I realized my family needed to slow down after I had to make an appointment with my 3-year-old, Clementine. "Take C. to buy sneakers, 2 p.m.," I wrote in my personal organizer, an entry sandwiched between "Ballet class, 12:45" and "E. to playdate 3:30 (then Z. to dentist) before p/u J. at train." That particular Thursday was a light day.
By contrast, I remember my own childhood for the long, lazy hours I spent with my three brothers and my parents. We raked leaves. We played. We got so bored one night that all six of us cooked an eight-course formal meal that featured everybody's favorite dish, two desserts, and my mother's crystal goblets. The glasses miraculously survived, and I was left with the kind of memory I want my own daughters to have. I know I don't want them to vaguely recall that they spent their early years involved in a perpetual-motion experiment. Of course, engineering a family slowdown is easier said than done if you, like me, are toting around a battle-scarred Rolodex stuffed with insistent notes about upcoming PTA meetings, doctor appointments, and nursery school field trips. But with a few simple changes, you can find more unhurried time together. Here's how:
Eliminate rush hour
With five kids, Laurie Segal could easily find her home turning into a madhouse each morning. Instead, Segal, a family therapist from Williston Park, NY, keeps mayhem at bay by getting organized the night before. She lays out clothes, makes sure book bags are packed, and writes names on lunch sacks for each of her kids, ages 6 through 10. "The day starts off smoother because of the planning the night before," says Segal. "We all eat breakfast together, and I get to concentrate on them."
Other parents swear by setting the alarm clock just 15 minutes earlier so they don't feel so hurried. And by putting their kids to bed at a reasonable hour each night, which ensures well-rested (translation: better-behaved) kids.
Get out of the house
Ringing phones, video games, and endless chores can keep you from focusing on -- and relishing -- one another's company at home. The easiest way to combat such distractions: Escape from them a few times a week, if only for 15 or 20 minutes at a stretch. You might take the dog for a walk together, build a snowman in the backyard, or ride bikes on weekends.
"When our sons were little, we started walking to a nearby creek to listen for beavers hitting their tails against the water," says Nick Stinnett, Ph.D., a professor of human development at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and coauthor of Fantastic Families: 6 Proven Steps to Building a Strong Family. "We still do it, years later, and we all look forward to it."
I stumbled across this solution to the midweek dinner dilemma a few years ago after I made an extra-big batch of chili. I froze the leftovers, then thawed them a week or two later on a day when I just didn't have time to cook. As a result, my family had a lovely, stress-free dinner. These days, I regularly double or even triple recipes for pasta sauce, stuffed cabbage, lentil stew, and chicken soup.
Take time for yourself
It sounds counterintuitive, but you'll be a more relaxed parent if you add an item to your to-do list: getting away from your brood. It doesn't have to be expensive or complicated. Meet a friend for coffee; have a picnic with your spouse.
Chris and Reina Komisarjevsky of Atlantic Beach, NY, parents of six, make a point of slipping away -- for an evening, for a weekend -- once a week. "When we come home, we're refreshed and ready to enjoy the kids again," says Chris, coauthor, with his wife, of Peanut Butter and Jelly Management: Tales From Parenthood, Lessons for Managers.
Have everyone pitch in
Recruit the whole family when you need to rake leaves, shovel snow, or wash the car. You'll not only spend time with one another, you'll also share the satisfaction of a job well done (especially if you allow for a little silliness here and there, such as a snowball or water fight). "It feels really good to work together on a project, even if it's something mundane," says Tina Tessina, a family therapist in Long Beach, CA. "When you have to clean the kitchen, give your three-year-old a sponge and point her toward some cabinet doors that are at her eye level. She'll feel proud because she's helping, and once in a while she may even wipe away a spot of spilled juice."
You can also make chores more appealing by rewarding your family for their hard work. "My husband, who grew up on a farm, has memories of his dad saying, 'Good job today -- we're going out for ice cream,'" says Tessina.
