Parents’ Corner: Less Is More…Easing the Pace of Family Life

By Nancy Culhane, MS  and Nancy Gump, MA



I am the mother of three children, ages 5, 7 and 9. We have always been close, but as of this year I am feeling very stressed by their individual activity schedules of visits with friends, lessons, and sports. It seems our family spends more time in the car than at home enjoying each other. How can I preserve our family time and still encourage the relationships and activities my children need?



We have heard from many families, and have certainly seen in our own families how hectic life with children can be. We live in a fast-paced society, where there seem to be far too many things to do. It is increasingly unusual to find even young children whose days are not completely “booked” from morning until bedtime. Of course, this means that the parents of these children are over stressed by having to manage both their own schedules and the busy schedules of their offspring!

The first thing we recommend is letting your stress level be a signal that needs attention. If you are feeling that extra family activities have gotten out of hand, you are probably right. It may be a schedule that demands too much of your time chauffeuring or “activity hopping.” You may need to make some changes. An initial step is to look at your own life. What aspects are satisfying? Do you have interests of your own that you can pursue in your free time? Do you have free time? If not, is there a way to set aside time – an hour or more each day, or perhaps a couple of half days or more each week – that is yours to use however you wish? This may sound impossible to mothers with small children, but it is a necessary step towards creating more family down time.

Finding time for yourself and your family will involve making some changes in the activities of other family members as well. No one can be in two places at once. If you feel you are going in too many directions, that your children probably feel that way too. It is time to evaluate the importance of the many activities of each child. To some children, a sports or musical activity is an essential part of their developing identity, and an enhancement to self esteem and self confidence. In other cases, the activity may have been chosen more out of the parent’s sense of duty than out of the child’s genuine interest or need. With careful evaluation (and communication with the older children), you will be able to judge the importance of an activity to the child’s life.

In evaluating how you spend your time, we encourage you to consider the influence of the American “more is better” philosophy on parenting and family life. Many of us feel we must fill our children’s free time with activities in order to enrich their lives. We have forgotten the creative, imaginative quality of a child’s nature when given time with no scheduled activities, no television, and no computer games. A child who is given the rare gift of an unhurried childhood usually follows his or her natural interests and curiosity about life. Parents can take cues from these genuine interests as a guide to formal or structured activities that might further these interests.

Setting realistic limits on the outside activities of children (and parents) will also allow the space that is necessary for the family time you desire. As it stands, “family time” can be more obligations to fulfill in an already overburdened life. There is no leisure for family time. We have noticed that during school vacations, when extracurricular events are often at a minimum, both planned and spontaneous family activities seem to happen more often. When children sense a parent’s availability (i.e., the parent is not hurrying the child into the car to rush off to somewhere) they are more likely to engage the parent in an activity or conversation that brings pleasure and a feeling of connection to each of them. For such exchanges to occur there must be leisure. We can begin to reclaim our free time and use it for both family and for ourselves as individuals. We can create a model for our children of valuing leisure, a rapidly vanishing element in American life.

One of the most valuable things we can give our children is a sense of rhythm and routine in their day-to-day lives. Just as growing babies “settle in” to increasingly regular rhythms of sleeping, waking and eating, so toddlers and school age children become accustomed to the patterns established for them by their parents at home. Predictable structure and defined activities help children feel secure and comfortable in their world so that the demands of growth (both physical and emotional) can be met. By creating reliable family routines, we also teach our children to listen to their own needs for rest, food, reflection and social connection.

In modern family life, the challenge of establishing healthy rhythms is to integrate the needs of the individual with the needs of the family (and later, the community). Parents can facilitate this integration by regulating activities for themselves and their children, and reducing the frenetic, super-human pace that has come to seem “normal” in our culture. We know of many families who have wrestled with this issue, and have come up with many practical solutions. Here are just a few…

  • Notice when you feel either mentally or physically squeezed for time. It’s very likely that your children will be feeling uncomfortably rushed also. Instead of being either frantic or bored, attempt to cultivate a calm sense of order – a moderation of activity and quiet.
  • Have weekly family meetings during which the events of the week ahead are discussed and planned. Converse with your family members about scheduling conflicts or overlapping needs, so that priorities can be set and excess running around can be avoided. Also, use these meetings to communicate feelings about your stress level. Let everyone know that you are attempting to simplify your life to create more time to relax with them. Children need to hear that parents have limits. It is good modeling for them.
  • Establish one day of the week to be “family day,” meaning that the day is reserved for being together without friends, work or other outside commitments. Many families do this on a weekend day, choosing at the weekly family meeting which day it will be.
  • Consider limiting the number of parties your children attend. Some parents allow each child to attend a specific number of birthday parties per year. Help your child decide with whom (of their closest friends and classmates) they would like to celebrate. For example, if you chose five birthday parties per child, that would make fifteen birthday parties per year to include in your annual round of activities.
  • Consider alternative special ways of celebrating your own children’s birthdays. Some families rotate large birthday parties so that one child has a party each year. The other children’s birthdays are celebrated by special activities with family or one or two close friends. Some children actually prefer these special activities to large parties.

We wish you the best of luck in your endeavors to ease the pace of your life. We hope it will soon take on the quality of a well-orchestrated musical overture: sometimes fast-paced, sometimes slow and peaceful, but the whole moving toward harmony and balance.