Chippewa Herald * April 9, 2005

Want more family time? You have choices!

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

An article on the front page of the Sunday Chippewa Herald on March 20 caught my eye. The headline read, "The modern American family: Always in motion." I thought of writing a column about it, then got too busy. (Ironic, isn't it?) When the exact same LA Times article was reprinted on the front page of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram six days later, I knew I had to address it.

The lead-in for the article described how a nine-year-old kid was over-scheduled by his parents: tennis lessons, hockey practice, and fencing lessons all in the same day, on top of school and homework.

The key point in the article: "The Zeiss family might be insanely busy. But they are not alone." And later: "What's falling by the wayside? Playtime. Conversation. Courtesy. Intimacy."

Are families too busy in our culture? That seems obvious. And yet, how many parents try to do something about it?

My brother Jim and his family spent eight years in Africa on a missionary team. Life there was hard -- they lived in a small village with no electricity or running water. But they had something many Americans don't: time with their family. Every night was "family night," as they had to remain in their guarded compound for security. With no televisions, radio or practices to distract them, they spent their evenings reading and playing games together.

I remember in 2001, when they were preparing to return to America, that Jim was concerned about re-immersion into the harried American lifestyle.

I reminded him that here in The States, at least we can CHOOSE our lifestyle. The trick is to make a conscious choice, and not just let your schedule get overcrowded by default.

My wife and I know that life spins out of control too easily. To purposely slow down, we put the brakes on many otherwise worthwhile activities for the benefit of providing a calm household in which to raise kids. Some of our philosophies may surprise you, but they work well for us.

One of the most important decisions a family makes is where to live. For an extreme example, our friends Steve and Sharon Spencer left civilian life to run a dairy farm for 12 years. That provided a lot of family time for them and their five kids. But that's amazingly hard work, and my wife convinced me early on that this city boy would not be able to handle even a hobby farm.

We love the countryside, but we made a conscious decision to live within the city limits of Chippewa Falls. We wanted our five kids to be able to walk or bike to the pool, Irvine Park, schools, YMCA, etc. And when we do have to drop them off or pick them up at Chi-Hi, it's only a six-minute round-trip instead of a half hour in the car.

We also choose to limit our kids' involvement in sports. Athletics is great for kids, but we believe in balance. We simply did not want our family life torn apart by overlapping practice schedules on different teams for our younger children.

So the rule in our family is no organized sports before fifth grade, and one sport per year in grades 5-7. Once they hit 8th grade, they can go for any sports they want. They may be a bit behind their peers, but they can still catch up at that age. We do encourage pick-up games and backyard sports, but those don't have the scheduling demands that organized sports do.

Yes, we may be sacrificing our children's Olympic hopes. But frankly, we want to focus our energy on their character development, which they will surely need in life, rather than their athletic prowess, which only a tiny fraction of grown-ups truly need.

It might surprise you that, while we limit sports, we FORCE our children to take music lessons. That seems to go against our goal to allow more free time, but our reasoning is that kids can pick up sports at any time, while most kids don't become proficient in music without the structure of early lessons. (As a fringe benefit, our house is filled with the joyful noise of daily piano, trumpet, and xylophone rehearsals.)

The biggest time-sink that we've cut out of our lives is television. Even if you minimize other distractions to allow more family time, television will seep in and fill all the cracks with useless mind-numbing noise. (Enjoying a TV-free house could be a whole future column.)

I'm sure some of you out there will think we're nuts, but we are trying to create a loving, nurturing environment where we can spend a lot of time together as a family. We still appreciate old-fashioned pastimes like reading out loud, playing Monopoly and Scrabble, creating crafts, dining together, watching an occasional DVD, and taking family walks to Olson's Ice Cream Parlour. And don't forget just plain goofing off.

Whatever your thoughts are on this subject, I encourage you to make deliberate decisions about your priorities, and not let over-scheduling crush you and your kids like a steamroller. America allows you those choices -- what a country!


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