A simple way to connect with your kids is eating together as a family. This is easy to do when they’re little, but as kids get older, sports and other activities compete with the family mealtime.
Our family is committed to sharing dinner together, even if it’s only 15 minutes. Each of us tells a highlight and a lowlight from the day. Usually someone’s highlight or lowlight is a springboard for other discussion.
The difficulty we have is keeping kids on track. David gets restless and begins to wander away from the table. Mark, our youngest, acts silly. My wife and I have to pay attention and guide the conversation.
There are other kinds of shared time, of course, such as going to a ball game. But don’t assume you’ve connected with your kids just because you were at the same event. Shared time involves asking questions (“What did you think about that referee’s call?”) and exchanging ideas (“I remember coming here with Grandpa”).
Do projects together.
We all have things we want to do — alone. Even if we’re not thrilled about cleaning the garage, we’d rather do it by ourselves than supervise a team of rowdy kids.
Last year, I planned to paint a room in our house by myself but realized this was an opportunity to teach and connect with all the kids. We transformed painting from a chore into a wonderful memory.
You’ll need to think and pray about the right level of involvement for your children based on their ages and experience. Count on this: The project may take longer, and your children will not do things like you would. If you can accept these facts, you’ll discover an endearing, enjoyable time.
This isn’t just for small ones. Older kids like it when you act silly, too — even though you might hear, “Oh, Dad, stop it” or “This person is not my mother.”
Embarrassing children in public is not a good idea, but having fun in private keeps things light and makes you approachable. So go ahead, do the goofy dance, make funny faces, sing silly songs, talk for the dog.
The means to build strong, durable bonds with your kids is within you. Just ask God to show you the way, and start connecting with your kids today.
Choosing a Family Hobby
How to choose a hobby that the whole family can enjoy
What if you don’t have any interesting hobbies that are fun for the whole family? Don’t be afraid to try something new. Do it for the kids. Let this be your moment to break out of the mold. We figured if we raised two kids in Colorado and never got out in nature, they’d never let us live it down. So we bought some hiking boots and a guide to the Pikes Peak region and started walking.
Whether its hiking or something totally different, look for an activity the whole family can do, something that’s:
- Age Appropriate — Kids as young as 2 and 3 can join in all forms of recreation and babies can be toted in a backpack. Just remember to go for versions of your favorite activities that your kids can enjoy. If you’re a distance swimmer, think kiddie pool when the family is along. If an activity is too advanced, the risks of boredom, irritability and injury are greater.
- Scalable — Look for activities that are enjoyable for those starting out, with room to grow more advanced — sports, music and art come to mind. We’re happy to complete short, easy hikes right now — while the kids take three steps to our one — knowing that someday, when everyone’s older and more experienced, we’ll still have lots of challenging terrain to cover.
- Repeatable — Some activities are events: trips to the circus, getaways to Disney, even a local amusement park. Hobbies aren’t like that. They’re activities you can fit into your schedule as often as once a week. By choosing something you can do regularly, throughout the year, it has the potential to become part of your family’s identity.
- Affordable — Hobbies range in price and there are family activities that fit the range of family budgets. Though the gear available for serious hikers can run into serious money, getting started required little more than some boots (we got ours on sale for around $35), a map and some water bottles. Most of what we take on the trail we already had lying around the house. Whatever activity you decide on, be sure it’s not beyond your means to keep doing it. Although we plan to add skiing to our lives when the kids are older, we know we’ll need to increase the activities budget to do so.
- Make it fun — Encouraging a four year old to keep going to the end of a 2-mile hike can be a chore. But when he knows there’s a root beer float waiting for him at the end of the trail he’s more likely to embrace the challenge. And when his little legs get tired and he starts begging for someone to carry him, we often divert his attention by singing songs or practicing his letters (“What does apple start with?”, “How about baseball?”, etc.)
When the kids get older and a root beer float and the alphabet song no longer motivate, the promise of a parent-sponsored outing — doing something they’ve grown to love — may be enough to keep the otherwise disengaged teens involved in family life.
It’s turns out it is possible to learn something new and actually enjoy it. Doing it for the benefit of your kids, both now and in the future, is great motivation.
What’s So Great About Hiking
Getting out in nature was never habitual till we had kids. Now that we’ve been doing it, we realize outdoor physical activities are loaded with benefits.
