The term “quality time” is often used when talking about the engagement parents have with their children. Today, quality time is more often applied to busy families—ones with crazy schedules that prevent them from much face-to-face, sustainable, screen-free interaction during a typical day.
However, we believe any and all time families spend together is important. In that sense, “family time” is a better term. If one of your top parenting goals is to raise healthy kids who make smart choices and resist risky behaviors, family time is one of your best strategies to achieve that. Here’s how:
Family Time Fosters Communication
Communication may be the most important factor in raising healthy kids. For example, according to a Columbia University report, frequent family dinners led to teens having better relationships with their parents, which in turn decreased the likelihood of those teens using marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco. The engaged time spent as a family builds trust—teens become more comfortable communicating with you at an age when their evolving brains might be telling them to ignore you. The communication doesn’t have to be deep; even idle chitchat strengthens the bond that fosters healthy kids.
Reinforcing That Family Is Still Important
Back to the evolving youth brain—any parent who has heard “I hate you” come from their teen’s mouth can attest to wondering what is going on with their child. Much of it is simple biology: Around middle school, kids’ neural circuitry start transforming, and as a result, they may start to pull away from you. However, this might be the age they need you most, even if they don’t show it. Family time reinforces that family is still important, no matter how moody, detached or hyper your middle schoolers get. You want to be your kids’ greatest influencer at this stage, so don’t settle for your child wanting to “just stay in his room” when dinnertime or other family opportunities roll around.
Family Bonding Protects Kids
Just as there are many risk factors that contribute to the possibility of drug and alcohol abuse with teens, there are also protective factors as well that diminish that risk. Positive family bonding is chief among these protective factors. Bonding leads to trust, respect for clear rules and mutual and reasonably high expectations—all of which, fortuitously, are also protective factors. Family time is a chance to achieve this bonding. Again, you don’t need a “kumbaya” moment at every meal; just being with your children and conversing with them goes a long way to helping them become and remain healthy kids.
Family Time Ideas
Family time in theory is a great idea, but some parents might worry that the concept will bore quickly or simply not work. Here are some tips and activities to consider:
- Dinnertime: As already stated, families that eat together lead to healthy kids. If you are not sure where to start, give Family Day—a national effort to promote family meals—a try. Also, your family meal doesn’t necessarily always mean dinner: Weekend breakfasts (Waffles!) and lunches work well too.
- Get out and move: Healthy kids not only stay away from drugs and alcohol, but are also active and fit. Encourage this by exercising with your children. Go for a long walk after dinner, maybe to get ice cream (combining exercise and dessert is acceptable!). Train for a 5K together. Go for bike rides in the evening. Jump in the pool with your kids. If your children see you active, they are more likely to embrace that habit into adulthood.
- Put away the phone: For all its criticisms, smartphones do help families stay connected: Parents can more easily keep tabs on their teens, and kids can Skype or FaceTime with grandparents they might not otherwise see too often. However, if parents and children are at the same table or in the same room together yet all on their phones, it doesn’t quite qualify as family time. And often, parents are worse offenders than kids. Keep your phones and tablets away and enjoy the original social network: the family.
- Car time as connection time: If you are in the car with your kids, you have a golden opportunity to connect with them. They may see it as being trapped … but it’s an opportunity nonetheless. Engage them in conversation. Ask how their day went. Solicit their opinions. If you are stuck in traffic anyway, you might as well make the most of the time—impromptu family time.
- Game night: Family Game Night has taken off as a popular activity over the past several years, and we heartily endorse it. However, you don’t have to wait for Game Night: A game after dinner or as a homework break is a chance not only to relax, but also to bond. You don’t have to play a four-hour game of Risk—a 15 minutes of cribbage or backgammon, for example will suffice and give you both a chance to unwind and, hopefully, talk.
The Influence of Parents
Some parents might not think they have much influence on their teens, but research suggests otherwise. One survey, for example, found that only 8 percent of kids whose parents actively disapprove of drinking were drinking themselves, as opposed to 42 percent whose parents weren’t as strong about the messaging. Healthy kids trust their parents, and engagement can build that trust. Embrace family time as a way not only to celebrate your family, but also to keep your kids safe.