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a mom plays with her young son at a park

Renee Parsons was driving home to Minnesota from a wedding in Iowa. It had been a wonderful weekend full of family connections. Her four daughters were in the back of the van, pooped out from all the partying. Daylight was dwindling but the wide Midwestern sky was putting on a “wow” show. The setting sun was spraying crimson, soaking clouds and trees and hillsides in every shade of red imaginable.

Jim Parsons, Renee’s husband, happened to look over at Renee at that moment. Tears were streaming down her face. “What’s going on, hon?” he asked. What was going on was unrestrained joy — a kind of seventh heaven about family.

Renee had married into Jim’s close family, a clan that typically gathers in back-slapping packs at such places as Lake Powell in southern Utah, where they filled two houseboats during a recent reunion.

Renee’s own family, by contrast, had been troubled and divided since her parents divorced when she was 16. “The first time I went to Jim’s family reunion,” she says, “I immediately noticed that people were genuinely happy and treated each other with respect. I was so moved that I totally lost it in front of some in-laws. They asked what was wrong. I told them it was overwhelming to be with a whole family that was nice.”

These days, the satisfaction of family time is one of the most treasured aspects of Renee’s life. Unfortunately, for many of us — even those of us with close family bonds — such intimate moments are becoming fewer and farther between.

Social scientists, looking across America, see several diverse factors that are conspiring to weaken the family. According to University of Minnesota professor William J. Doherty, Ph.D., they include the conflicting needs and schedules of dual working parents; the ongoing fragmentation of our civic, cultural and religious communities; the prevalence of divorce and remarriage; and the mushrooming number of electronic distractions like video games, computers and televisions.

“What was once a strong, cohesive unit has become, in many cases, no more than a loose grouping of individuals with individual timetables and agendas,” writes Doherty in his book The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties.

Too Busy to Bond

Basically, it seems many families have no time for family. Findings from national time-diary surveys conducted in 1981 and 1997 by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan show the following:

  • Overall free time for children declined 12 hours per week, and playtime decreased three hours a week.
  • Household conversations dropped by 100 percent, which means that in 1997, periods during which “talking as a family” was the primary activity accounted for virtually no time per week.
  • Family mealtime declined from about nine hours per week to about eight. This decline is especially troubling in light of studies finding that having more mealtime at home is one of the strongest predictors of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems for children.

Other reported trends are not inherently negative but lead to less and less time for family nonetheless:

  • Structured sports doubled from two hours, 20 minutes per week to five hours, 17 minutes. There was also a five-fold increase in time watching family members play structured sports, from 30 minutes per week to more than three hours.
  • Studying time increased by almost 50 percent from 1981to 1997.

Social scientists and researchers have confirmed these findings. In 1995, Harvard University’s Robert Putnam published a short article describing how league bowling had declined, and he proposed that this seemingly minor phenomenon symbolized a much broader and significant social change. Five years later he wrote Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The book represents Putnam’s analysis of the Roper Reports and the DDB Needham Life Style survey. These archives provide data on the personal, social and political behavior of Americans over the last quarter century. Together, they contain the results of nearly 500,000 detailed interviews.

In the book, Putnam states there has been a 33 percent decrease over three decades in families who say they dine together regularly. Doherty agrees, citing a 1995 national poll with the same results. The survey also reported that about 58
percent of American families have the TV on during dinner.

According to Putnam, the number of families who take vacations has decreased 28 percent over two decades. We spend about 35 percent less time visiting with friends than we did 30 years ago. In 1975, the average American entertained friends at home 15 times per year; the equivalent figure is now barely half that. Back then, the average American played cards about 16 times yearly, twice the current average. “Sending greeting cards,” writes Putnam, “has declined by about 15 to 20 percent among both married and single people over the last decade or two.”

Why the change? People are moving more, says Putnam. Other possible factors include: suburbanization and sprawl; time pressure, especially on two-career families; disruption of marriage and family ties; and television, the electronic revolution, and other technological changes.

The verdict on the Internet is still out. Putnam ponders whether its primary effect will be to reinforce existing social networks, as the telephone has done, or become a substitute for them, as television often does.

The Pursuit of More

Another reason we are bonding less inside and outside of families is something called “affluenza”.

John De Graaf, author of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic and producer of a public-television series on the same topic, defines affluenza as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”

On the odd chance you don’t have personal experience with the way that affluenza eats away at family time, De Graaf (who is also the national coordinator for “Take Back Your Time Day,” scheduled for October 24, 2003), explains: “We are trapped in a work-and-spend cycle that also traps us in longer and longer work hours.” We say we value family time, he notes, but our actions suggest that we value producing and consuming more: “All the other values that we insist are important — health, family, community, civic duty — all these values are given short shrift in our pursuit of stuff and the trappings of the good life.”

