It’s that time of year again . . . school is back in session, extra-curricular activities are starting up, dance classes are in full swing, and yes, even Nutcracker rehearsals have started! What does this mean for us parents? It means trying to learn a new year of schedules (which we probably won’t have down until April), meal planning, figuring out who in the family is eating dinner at 4pm and who is eating at 8pm (and actually having dinner ready at those weird times), arranging transportation for kids to/from school and activities, making sure our kids have enough time to do homework, and oh yeah, somehow squeezing in some quality downtime and fun. Exhausted yet?
Before I delve into giving advice on finding a balance as a family, let me be brutally and humbly honest with you: our family is not perfect and I am not an expert in this area. <Insert shocked responses here.> In fact, my husband and friends could probably share some pretty funny and entertaining stories about my being on the brink of insanity as a result of stress (usually stress I brought on myself as a result of not taking my own advice). However, I am going to share with you eleven ways we try to find balance in our family.
1. Look at Schooling Options
We are very fortunate to have multiple schooling choices available to us. It’s important that you choose the right option that’s not only best for your child, but best for your family. You might think it’s silly that I’m bringing this up, as your kids are obviously already in some sort of school. However, if something isn’t working well for you or your child, it might be time to revisit this topic. Some of your choices include: public school, private school, charter school, home school, home school co-ops, and online programs. I’m not knowledgeable enough in all of these options to go into detail about them, so it’s up to you to research them, taking into consideration budget, your child’s social and educational needs, your availability, the quality of your options, and your comfort level. My husband and I chose public school for our kids because of budget, time (we both work), and we wanted our kids to experience a classroom environment where they would not only make friends, but they’d learn how to deal with conflict. However, we know that as our kids grow and they become more involved in activities (particularly our daughter, the dancer), we may need to look into some of those other options. The good news is you can always change your mind if you feel an option isn’t working well for your family! When our oldest was in kindergarten, we pulled her out eight weeks into the school year, switched schools, and commuted to another district. Although it was a hard decision, we knew for sure it was the right one, and we made it through a lot of prayer, research, and discussion.
2. Choose and Limit Activities
School has only been in session for a week, but I know what’s coming: about five million flyers for before- and after-school activities. Ok, five million might be an exaggeration, but many of you parents can commiserate that it feels like that many. When my daughter was in elementary school, she wanted to be a part of every club/group whenever a flyer came home. Art club, chess club, dance club, choir, band, cross-country, etc. Although most of those clubs happened before school, we had to set a limit so that she wouldn’t get overwhelmed and would get enough sleep. We allowed her to choose one before-school activity, so long as it didn’t consistently conflict with dance. She chose band, which we were actually pretty happy about since my husband and I were musicians and actually met in high school band. (I know . . . ”awwwwe!”) Our daughter also used to do gymnastics, but once she became involved in dance five days a week, we decided it was time for her to choose which path she wanted to go down. Like your school choice, you can always adjust your child’s extra-curricular activities if you feel something has become too stressful. Even if it’s dance. There is nothing wrong with cutting back on dance classes/commitments or even taking some time off if your child is feeling stressed or isn’t enjoying it anymore. That’s really what it comes down to – is your child happy?
3. Schedule Family Time
With school, dance and extra-curricular activities, multiple kids pursuing different interests, work, friends, and anything else that takes up time, it feels like we never see our kids. However, it’s SO important to schedule family time on a regular basis. Look at your kids now. No matter how old they are, doesn’t it feel like just yesterday that they were vulnerable little babies in your arms? Although it’s cliché, their childhood goes by so fast. I don’t think anyone has ever said, “Gee . . . I wish I hadn’t spent so much time with my kids when they were growing up.” I would encourage you to schedule one day/night a week that is purely for family time. If you’re like us, your dancer’s schedule at the studio will most likely determine which day that is. We keep Wednesday nights completely free of regularly-scheduled activities (and of course Sundays besides church), realizing that each year our family night will probably change. Sometimes we plan bigger outings (like going up to Denver or the mountains), but a lot of the time it’s just snuggling up under blankets to watch a movie together or plopping down on the floor to play a board game. Kids don’t need grand, expensive gestures; they just need you.
4. Get Involved
Struggling to schedule family time or feel like you’re still not seeing your kids enough? Volunteer! At the studio, at school, at church . . . wherever your talents fit best. Even if you’re not actually spending time with your kids, you’ll still feel actively involved in their lives, and the best part? Your kids will feel pretty loved. What better way to show you care about them than by giving part of yourself to their passions?
5. Learn to Say “No”
I know . . . I literally just told you to get involved, and now I’m telling you to say “no.” I promise I’m not trying to confuse anyone, so let me explain. There are two instances when you should be turning down volunteer work. The first: if your time volunteering is during your kids’ time off. I finally figured this one out last year. I had spent far too much time working on volunteer projects on the evenings and weekends in past years, so our “family time” became “daddy-kid time.” Not only was I starting to feel left out, I realized my kids were creating memories where only one parent was playing with them. Yikes! That’s a scary thought. The second instance when you should be saying “no:” if you are smothering your child. That may be a strong word, but if we constantly hover over our children, they aren’t able to discover who they are and can’t fend for themselves. They need to be given the freedom to be themselves, make mistakes, learn how to handle daily life/conflict, and plus, as they get older it’s just plain embarrassing to have your parent around all the time. 😉
6. Make Housework Teamwork
Chances are you don’t have time to cook and clean on a daily basis. Every family’s situation is different, but these items typically don’t have to be taken on by one person. In fact, I fully believe it’s important for children to learn chores so that they don’t grow up to be completely helpless adults. There are a couple of things you need to figure out before implementing a chore schedule in your house. The first is figuring out age/person-appropriate tasks. I am obviously not going to have my 7-year-old unload the dishwasher, because our cupboards are too high for him and, even with step stool, we know he’s a bit clumsy. I definitely cannot afford to buy a new set of dishes each month! The second thing you need to decide is whether or not your children will get paid for chores, and how much. There are a lot of different philosophies on this, and there aren’t any that are better than others; it’s a matter of finding what works best for your family. We have friends who don’t pay their children, because they feel it’s important for every family member to contribute. We also have friends who pay their kids a monthly allowance, but then expect them to complete specific chores. We are currently using chore charts for our kids where they only get paid when they actually complete a task, and each task is associated with a different amount of money. (We also use that chart to charge them for misbehavior or for failing to do something we feel is important.) I will cover this more in detail in my next blog, when I discuss getting organized.