Reserve Saturday or Sunday mornings
Set aside some sacred time -- a weekend morning usually works best -- for a big family cuddling session. Invite the kids to pile into bed with you, then talk and play for a half hour or so. Make rules: no phone, no TV, no interruptions. In our house, however, we do allow the guitar. My husband takes requests (often "My Darling Clementine") while the rest of us make up elaborate dances with steps I cannot describe without causing one of my older daughters to drop dead of embarrassment.
More Togetherness Tips
When hosting friends and family, don't think you have to do everything yourself. Time-management consultant Ruth Klein, of Santa Monica, CA, invited her extended family for Shabbat dinner every Friday night when her three kids were little. "It was special, but I was exhausted by it until I got a college student for eight dollars an hour to come in and make coffee, get the dessert out, and clean the kitchen at the end of the night. Then I had time to enjoy my family," says Klein. Which was the reason she wanted them there in the first place.
If hiring a neighborhood teenager isn't an option, try going potluck, or agree ahead of time to swap chores with frequent guests: They help wash your dishes; you do the same for them. The first time I tried this arrangement, I spent the next two days hunting for my potato peeler, but it was well worth it to have someone else clean the kitchen.
Turn off the tube
It's advice parents hear often -- with good reason. You'll be amazed at the extra hours you can find in a day once your kids, and you, aren't watching as much TV. Your family doesn't have to go cold turkey, though; start by cutting back by 30 minutes to an hour each evening (more on weekends) or by keeping it off one night a week. If your children complain of boredom, introduce an activity from your own childhood. Cut out paper dolls, say, or bake cookies. I love to color with my kids because it's something that doesn't take all of our attention, so pretty soon we're talking and laughing together.
Cut back on errands
You can save time and energy -- and avoid a lot of headaches -- if you're not dragging your crew from store to store every weekend. Find a dry cleaner that delivers. Buy everything from toilet paper to kids' birthday gifts in bulk. Try ordering such basics as home-office and school supplies, clothing, toiletries, stamps, and even groceries online at sites like Staples.com, Netgrocer.com, Target.com, and Oldnavy.com. Some offer free shipping and allow returns to local stores.
Sit down to dinner
At least one night a week, have your entire family eat together (or share breakfast if you or your spouse works nights). It's one of the best ways you can build strong bonds. "Start the habit even if your children are really young," says Jill Grigsby, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Pomona College, in Claremont, CA. "They'll come to expect and even look forward to it."
Yes, your kids will be antsy. Yes, they'll squirm. They'll push food around; they'll try to slip away from the table. But you can trick them into having fun: Institute "cravings night" and let everyone choose one item to be served. If your kids are older, try a joke night and compete for the biggest laughs.
My family plays "one good thing." The first child who shows up at the table with clean hands gets to be the first to describe something good that happened that day. Often the honors go to Clementine, and by the time she finishes her typically exhaustive summary ("I waked up and had Cheerios and I went to the park in my ruby slippers and swinged and then I came home and washed my hands fast and now I'm going first"), enough minutes have elapsed to allow even the crankiest among us to think of at least one good thing. Even on spelling-test days.
Be a quitter sometimes
There are just so many hours in a given week, so if you find yourself constantly running from one kids' activity to another, it might be time to pare down your family's schedule. "Parents are trying to do the best they can for their children, and that can lead to karate lessons and piano lessons and more and more lessons," says William Doherty, Ph.D., a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul and coauthor of Putting Family First: Successful Strategies for Reclaiming Family Life in a Hurry-Up World. "But you can end up with a situation where there's no time left for the family, which isn't in anyone's best interest."
So don't feel guilty about dropping an activity. "Instead of asking yourself if you're depriving your kids of opportunities," says Doherty, "ask yourself: Am I depriving them of important time to hang out with me?"
My family was faced with that choice, so you won't see Clementine at ballet class anymore. But you'll still see her in the pink ruffled tutu she insists on wearing to the park. I'll be the one pushing her on the swings.
New York Times columnist Michelle Slatalla is writing a book about her grandmother's life.