According to De Graaf, the average American family works 388 hours per year longer on the job than in 1969. But the other threat DeGraaf sees is overscheduling — both ourselves and our children. “Kids are keeping appointment calendars and running schedules with something to do here and a class to do there and an event to do here and a sport to do there — schedules that once were reserved for CEOs. Every prominent child psychologist I’ve talked to says this is not healthy.”

Our policies about vacation time contribute to this malaise. In other modern industrial countries, people are guaranteed a minimum of four weeks paid vacation. In the United States, says De Graaf, there is no guaranteed vacation and most people only take two weeks. This year in Texas, only 46 percent of workers plan on taking any vacation.

“We also have by far the most miserly family-leave policies,” notes De Graaf. “It’s 12 weeks without pay. Most modern countries have six months to a year with some sort of pay. They have shorter workweeks. They have laws that restrict the amount of overtime that you can force people to work.” In the United States, with the exception of California (with a limit of 72 hours a week), there are no such laws. Canada’s limit is 44 to 48 hours, he says, and in the European Union, the limit is 48 hours per week.

Given this state of affairs, it’s no wonder that we’re having trouble carving out unhurried time for intimate family meals, talks, trips and the like. But it does seem a shame, and maybe it’s not unavoidable.

What to Do?

De Graaf says legislation is being drafted in Congress to create minimum paid leave and to limit mandatory overtime. He also hopes such initiatives as Take Back Your Time Day will further a national dialogue about affluenza and encourage employers to do more job sharing and give more vacation time.

Bill Doherty and Barbara Z. Carlson also recently created Putting Family First, an organization aimed at building a community where family life is an honored and celebrated priority. They have also co-authored Putting Family First: Successful Strategies for Reclaiming Family Life in a Hurry-Up World. The book offers a variety of simple but innovative approaches for resetting priorities, avoiding scheduling conflicts and creating family rituals. Here are just a few examples:

Family Meals: Have a weekly china-and-candles dinner for immediate family only. Family members (or teams) take turns selecting and preparing the meals, and the entire family slows down for a low-key evening of eating and talking.

Conversation: Not sure what to talk about at the table or while hanging out? Try openended questions that encourage intimate and imaginative interaction. Questions like: What moment of the day/week/season are you most proud of? If you could have a whole day off from work or school, what would you do with it?

Bedtime: Take time to brush your kid’s hair or rub his or her back. Read as a family instead of watching TV. Take turns choosing books and reading pages or chapters. Read a chapter a night so you are all eager to find out what happens next.

Seize the Day

Legislation and activist organizations notwithstanding, it’s unlikely that finding time for family is going to get easier any time soon. But if there’s one thing the experts agree on, it’s this: Deferring the odd, ungainly scraps of moments that we do have in exchange for some promise of “quality time” in the future almost never works.

You have to seize your moments as they come, and recognize them for what they are: Your best hope being present and accounted for in the lives of the people who matter most. After all, long hours at the office may bring us to tears now and then, but they’re rarely tears of joy. And hours “wasted” with family often turn out to be the best use of our time. So disown your to-do list, if you must. Axe your agenda. But be here now. This is one connection you don’t want to miss.

Less TV, More Life

Ben, my son, came home from school one day with troubling news. His seventh-grade English teacher gave him this assignment: Turn off your TV for a week and write about the experience. Great, I thought — until I remembered this was during NBA playoffs. Ben and I love the NBA. This homework really hit home.

We managed to leave the tube off for one week — and actually enjoyed it. Instead of watching the games on TV, we saw the home games live. With no TV to tie us down, we went to movies, visited friends and lingered over meals and piano lessons. It seemed that we had a lot more time and that the day flowed evenly, not chopped up by half-hour mind-to-mush TV shows.

In order to gain family time by stopping or reducing your TV time, here are tips from TV-Turnoff Network.

  • Have a family meeting and set a goal of limiting TV exposure to, say, less than five hours a week. Try to agree on such limits as no morning TV, no TV with meals, or no TV before all homework is done.
  • Have everyone in the family make a list of activities to do besides watching TV. Then start doing them, with one family member per day picking and planning the activities.
  • Move your TV to the basement, sunroom or attic. Having the tube in a prominent place is too tempting. When you want to watch a show, move the TV back to the living room. The lugging back and forth will help you decide which shows are worth the effort.
  • Disconnect cable, which reduces your exposure to tempting channels and saves money that can be used for other family fun. – GL

Bonding Bonus

Good things happen to those who bond — in couples, families, social groups and communities of all kinds. Not-so-great things tend to happen to those who don’t. Just ask Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam. He writes in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community that:

  • In terms of measured happiness, getting married is the equivalent of quadrupling your income. Also, attending a club meeting regularly is the equivalent of doubling your income.
  • Communities with little social bonding have lower educational performance and more teen pregnancy, crime, child suicide, low birth weight and prenatal mortality.
  • Studies in the United States, Scandinavia and Japan show that people who are socially disconnected are two to five times more likely to die from all causes, compared with matched individuals who have close ties with family, friends and community.
  • If you belong to no groups but decide to join one, writes Putnam, “You cut your risk of dying over the next year in half.”