Depending on your family’s situation, you or your spouse may need to be doing more to contribute around the house. If both of you work outside the home, it wouldn’t be fair for one of you to cook, clean, and shuttle kids. Figure out what works best for your family, be flexible with changes, and communicate openly about it with your spouse. In our house, I typically cook and then my husband cleans up, he helps fold laundry and cleans the house when I have to work, and we share shuttling duties.
It’s all about teamwork, and you can even make it fun for your family. Blast some music, sing into dish brushes, and dance while you all do the chores!
7. Take Care of Yourself
If you’ve ever flown on an airplane with kids, you know the drill in case of an emergency: put your oxygen mask on first, then your children’s. Why? Because you are of no use to your kids if you’re unconscious. If you are not emotionally and physically healthy, you are not able to be the parent your kids need you to be. Watch for signs so you know when you’re in need of something. For me, when I lose patience too easily or snap at my kids or husband, I know I’m too stressed and haven’t been taking care of myself.
“Taking care of yourself” could mean a myriad of things. It could mean exercise, healthy eating, and maybe a regular visit to a massage therapist. It could also mean you need a date night with your spouse or a mom’s night out with friends. It could be sitting in a hot bath while laughing at re-runs of Friends. Figure out what you need in life and make it a priority. Always remember your mask first.
8. Ask for Help
This can be really tough for some. We’re in the day and age when we [parents] seem to think we have to “do it all” to be good parents. The fact is, sometimes life throws us a curveball and we just cannot be in four places at once. Sometimes we even get sick and need rest. I’m going to fill you in on a little secret . . . your friends LIKE to help! Not only does it make them feel useful, they’ll be relieved to know they can ask for help, too. Right now I have a friend who’s my back-up on Mondays, as we’re running into a conflict with my son’s school and my daughter’s dance, and I’m her back-up for Tuesdays when she has a similar conflict. It’s important for us parents to stick together and support each other!
9. Enforce Electronic-Free Time
Your kids are going to be mad at me for including this in my post, but too bad. In this age of technology, people are not only forgetting how to just sit without stimulation, they are losing their abilities to talk to other people. Next time you go to a restaurant, look around and you’ll immediately see what I’m referring to. Couples, families, and even friends out to dinner, not talking, just staring at their phones. As a family, decide on some electronic-free zones/times. For example: we don’t allow electronics in the car, unless we’re driving to Denver or farther. We also don’t allow electronics while we’re eating as a family, when we’re running errands, during movies, during family time, during sleepovers with friends, or in bedrooms. (We have one large docking station in our office where all of our tablets, phones, and iPods get charged at night.) On a related subject, it’s also important to monitor your children’s social media. It’s very easy for people (adults and kids alike) to get wrapped up in a false society, which could really throw off your balance as a family.
10. Give Changes Due Time
This is something we constantly have to remind our kids. When something is new or challenging (especially when they’re used to things coming easily to them), they might feel very panicked, stressed, and convince themselves that things are worse than they really are. In reality, change requires an adjustment period. For example, this is my daughter’s first year in middle school, and she’s been coming home pretty glum each day. As her mom, my first instinct is to shield and protect her, and offer a different schooling option. However, I have to remind myself that I wouldn’t be doing her any good if I coddled her. Our job as parents is to prepare them for the real world so they can find happiness and success no matter what life throws at them. We also know that kids see life through tinted lenses, so when my daughter says she “has no friends in her classes,” it really means she only has 2-3 in each class, rather than the 15 she was used to in elementary school. The fact is, she will make new friends, she will adjust to a rotating schedule, she will figure out she doesn’t need as much time as she thought to do her homework, and she will learn how to deal with “mean girl-ism” and different personalities.
Maybe your child came home complaining that his/her new dance choreography was too hard, that a new piano piece is too challenging, or that they don’t understand their algebra homework. Maybe they even want to quit dance or piano, or move to a lower level of math. Let them struggle. Give them time to adjust. Do not react impulsively. Chances are with a little bit of time, effort, and practice, they’ll look back on those moments and laugh at themselves. Pope Paul VI said, “All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today.”
11. Get Organized
If you are missing things, are constantly late places, don’t have dinner ready on time (or are eating out consistently), have forgotten your child somewhere, frequently feel overwhelmed, or have to dig through a two-foot stack of papers to find a permission slip that was supposed to be turned in yesterday, I hate to break it to you . . . you are disorganized. Don’t worry, I’m not judging. I would be lying if I told you I’m completely on top of everything 100% of the time. Just this summer I dropped the ball several times in one week because I didn’t stick to my own structure and routines. Organization really is essential for a family to stay balanced and run effectively. In fact, it’s so important and there is so much to cover that this topic requires its own blog post. (Otherwise this post will become six pages long, and I’m already well aware that you may have stopped reading at number five.)
Stay tuned for those tips on implementing structure and organization in your household!