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Fitting in Family Downtime

There's school, homework to be done, hair to be washed and braided, playdates to honor, birthday parties to attend. Ballet and gymnastics and track. Hardly a minute of my family's time goes unscheduled, and when we do get a breather, we often spend it planning the next activities.

Sympathetic to our plight  -- and the frantic look on my face when I saw her recently  -- my friend Val made a simple but revolutionary observation: "You need some family downtime." At Val's house, that means Saturday mornings, when she, her husband, and their three kids go without answering the phone and doorbell, and forsake all invitations, activities, chores, and sometimes even brushing their teeth, to sit around in their pajamas, reading, watching TV, or napping. "This," she says, "is the way my family stays sane."

So, taking a cue from Val, our clan is now carving out nonnegotiable blocks of uninterrupted, lazy bliss on Sundays, during which we spend the morning and early afternoon inhaling Nick's cinnamon-honey waffles, thumbing through The New York Times (we read the kid-friendly stories to the little ones), watching a favorite movie, and eventually pulling on clothes just clean enough to present ourselves for an early dinner at our local pizza buffet. No invitations or phone calls accepted. Just us having a good ol' quiet, relaxing time. Together.

Steal one (or all!) of the following mom-approved approaches to getting an unpressured retreat your family will treasure.

Shut out the world

Don't bother inviting the Hunter family to a Friday-night event: Jessica, Scott, and their kids, Abby, 5, and Sam, 4, have another bash to attend: their Friday Night Party, during which they do marathons of activities at home  -- watching movies back-to-back, buckets of popcorn in hand; playing kid-friendly board games; having family slumber parties in the living room. Anything goes, so long as it's inexpensive and they're "focusing on each other and being happy," says the Des Moines mom.

This, she admits, isn't always an easy feat. "I don't let myself relax when there's work to be done," she says. "It is sometimes hard for me when I get home on Friday and the house is a mess. But I force myself to stop obsessing and tell myself: 'I am going to take care of this stuff tomorrow. Focus on Abby and Sam.'"

Putting the laundry off to party with your husband and kids can be well worth it. An easy dinner will be more than satisfying, especially if you serve it up as a picnic outside or on a sheet laid out on the family-room floor. One summer night the Hunters played flashlight hide-and-seek in the dark with their kids, then sat around talking about nothing in particular until bedtime. "It was perfect," Hunter says.

You can even take the party on the road. Dede King and her husband, Greg, who live in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, jot down ideas for activities they'd like to do with their four kids and put them in a bin marked "Friday Box." Then the kids take turns each week picking what the family will do over the weekend. They might go to a drive-in movie, play mini-golf, hit the local park to play baseball or the library for some new books to read to one another, or roast marshmallows in the fireplace.

"We all look forward to that time together," King says. Their family and friends all know about the ritual, and the only time it gets canceled is if there's an emergency or the kids have had a "bad behavior week."

If you want to try this, let your child choose some activities so she feels that her ideas are represented. But be sure to include activities that appeal to you and your husband, too, and make it clear that no matter what's picked, no one can complain, because even if the activity she wanted isn't chosen this week, it may be next week.

Contributing editor Denene Millner's first novel for teens will be published in the summer of 2007 by Scholastic Press.

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