Why does social cohesion matter to health? Putnam suggests that social networks furnish tangible assistance, such as money and transportation, thus reducing stress. Social networks also reinforce healthy habits; socially isolated people are more likely to smoke and engage in unhealthy habits. Finally, social bonding might stimulate the immune system to fight disease and stress.

The effects of social bonding have been dramatic in Roseto, Penn., a small Italian-American community that researchers have studied since the 1950s. Compared with residents of neighboring towns, Rosetons had an age-adjusted heart-attack rate that was less than half that of their neighbors; over a seven-year span, not one Roseton under age 47 died of a heart attack.

Researchers studied diet, exercise, weight, smoking and genetic disposition looking for an explanation. None of these explanations held the answer. It turns out this was a tight-knit community with strong social bonding. Leaders had created a mutual-aid society, churches, sports clubs, a labor union, a newspaper, Scout troupes, a park and athletic field. Family values and good behaviors were reinforced, and residents clustered on front porches and at social clubs for emotional and financial support.

In the ’70s, a socially mobile generation of young people began rejecting the ways of the close community — with catastrophic results. By the 1980s, writes Putnam, “Roseto’s new generation of adults had a heart-attack rate above that of their neighbors in a nearby and demographically similar town.” –GL

Extended-Family Remix

It’s my birthday and there’s a message waiting on the answering machine. A gravelly tenor voice manages to croak out a heart-warming rendition of “Happy Birthday,” ending it (mercifully) with the kicker, “You o-old faaart.”

It’s Earl, of course. That would be Earl Hipp, fellow Minneapolis writer and friend who always remembers my birthday. And I can count on Earl to call every Thanksgiving with a heartfelt expression of gratitude for my being in his life. I can also count on Earl to remember such anniversaries as the deaths of my mom and dad.

Earl isn’t related to me by blood, but he feels and acts a lot like family. I asked him once why he remembers all these dates and goes to all this trouble. “Because remembering details is the glue that holds together relationships,” he says. “I’m just investing in people I care about. And I get a kick out of hearing their surprise and gratitude that I remembered.”

Some people are lucky enough to have terrific families of origin. Others are great at “making” surrogate families. And then there are people like Earl, who work both angles masterfully. Earl admits to using a software program to help him remember dates and details about his circle of friends and family. He also enters names and phone numbers in his cell phone and daily scrolls through the directory to determine whom he will contact that day. “Connectivity is a priority,” he says. “Isolation, I’ve done. I was human tumbleweed for years, and I learned the cost of feeling alone, being estranged and having no community. Being connected takes time and effort, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay in order not to feel left out of the human experience.”

I’m intrigued by this idea of giving remembrance calls and cards to loved ones. Historically, I’ve been bad at such things, but hearing Earl talk gets me thinking. So I call three people in my extended family, all of whom are good at developing and maintaining ties with people inside and outside their families of origin. I ask why and how they do it.

“Random acts of kindness make all the difference,” says my cousin, Linda Bengtson of Northfield, Minn. She is always scouring gift shops for cards and has a box of maybe 300 cards for any occasion. Rather than dreading, as I do, the time lost and the dreadful drug-store decisions (this card or that?) to be made each time a birthday or wedding rolls around, Linda is delighting in the occasion to move cards and give joy in the process. She just likes the connection she feels in doing it.

Wendy Bengtson of Chippewa Falls, Wis., says maintaining ties is a matter of pace and priorities. “If you slow down, the little things become important,” she says. “And the more you slow down, the more you realize how important they are. I had a good
friend here in town that took the time to care, to remember birthdays and such. When she died, 1,500 people came to her wake — all because she took the time to reach out.”

Nancy Parker Hokonson of Hudson, Wis., sends handmade birthday cards. She makes this kind of effort all the time for people she cares about, knowing that some folks won’t notice the homemade art or reciprocate in kind. “That doesn’t matter,” she says. “I just take joy in the process.”

Obviously, not everyone has the motivation (or determination) required to connect so actively or powerfully with so many, but talking with these individuals who do has helped me realize that to a large extent, having and enjoying a close “family” is really a matter of choice. Even those who don’t have strong connections with their own clan — the one they were born into —still have the option of creating tribes of their own.

I’m not sure I’m ready to start scouring card shops or keeping a database for birthday calls, but I do think there’s a lot to be said for making a conscious choice about whom you want to be connected to and why. I also see that it doesn’t necessarily take a Herculean effort or formidable risk in order to forge and maintain those bonds. Some authentic affection, a healthy dose of emotional accessibility, consideration and time — these are the things from which all truly satisfying families are ultimately formed. Sure, blood may still be thicker than water. But love, caring and silly birthday phone calls can go a long way toward keeping us afloat.

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