Happier Families, Healthier Lives

Family of four; parents carrying two young children during sunset on a beach.

Mona Hartmann is the child and family resource coordinator for Stanford’s WorkLife Office. HealthySteps to Wellness spoke with Hartmann to gain her perspective on ways to improve family life even as we all juggle work and life’s responsibilities and demands.

Most of us intuitively know that we should spend more quality time with our families. What benefits can we expect to receive by spending time with our children, parents, siblings, or other relatives?

Spending quality time with our families is an essential investment that, when made over time, builds healthy families and healthy kids. One small example of this investment is one of my family rituals: In the evening, my family invests the time to discuss our day together as a way to stay connected, gain insights into our children’s well-being, and practice sharing and listening. Getting the kids to talk about their day can be challenging, but if you make it a consistent activity and ask questions that your kids can’t answer with just a word or two, you’ll be rewarded with deeper insights. Rather than asking, “How was school today?”, instead ask, “What was your biggest challenge today, and how did you resolve it?” Or ask, “What did you play during recess today?” Then, be prepared to share something about your day, as well.

Older generations can be great role models and positive influences. If grandparents are continents away, make it a priority to actively reach out to the older generation in your community for your kids’ sake. Maybe it’s a retired neighbor or a volunteer at the library who may be willing and eager to stay engaged with younger people. Every summer, my daughters spend time with their grandparents. The memories and experiences they enjoy in a few days or a week are life-changing. One memory they will never forget is their visit to the dump. They laugh about the “field trip” that Papa took them on, and they will never forget the activity and their time together learning about recycling. Kids will gain important life skills while they learn from these experiences.

Technology enables us to reach out to cousins, relatives, and grandparents who might be miles away. Use the most comfortable communication methods for the younger generation to get them more engaged, such as Zoom, social media, or texting. My in-laws are now competent at texting and rarely pick up the phone to reach my kids; they find that texting the kids results in a quick response, even if it’s a brief one.

Encourage “show and tell” during in-person and virtual visits. This is an opportunity for everyone to learn from each other. Maybe grandpa has a new fishing lure and can show off his casting skills, or your child has mastered the somersault or karate kick and will enjoy sharing their new skill.

Having the experience of forming relationships across generations, personality types, family dynamics, and other types of diversity provide children (and all of us) with valuable life skills.

When it comes time to pick an activity to do with family, people of different ages have different fun ideas. For example, how can you find an activity that might appeal to a 10-year-old boy, a 5-year-old girl, parents, and grandparents?

Give everyone a chance to have some input during the planning of activities, which will increase their investment in the outcome. As a result of some “group planning,” my family recently enjoyed a “glamping” trip with the grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins — ages 8 through 80. The “glamping” experience offered outdoor activities and an extra level of comfort of home while meeting our goal of connecting together in nature. 

Many families make a tradition of annually renting a house in one of the many beautiful places in California. Browse a few of the vacation rental sites such as VRBO or Airbnb and begin a family tradition. Participating in a family vacation tradition builds memories that the entire family can look forward to for years to come. As adults, we often try to think of something “new and different” for each year; however, children often prefer to revisit the same tradition and build enduring rituals that may be as simple as a game night or a favorite dessert. This notion is also valid with the “stay-cation” model.

Given the competing pressures of work and household chores, how can we carve out time to engage in quality activities with our family?

Today, life may seem that it is moving at such an extreme pace and there are many days that we feel overwhelmed by the pressures of life. Time together as a family doesn’t need to involve planning an expensive trip or traveling far from home. Start with a simple goal such as having dinner together 2-3 times a week. What kids really want at the dinner table is you! They care much less about how the table looks or how many courses are served — so release yourself from that stress. Plan meals together, cook together, and visit your local farmers market so that everyone contributes to the meal and feels included in the planning. My kids love Taco Tuesday — a simple family tradition. When they enjoy the meal that is planned, they are more willing to help with the meal preparation and the clean-up.

Plan a monthly family movie night. With so many streaming options available the selection list is bound to belong. Pop some popcorn and enjoy the evening together snuggled up in a sleeping bag or make a blanket fort before the movie.

Living in the Bay Area has so much to offer and the weather allows us to engage in so many simple activities year-round, such as raking the leaves together in the fall or going to the beach and ending the day with watching the sunset. As a weekend option, there are many online newsletters available for free, and subscriptions are sent directly to your inbox. These newsletters are a great resource for finding local weekly family activities: Bay Area Kid Fun, Celebrate Family, Bay Area Parent and Tiny Beans. Kids need parents to be present and show interest in the activity; this is how memories are made and quality time is spent.

The holidays will be upon us, which means that many generations of a given family may be spending more time together. Do you have any suggestions for how to make that time more enjoyable and meaningful?

Most people look forward to spending time with their friends and family during the holidays. But, how do you relax, share, build memories and have fun? First, you’ll need to limit your expectations for yourself and others! The holidays can be challenging, with a variety of family dynamics coming together. You might consider giving the gift of service by volunteering in the community together as a family. Browse One Brick or Volunteer Match for volunteer opportunities in many communities around the world. Reach out to Second Harvest of Silicon Valley and consider hosting a virtual food drive. Virtually volunteer for Operation Gratitude by writing letters of appreciation and decorating cards for the many first and frontline responders and deployed troops.  

When it comes to the holiday gathering or meal, choose a neutral location that doesn’t put the burden on one person or family; order from a local restaurant or do potluck style. People like to contribute and want to know what they can do to help. It’s not the meal that matters, it’s the time spent together.

 

October 2021