Globe Syndicate

for release Friday December 19, 2003

Another Way

by Melodie Davis

Give Your Family Time

Earlier this fall I had the opportunity to address six Chinese students about “family life in North America.” My office building is also home to China Educational Exchange which arranges to send English teachers to China. They also regularly host groups of Chinese students here for English language study and instruction in the history/culture of the United States.

These were “older” students, most of them actually teachers themselves, married, and with teenage children back in China. We discussed many aspects of family life and how things are changing. Then they threw me a question that gave me pause: when is your family hour?

Family hour. What a great concept! I pushed a little to try and figure out what specifically they were talking about. Where had they heard it? Were they just referring to mealtime? Was it something that was a regular tradition in China? Somehow my stereotype of life in China, where mandatory one-child families seem to devalue families, was a little shaken.

We talked about the difficulty of making family time both in the U.S. and China, especially with jobs and schooling fragmenting the family. One wife shared that her husband commuted to work in a different city, living there through the week. And of course she was gone from her family for five months of language study here in the U.S.

I vaguely recalled a time when our society did kind of have a family hour around meal time—a time when families gathered in the living room after dinner or supper and played games, read together, read the Bible or even sang around the piano. Perhaps that idea is gone, along with “perfect family” TV programs like “Leave it to Beaver.”

We are down to the final week before Christmas, and perhaps you are still stewing about a lack of money to give your family members the things you would really like to give. My brother let me in on a little secret recently when we were discussing men doing dishes. He said one year early in their marriage when he didn’t have enough money to buy his wife a Christmas present, he gave her the gift of “washing dishes for a year.”

“And now I’m still making up for the meals I missed that year,” he quipped good-naturedly with his hands in the dishpan. More than clean dishes and a helping hand, he was giving his wife the gift of his time. That is a very precious and loving thing to give.

Most of our kids would love to have “more time” with parents, especially one-on-one attention, at least until they reach a certain age. A family decided to put away its Play Station and TV because they realized they rarely spent time together, other than while they were watching TV together, or the kids were on the Play Station. That single act, although hard for all at first, revolutionized the way they related to each other.

The Church of Latter Day Saints is well known for its emphasis on family life, and I have always been impressed by how many families in that faith tradition regularly hold “Family Night.” They have a night that is set aside for a family meeting to discuss issues or business, and then also plan some activity or entertainment after the meeting. They budget for some pretty significant “entertainment activities” that keep children really enjoying the tradition. While finances make it difficult to always include paid entertainments like bowling, movies, mini-golfing or go-cart racing, these “treats” can be rationed out and anticipated once every two or three months or whatever your family budget will allow.

What if we would try to incorporate a “family hour” or night into our schedules? Another family I know had a tradition of staying in their robes and pajamas on Saturday morning to enjoy homemade pancakes and a morning of activities or games the kids wanted to play. Too often today the temptation is to “entertain” ourselves with merely shopping—running to the mall or shopping center anytime we have free time. Now that most stores are open on Sunday afternoons, even that traditional “family afternoon” seems lost in our society.

While we can’t go back to Leave it to Beaver, do hang on to whatever family time you can manage. Make it a priority. Plan dates as a couple and family outings together, even if it means scheduling them a month in advance. Then when a committee asks for a meeting for a certain time, or your boss wants you to work or travel, you can say truthfully, “I have a very important prior commitment.” Nobody has to know it is a family appointment. Or maybe they should know it is a family commitment: why do we have to apologize for taking time for family?

Give each other something that can be totally free: the gift of time with each other. Merry Christmas!

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Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.

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