Fitting in Family Downtime

by Denene Millner

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.

Mess with meals

Just as kids find comfort in routines, they also take special delight in seeing those routines turned on their heads. So one way to tug the family out of the humdrum together is to tweak something you do every day: eat. Try this some weekend night: Everybody gets to eat whatever he wants (junk is totally allowed)  — no questions asked. The only rule is that everyone has to pick from what’s already in the refrigerator (or from takeout menus if the cupboard is bare); that way, no one has to make grocery-store runs or pick up dinner. Relax  — one night will be neither harmful nor habit-forming, just a much-needed cooking break for you and something memorable your family did together.

Some easy ways to spin the everyday into a mini-event:

Eat a cozy dinner by candlelight. (Soup and toast boosts the fun by keeping cooking minimal.)

Hold a “kids cook” night. Our girls help plan the menu and then whip up dinner while I serve as the “consultant.” Then I’m their “assistant” when they’re measuring ingredients and sauéting and plating dinner. An added benefit? Since they picked it, Mari, 7, and Lila, 4, devour it.

Expand your hobby

When I was little, latch hook rugs were all the rage, and my mother would sit for hours hooking little pieces of wool yarn into little holes. I wanted to do it; she taught me how. Part of me thinks she had me join in because it kept me quiet and happy when she wanted to relax. Smart woman. But as a mom, I also now see the simple pleasure of sharing one of my passions with my kids. For my mother it was those rugs; for me and my girls it’s cooking.

Our tendency as parents is to send kids off to do their own thing when we’re busy with ours. But by co-opting their enthusiasm you can create family time out of something you love. Your child will get a kick out of, say, sewing a button onto a quilt square while you’re stitching your pieces together. Or teach him the difference between a perennial and a weed, and let him extract the impostors from your flower beds while you mulch. In the end, you’ll have all done something you enjoyed, and the end product  — whether it’s a latch hook rug or a spectacular garden filled with your favorite flowers  — will be a fitting tribute to your time together.

Just play

Bowling. Touch football. Soccer. Kickball. They’re all sports activities that little kids  — and the kid in us  — can have fun with starting at very young ages. You’ll get your hearts pumping, and collapsing together in exhaustion afterward can be a nice time for a quiet family chat (or nap!).

The key: Keep it simple and laid-back.

? Take the basketball out into the driveway and shoot into the garbage can.

? See who can kick the soccer ball the farthest, or the highest, or in the silliest way.

? Pick out targets around your yard or in the park and play Frisbee golf (or just old tennis-ball golf), trying to hit trees or other stationary objects.

? Fill your driveway with a huge chalk-drawn hopscotch board. (Mari and Lila decorate ours with flowers and butterflies, and then laugh as Nick tosses his rock and feigns awkwardness as he bounces from box to box.)

? Square off in a snowball fight, or see who can make the most perfect snow angel ever. (Decide from the window afterward while sipping hot chocolate.)

Take a hike

There are so many beautiful things to see on the city streets  — that’s what Walt and Brittni Greene, parents of Emmanuel, 3, have found when they take their Sunday stroll through their New York City neighborhood. There are sidewalk vendors selling jewelry, clothing, books, and artwork, delicious smells wafting from the variety of restaurants, and finally there’s Emmanuel’s favorite  — Riverside Park, where the Greenes walk along the river and talk and snack while they point out birds and trees and flowers to one another. “If we didn’t have this time each week,” says Walt, “we would just pass each other by and not appreciate the gifts we have in one another.”

The same can be true even if you decide to hop in the car for a weekly drive, says Danielle Maguire, of Ault, Colorado. She and her husband, Kale, do so every Sunday with their 17-month-old son, Keoki, and drive along dirt roads to search for “neat-looking” barns, or comb the streets of nearby towns for the best-looking house or the funniest street name. One Sunday, they spent three hours wandering around looking for a particular park in their part of the state; they never made it there, but they spent the whole time driving together “laughing hysterically and acting like children.”

“For those three hours, I was stress-free and having fun with my family,” Danielle adds. “I came home renewed and refreshed. And that night, as I laid my son down in his crib, I thought to myself, ‘Now that was a good day.'”