- Directed activity — It takes a good two or three hours from the time we load up the Jeep and head out, till the time we lift our sleepy hikers from their car seats. That’s three hours of directed activity where the kids are focused on something, excited and generally not bored and whiney.
- Hikes and long walks — occupy the kids’ attention more than just running around the house. They’re a lot more likely to let us carry on uninterrupted conversations. We do some of our best connecting as a couple during family outings.
- Guilt-free chocolate — They say Snickers are among the best trail snacks. Who wouldn’t love a reason to eat some favorite high-energy snacks, knowing the exercise involved will burn those calories?!
- Thrill of discovery — There’s something new and innocent about a child discovering God’s creation for the first time. A new bird, a bubbling stream, an elusive butterfly, all these and more provide lots of oohs and ahhs on the trail while instilling a respect for nature.
- Confidence boost — Realizing “they can do it” is a big deal for little ones. Each step taken over rough terrain, each trail completed, even the occasional scraped knee can build self-esteem in kids.
Develop Emotional Intimacy With Your Kids
Emotional/spiritual relationships don’t just happen. Here’s how to be intentional about building intimacy with your family.
“Hurry and intimacy are two entirely different things. What our children will remember most about their childhood when they grow older are two thingshow much love was in the home, and how much time you spent with them.” — Richard Swenson
I want to live my life with no regrets, especially with no relational regrets. Investing in the hearts of my bride and children should be my number one priority as I plan my to-do list. The dichotomy of responsibilities verses relationships is part of the reality of living intentionally and intimately.
There are so many things that can distract us from building emotionally/spiritually intimate relationships. Richard Swenson observes, “It’s the pace of life that destroys and derails living from the heart.” Then we get so tired that we think we deserve giving our time to entertainment, just to unwind. We also give our children over to mindless entertainment by default, because we are too exhausted to invest in their hearts.
Investing time to build intimacy requires that we unplug from distractions. We can cultivate intimacy through something as simple as eye contact. Looking our children directly in their eyes when they speak to us communicates volumes to them about their worth. Our children know when we are truly listening. I have heard it said that focused attention is more powerful than words of praise. Jesus was a master at “beholding people.” To behold someone speaks of direct gaze, straight into their souls. I don’t ever get a picture of Christ grunting “uh-uh” as He answered people’s questions, while being distracted.
Intimacy requires entering into our children’s worlds. One way to do this is to ask our children questions that take us to the deepest places of their hearts and then listen for what God is saying and revealing about their hearts. Consider questions like the following:
- What is your greatest fear right now?
- What do you worry about?
- What do you need more of from Mom and Dad?
- What do you get really angry about?
- What do you get really sad about?
- What are your greatest dreams?
- What are your greatest joys?
Another doorway to intimacy is planning. Plan time into your schedule to express how much you value each of your children. When we rearrange work schedules, tee times, softball or ministry opportunities to flow best with the needs of our family, our children will feel valued. Lisa and I have spent many years saying “no” to opportunities that would have scattered our children instead of bring us closer together as a family. There are many wonderful things we have said “no” to in order to build memories; a life-style of togetherness. As our older children look back, they now thank us for the family time we chose over other opportunities our children thought were important at the time.
Intimate relationships don’t just happen. It’s important to be intentional about truly connecting with our children on a consistent basis. I’m motivated by Chuck Colson’s words:
“As I think back on my own life, my biggest regret is not spending more time with my children. Making family your top priority means standing against a culture where materialism and workaholism are rampant. It means realizing that you may not advance as fast in your career as some of your colleagues — at least for a few years. It means being willing to accept a lower standard of living…knowing you’re doing the right thing for your children, giving them the emotional security they’ll draw on for the rest of their lives.”
There is a peace in life that comes from having no regrets. Let’s count the cost and invest in our families first. The world will wait.
Next Steps and Related Information
Additional resources on family time and relationships
Popular questions on this topic:
- Give me some creative (and cheap) ways to stimulate our kids mentally and expand their world.
- How can we make positive family memories?
- Where can I find practical tools for passing faith to our kids?
- How do I balance work and household responsibilities with my kids’ need for time with me?
- The DNA of Parent-Teen Relationships
- Making Your House a Home
- The Most Important Place on Earth
- Home Court Advantage
- Family Legacies
- Family Mealtime Devotionals
- Rites of Passage for Your Daughter
- Rites of Passage for Your Son