How to Prioritize Family Time When You Have NO TIME!

This is a guest blog post written by Hydaway ambassador and supermom Sara Bauer. Follow her on Instagram at @sobauer.

Nowadays it’s really easy to feel like you’re falling behind as a parent. If you read any of an endless array of parenting blogs, you can immediately feel like you’re a failure because you’re not making home cooked meals every day, coming up with uniquely complex ideas for every family activity, and documenting everything on Instagram.

Both me and my husband work, which means we’re out the door at 7 a.m. every morning and don’t make it home until (or after) 5 p.m. Our kids are 7 and 3, so we’re trying to get them to bed by 7:30 p.m. and don’t have a lot of time to connect between the commute home and tucking into bed. And as you might have guessed, we often find ourselves feeling like we zero opportunity to stretch our parenting muscles during the short time we have together as a family.

While we have been trying our hand at this fight for the past seven years, our family has made a renewed conscious effort to avoid comparing ourselves to other people out there and really focusing on what we enjoy doing as a family.

Learning to Say No

Our kids are in first grade and preschool, but we’re already feeling the stress of having more and more activities, sports, and invitations than available time. Our first defense against that is learning to say no.

What I mean by that is allowing our kids to focus on one or two activities they’re interested in and then waiting until next year or season before we discuss getting involved in more things. This allows them to really focus on the activities they’re involved in and gives our family a chance to practice what they’re learning at home. For example, our 7-year-old really enjoys soccer, so we set up goals in the backyard where we can practice after dinner, rather than having something different scheduled every night. We certainly want our kids to explore a variety of different things and find the right interests, but we didn’t want these things to feel like a chore they have to run to every night of the week.

Saying no also extends to friends and family. We have enthusiastic relatives that often request getting together on weeknights for dinner out or other activities. We usually decline these invitations because they:

  • Are not fun for the kids (no kid wants to sit at a table while the adults talk)

  • Keep the kids up long past bedtime

  • Are stressful as we rush to leave work, pick up the kids, and race to a random location across town

  • Take away from the limited family time we have during the week

  • Take away from time we could spend together at home or focusing on things we either feel like we need to accomplish at home or things at home we WANT to do as a family. (Example: we have a Little Free Library that is assembled but is not painted, no stand made, and definitely not in a place of honor in our front yard for others to frequent. It was a gift from 2.5 years ago – simply because that project kept getting pushed aside)

We’ve explained the reasons why we decline to our family, and while they still occasionally ask us out, we’ve stopped feeling guilty when we say no.

Focus and attention

Getting the kids to be involved and interact has been a challenge for as long as there have been parents, but nowadays we’re also competing with phones, tablets, and fully-integrated-vehicle-entertainment-systems. We’ve been able to turn our 30 to 60 minute commute into quality family time by simply removing as many distracting items as possible in the back seat (specifically disallowing hand-held technology) and using a variety of methods to get the kids to talk. Singing along with music is a great way to get everyone in the car engaged, but we’ve also had success with using classic vacation car games. Something like I Spy keeps everyone engaged as a family and gives everyone a turn to be the focus of attention. Car Bingo gets everyone to pay attention to their surroundings during the drive and includes a ton of conversation starters. (“Mom, can we ride the bus sometime?”)

These focus and attention challenges extend to us as parents also – Outside of random fact checking, calls to family/friends, and changing the playlist (we are a family of music-enthusiasts), our phones are left on the countertop and as far out of our reach as we can to discourage our use. We also encourage our children to “police” our technology habits to designated downtime. We’re learning and navigating the technology boom continuum together the best we can.

To help our children focus during meals, we disallow games, toys, books, electronics, and things other than ourselves at the dinner table. Having those classic dinnertime discussions has allowed us to really connect with our kids, learn about their friends and teachers, and even weed out things that are bothering them at school, between friends, frustrations at home, and even find how we would change specific things about a meal.

The classic ‘how was your day’ doesn’t work very well with kids, so we’ve expanded our list of mealtime questions to include:

  • What was something funny that happened today?

  • Did anything make you mad today?

  • What did you find challenging?

  • What would have made today better?

  • What are you excited about tomorrow?

  • Did anyone catch you picking your nose? (my favorite)

Games

We’re a game family, but as I mentioned, we don’t have a lot of time on weeknights, so classic family games don’t always work. We’ve found a number of games that can keep a 3-year-old and 7-year-old engaged, that can also be completed in less than a half-hour. Uno and Skip-Bo allow everyone to be involved (albeit our youngest is sometimes ‘master of the cards’), and allow us for some fun interaction while still keeping the kids’ attention. These games also add an incentive for everyone to finish their dinner in a timely manner so we don’t have to run from the kitchen to bed. I should mention that we do add some games into mealtime discussion, most frequently “Would You Rather” or a progressive story telling game where each member contributes with a minute time frame.

Bedtime chats

Even on days when it feels like a mad dash from school pick-up to dinner to bed, we still allow for some time to chat as the kids are laying down for bed. Even if we’re just laying down next to each other in silence, it allows for some quiet connection and allows for a chance to open up about anything the kids have been worried about. Our 3-year-old enjoys made-up stories during this time of the day, but our 7-year-old has brought up a number of things that have been weighing on his mind and allowed us to talk through them.

Set a Tradition

Find something your family loves and make it your own. When weather allows, we bike (or walk if we’re already out and about) to a new donut, coffee/smoothie, or pastry shop. On rainy days, we peruse the record store as a Sunday tradition before heading home for lunch. Establish a yearly staycation or local vacation tradition. Set up a regular pizza and game night. Heck, develop a secret handshake or symbol. Make meals together (consistently), bake banana bread every other week, make cookies together. Dear friends specifically have a tradition of “Friday Night Steak Lights Out” that followed their children into adulthood whenever they are both in town to participate. As you can imagine, it happens on a Friday night, they have Steak, and they turn out the lights and eat by candlelight.

More than anything, pay attention

With the stresses of the day still playing out in your head, it can be easy to simply zone out during your drive home, dinner, and putting the kids to bed. Unfortunately, our kids pick up on this and can fall into the same habits. We need to make a focused effort to ‘be present’ with our family during the limited time we have together in today’s modern life. This means limiting things like screen time and movies, but it also means reaching out to each family member to get them to open up. The nice thing is that the more you do these practices, the more natural it will feel and the less ‘work’ it will feel like. Getting these practices into place before your kids become ultra-busy teenagers will help you continue to make meaningful connections and focus no matter how much time you have, but it is never too late to start.

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