8 Steps to a Happier Family Life
It's OK to Check Out a Little While the Kids Play
Is anyone climbing onto the roof? No? OK, go ahead and answer a few text messages. A 2013 study from the University of Missouri, in Columbia, looked at children with mothers who were overly directive or controlling of their choices during playtime. (Think "The blocks go this way, not that way.") The researchers found that the children showed more negative emotions toward their mothers than did kids who played on their own. "Being there is important, and you don't have to be completely hands-off, but early play works best if the child is in charge," says Jean Ispa, Ph.D., the lead author of the study and a professor in the department of human-development and family studies at the University of Missouri. Free, unstructured play bolsters young brains, too. "Kids have to think creatively and adapt to new situations, which is part of developing the ability to solve problems," says Kristen Race, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Mindful Parenting ($12, amazon.com).
Family Dinner Doesn't Need to Involve Dinner or Your Entire Family
It doesn't even have to be a meal. Yes, studies have shown that kids who have regular family dinners are less likely to use alcohol or drugs, but that result stems from consistent, quality time, when parents are paying attention to their kids—not everyone gathering at 6 P.M. sharp. "You can replicate that constancy in a lot of ways," says Daniel Cheron, Ph.D., the assistant director of the Center for Effective Child Therapy at the Judge Baker Children's Center, in Boston. A few possibilities: Plan a standing date for a bedtime snack. Make car rides to school sacred (and video-free). If your teenager likes to shoot hoops in the driveway every afternoon, stand there catching missed shots and chat. And you can still feed your family a home-cooked meal (another benefit of family dinner is that kids tend to eat healthier) without sitting at the table together. Think that's impossible since your toddler needs to eat at five, another kid gets home from soccer at seven, and your spouse rolls in at eight? "It's called the 'staggered dinner,'" says Caroline Campion, a mother of two and a coauthor of the cookbook Keepers ($17.50, amazon.com). "Make a turkey chili or a braised meat that can happily sit on low heat for a few hours." You'll feed everyone well and enjoy quality time as your kids belly up throughout the evening.
Talking to Your Friends Is Often Better Than Reading Parenting Books
Even experts who have written (you guessed it) parenting books agree. "I believe in safety, consistency, using a car seat properly, and vaccines. Beyond that, much of it is a gray zone," says Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital and the author of Mama Doc Medicine ($13, amazon.com). If you don't have time to find every answer by digging through your bookshelf, schedule dinner or coffee with a friend who has children slightly older than yours. "Pick someone you respect and whose kids behave in a way you appreciate. Use her as a resource," says Race. It might also help to seek out someone whose child has a similar temperament to yours. Advice on how to shepherd a shy kid through her first days of school, say, is best coming from the mother of another introvert.
When You Are Short on Time or Energy (or Both), Just Read to Your Kids
Although most parents know that reading aloud is important, many don't do it. A recent study conducted by the literacy nonprofit Reading Is Fundamental found that only one-third of parents read to their kids every night. But for babies and young children, reading fosters an emotional bond with their caregivers and helps them to develop language skills. Even as your children learn to read on their own, it's important to continue reading aloud to them, since hearing the words strengthens a child's comprehension. And if you can get your kids to consider reading as fun, you can help give them an academic boost. British researchers followed about 6,000 children beginning in 1970 and found that those who read for pleasure scored higher not only in vocabulary and spelling but also in math. "You want your children to read good literature, including nonfiction," says Kathy Barclay, a professor of early childhood and reading at Western Illinois University, in Macomb. But don't panic if your youngster is plowing through a series based on a television show. "There's nothing wrong with whatever superhero your child is hooked on. Quantity makes the big difference," says Barclay.
Don't Stress About Date Night
You know that you need to make time for your spouse. (Focusing on the kids instead of each other is a major reason that many couples grow apart.) But babysitters cost money, and who can stay awake after 10 P.M.? Here's some good news: Sitting on the couch together is probably more important. You need ways to connect with each other that don't take a lot of effort or time; try sending a loving text (not "Bring home milk") or talking at the dinner table for 10 minutes after the kids have finished. "A grand gesture, date night included, isn't going to work very well if you don't have these smaller moments throughout the week," says Vagdevi Meunier, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and an associate professor of counseling at St. Edward's University, in Austin, Texas. And you don't even have to talk. "There is value in just being in the presence of another person," says Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in New York City. "Don't make time together contrived or you'll resent it. There's something healing in reading a book or surfing the Internet in the same room."
Having a Lot of Stuff Isn't Great for Your Kids—or Your Marriage
It's hard not to overdo it at birthdays or, ahem, the mall. But trying to keep up with the Joneses, or even your kids' pleading, may be more damaging than you realize. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy found that couples who valued money and possessions highly had about 10 percent less stable marriages (that is, poorer conflict resolution and communication skills) than those who did not. As for kids, "when children have fewer toys, those toys' roles become flexible and the kids' imaginations kick in," says Kim John Payne, the author of Simplicity Parenting ($10, amazon.com). (He recommends 20 to 40 playthings per kid, max.)
Be Strict About Bedtime, Even If You're Not There for It
A study published in 2013 in the journal Pediatrics found that seven-year-olds who had irregular bedtimes had more behavioral problems than did those with consistent bedtimes. And the longer the lack of a strict bedtime went on, the worse the problems became. If you work outside the home, it's hard to come through the door and immediately tuck the kids into bed. Who wouldn't want to spend an extra hour playing when you haven't seen them all day? But sticking to bedtime is better for your family. "We all make sacrifices," says Heather Taylor, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Morrissey-Compton Educational Center, in Palo Alto, California. "If a parent can't be there, call or video-chat to say good night. Just be part of the routine."
You Don't Need to Be At Every Single Little League Game or Chess Tournament
You can make your family a priority—and make your kids feel supported—but still not make it to every event. In fact, when it comes to watching team sports, heavy involvement (like critiquing, shouting, or overzealously cheering) can make kids anxious. "There is sometimes added stress in seeing Mom and Dad in the stands," says Wayne Henninger, a father of three, a Little League coach, and the editor of an international newsletter for Little League families. He recommends that parents be as low-key and quiet as possible. And if your attendance is going to be spotty, at least make it predictable. "Don't say, 'I'll try to make it,' only to no-show," says Payne. "Say, 'I'll be there once a month,' then stick to your word. It's healthier to set expectations." Unsure of what to prioritize? Ask your child, says Taylor. She may not care about a swim meet but could be dying for you to chaperone a field trip. And when letdown comes (a business trip conflicts with the spring concert), there is a right way and a wrong way to break the news. Don't jump in with justification ("I'm sorry I'm going to miss the big day, but ..."). "It makes a bigger impact to validate your child's feelings," says Taylor. "Instead say, 'I can see you're upset. I'm sad, too.' Kids and parents need to recover from disappointment, but they also need to feel it."