None of us has kids so that we can spend our days putting them in time-outs, breaking up arguments between siblings, or fighting about bedtime, although we all realize, inevitably, that this is part of the deal. Beyond these moments, we want parenting to be about joyful shared family experiences as often as possible. In other words, we want to have fun.
But how do you get from the hustle and bustle of maintaining a household and meeting basic needs to finding those relaxed moments together? Family fun doesn't just happen. "Happy families follow principles that increase the joy in their relationships," says Nick Stinnett, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at the University of Alabama and lead researcher of a 25-year study of 14,000 strong families. While they probably haven't formalized these principles, he says, they consistently practice habits that increase the joy in their lives. To help you up your family's happiness factor and cut down on the hassles, follow these reality-tested strategies:
SLOW DOWN AND STAY TUNED
It doesn't necessarily take a lot of energy to connect with your family. In fact, it can take less energy than you expend during the rest of your multitasking day. Never undervalue the half hour or hour of focused time doing what your child enjoys. Play peekaboo with your baby and make the funny faces that crack her up. Sit on the floor and help your preschooler sort rocks into miniature mountains. Be the ailing patient for a game with your little doctor, or the hungry customer at her restaurant. "It sounds obvious, but it's great to pick out activities that you like to do with your child and do them," suggests Sharon Frost of Petoskey, Michigan, the mother of two. "I love to dance. So I put music on or my kids and I play instruments and we all move around."
Stacey Schuham, a single mom in Boulder, Colorado, has found that some of her best times with 4-year-old son Cooper require no effort at all. One of the highlights of their weekends is a shared afternoon nap. "We get in bed and snuggle and read. I'm not stressed, he's not stressed," says Schuham. She decided on a slowed-down approach to weekends once she realized she was spending a major chunk of family time in a rush to get from one thing to another. So she replaced get-things-done weekends with quiet, unstructured moments together. "Fewer expectations allow for more success. Our best weekend days are when we feel we have the least to do. We might go to the mall, I might vacuum the house, but we do things at our own pace."
They tend to skip weekend activities that require they be somewhere at a certain time and instead play with blocks and trains, take short walks and bike rides, or listen to music. Cutting down on specific goals may sound indulgent, but, says Schuham, it's essential: "It's about giving ourselves time to just 'be' with each other."
Sharon Frost follows a similar tack with her family's regular "pajama days": "cozy, stay-at-home days when we let the world spin away without us," she explains. Frost says staying in pajamas also means that no one is easily tempted to go out and away from home.
DON'T SWEAT THE BIG STUFF
A scaled-down approach is also good for families who find themselves lured by newspaper entertainment listings. Whatever you choose to do, don't feel guilty if you're not consistently availing yourselves of the events everyone else seems to be going to. The happiest childhood memories end up less about the pro baseball game or the trip to hear the storyteller than the backyard game of catch and the book before bed with Mom or Dad. That's because small, spontaneous events can be thrilling.
From a 2-year-old's perspective, a trip to see the lobsters at the grocery store or the snakes at the pet store may be as satisfying as going to the zoo. A walk around the block while being pulled in a wagon and holding a balloon might be just as joyful as a full-scale parade.
MAKE WORK FEEL LIKE PLAY
One source of joy in family life is as close as your kitchen sink and the dirty dishes in it. You may look at washing dishes as just another boring chore, but your child—particularly if he's too young to have picked up adult prejudices against housework—may see a sinkful of dishes as a terrifically fun project. It's all in your approach, says Kathleen Bahr, Ph.D., associate professor of marriage, family, and human development at Brigham Young University. Playfulness doesn't have to be limited to play. But to be able to be lighthearted about work, parents do have to adjust their attitude, she says. For starters, stop watching the clock and valuing efficiency above all else and start thinking of the task—however large or small—as valuable family time.
This may mean more suds on the dishes than you'd prefer, and it nearly always means the tasks will take longer. "Children like washing windows because they can make pictures on the glass, they like doing dishes because they like the idea of blowing bubbles in the dishwater, and they like making patterns in the carpet when they vacuum," says Bahr. Understanding this can be wonderfully freeing to parents who ordinarily find themselves constantly searching for the next activity for their child.
And the payoffs for working together extend far beyond a clean house. Kids working side by side with their parents feel the traditional hierarchies dissolve into teamwork, says Bahr. They also feel a deep satisfaction from knowing that because they've helped, they've made a contribution. "My son sometimes drags his feet when I ask him to vacuum," she says, "but as soon as he starts, I can hear him singing as he works."
PUT RICHNESS INTO RITUALS
Just as contributing to chores makes kids feel like an important part of the family, so does their participation in regularly scheduled activities. The problem is, family time with everyone together often falls by the wayside in favor of individual activities.
The solution? Low-key but regular events that kids know they can count on—a family game night, a walk after dinner on the weekends, a special Sunday breakfast, even a few nights when supper together (with the television off) is as much a reliable part of the schedule as soccer or Little League practice. Whatever you choose (and until you get used to it, write it down on the calendar the way you would any other appointment), predictability and regularity are key. "You don't want to have to negotiate with everyone about what you're going to do every time you do it," says William Doherty, Ph.D., professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. "You want family members to know what to expect."
These rituals become important on many levels, since they require everyone to put aside individual preferences for the good of the whole, says Doherty. "More and more, families seem to be raising hyperindividualists. But it's important to learn to compromise for the good of the group."
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED AND ENJOY IT
As much as children love rituals and rules, they also love surprises and breaking with the norm. Even small, unexpected things—such as your child's finding a written clue under her dinner plate to the location of a hidden treat or getting dressed for bed and then taking a spontaneous stroll outside—make big impressions and big memories. Alicia Gephart of Otterbein, Indiana, the mother of three, says spontaneity has always been part of their family life. A few years ago, she says, they started taking advantage of free afternoons to hop in their van. "We'd go out for a meal or a drive in the country together, and the kids got to talk and we got to listen," she says. "Some of our most enjoyable times as a family have come during these jaunts."
LET GO AND LIGHTEN UP
Of all the attributes that mark joyful families, an enduring sense of humor may be the most universal. "In our research, happy families use humor a lot," says Stinnett. "It relieves tension and stress because it helps you not to take yourselves so seriously." But how do you laugh when you're stuck in traffic again and the kids are whining and you're late for an appointment with the pediatrician and it's starting to rain? No one said it's easy, but looking for ways to lighten these kinds of situations is important—not just for you but for your kids, who are likely to follow your example to learn how to turn irritating moments into bearable and maybe even playful ones. Remember that a momentary lapse into silliness in front of the kids won't destroy your authority. In fact, it could make you a big winner. Backed up in traffic, with a couple of whiny children, a late appointment, and a downpour? That sounds like the perfect opportunity for a gross-out contest! Now, what's the most awful thing you ever ate?