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Calm-time famine in families

Published on: December 30, 2013

by Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Don’t we all wish we could sprinkle some of our dog days of summer through-out our whole school year?

We all love our children and want the best for them. When asked about life values, parents will usually put “the family” at the very top. But we just never have enough time! We yearn for spontaneous and unstructured time with our families, but failing at getting enough, we end up with pervasive disappointment and guilt. Routines and rituals are especially important for creating a sense of family and memories for life. Parents and children alike feel like they don’t have enough time for play with all the demands of work, school and structured activities…and more activities.

So what’s with this time famine? Why don't we feed ourselves some calm time if we are we so hungry for the special moments that build secure and loving relationships?

At both ends of the income continuum, people feel like they lack adequate time for their families. Poor people have to worry about employment, housing, health care and a lack of educational opportunities. Those with greater financial resources often have turbo-charged life styles packed with activities that—considered alone—are really good for kids, like athletics, music, scouts, tutoring, and foreign language lessons. But packed into the ramped up bundle that typifies a lot of families, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.

It seems like the common refrain when we ask, “How are you?” these days is, “Crazy busy!” or “I practically live in my car.” If we all want more time with our kids, spouses or friends, then why don’t we prioritize this agenda and make it happen? We have a choice, don’t we? Maybe—but most people feel rather helpless in finding more quality time for building and maintaining family relationships. There are just too many other demands!

The time famine experienced by families is extremely complex and related to contemporary life styles. We have an overabundance of options for our kids, including educational opportunities, extracurricular activities, and sports teams. Like a food feast, we often binge since it all looks so good, instead of making discerning choices and passing up some good stuff. There is also the slow creep of our increasingly manic life styles, with "keeping up with the Joneses" playing a far bigger role than most of us realize.

Work bleeds into our home lives, thanks to multiple electronic umbilical cords tying us to everything and everybody but eroding family face time. Our brains get a squirt of the chemical “dopamine” (which acts like a “jackpot” reward juice making us yearn for more) with everything from TV to blackberry use to shopping to video gaming to gratifying work to—well, you get the idea—to time traps generally. Furthermore, some of us get an extra jolt of adrenalin when we are activated by challenging and stimulating activities. No matter what we say about our values about family, these chemically arousing and rewarding outlets frequently trump the slowed down face time and summer day walks in the park with our children.

How can we weave some dog days of summer into the fall, winter and spring? It would take an act of will and a heck of lot of self discipline to unplug and prioritize something as un-fancy as hang time. Slowing down for some families is as hard as losing weight, starting to exercise, canceling cable or cutting up credit cards for others! There might be a huge downer initially as family members go through a bit of chemical withdrawal from their reward-associated habits! It would take a huge commitment. But isn’t that what love and a values-oriented life is all about? Only with unstructured hang time can we discover the empathy generated from close listening and eye contact, accidental connections with even ornery teens and magical moments of family bliss.

I truly think “calm” time is the next big thing. It is the commodity for families in the 21st century. Go get some, NOW!

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