By Scott Gardner
The American family has time issue. There are so many myths regarding time that we don't know which way is up anymore. We think our children and marriages need "quality time." We consider it a success strategy to skip our family vacations in favor of working more hours, and we enroll our children in more and more extracurricular activities thinking more is better. The result of each of these time myths is that our families suffer.
I have to admit that one of my least favorite phrases is "You have to spend quality time with your kids." Several years ago the TV station Cartoon Network asked children to suggest possible prizes for a contest. Kids could suggest whatever prize they thought would be the best to win. "Ride in a limousine" was one of the top answers, but the next most popular answer was shocking, "the chance to spend a whole day with my mom or my dad." Ouch! That's a sad and painful commentary on our time-starved society. Time with Mom and Dad has become a coveted prize that is so rare that it must be won in a contest. The reality is that the "Quality Time" myth just isn't cutting it. Most research points to the fact that the more time we spend with our children the better off they will be. As one researcher put it, "Kids need quality time in great quantity!" As a marriage counselor, I also see some couples who have swallowed this deceptive hook. Marriage really doesn't work very well when there's little or no time together. The research suggests that the couples who spend plenty of time together doing all the little things have the best marriages.
Several years ago I worked with a young couple who couldn't figure out why their marriage was falling apart. They were doing everything right, except they had no time together. He worked days and she worked nights. They basically waved at each other in passing during the 20 minutes that their schedules overlapped each day. It didn't have to take a marriage counselor to figure out what their problem was "quality time" just isn't enough!
"We're number one!" Another time myth that clouds our vision in the United States has to do with skipping vacations and working long hours. We work longer hours than most industrialized countries and we have fewer vacation days than any other developed country in the world. For example, the average number of vacation days per year for Americans is 13; in Britain it's 28; in Canada, 26 days is average; France, 37; Italy, 42 days. So we're the lowest in the civilized world, and consequently we also work more hours than any developed country.
Sure, our gross domestic product is the highest in the world, but we are paying for it with our health, our families and our lives. We have the shortest life expectancy in the developed world, we have the highest child mortality rate, and the most chronic illness even though we spend the most on health care! We have a lot more "stuff," but is our lifestyle really better? Perhaps we could even say that we are trading our vacation days for sick days. We've gotten into the "time-is-money" mentality. That's true, but you know, if your family's falling apart or you're dead, who cares about the money!
Helping our Children be Workaholics? "or Dance and Soccer and Baseball, Oh my!"
Myth 3 has to do with overscheduling our children. Dr. Bill Doherty at the University of Minnesota points out that children ages 3 to 12 have lost 12 hours a week of free time. Now they play much less. Meanwhile, they spend 50 percent more time studying than they did 20 years ago. Their time in structured sports activities has doubled as well. So we are teaching our children at young ages how to be workaholics.
Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended more play time for young children and fewer structured activities. I get the feeling that some families feel like "If my son misses one of his Little League baseball games, he'll surely never make the Olympic team!" Or "if I don't sign my two-year old up for kiddie gymnastics, she'll be way behind the other kids!" In the meantime, our family's falling apart. We never see each other. We're cranky and griping at each other as we drive Billy here and drop Ashley off there. That's just not worth it.
Certainly we want to teach our children a good work ethic, but at what point are we overscheduling our children and thus our families? We need to ask ourselves who's in charge of our family. Is it the school? Is it the sports team that our child is on? Is it our job, or are we in charge of our own families?
We can strengthen our families by combating these myths. Here are a few simple ideas.
For more information and ideas, see www.TimeDay.org or www.TakeBackYourFamilyTime.unm.edu
Scott Gardner is a member of the faculty in the Department of Home and Family at Brigham Young University - Idaho