Think back to the last chunk of together time you carved out for family. Thinking... thinking...hmmm, can you even remember? If you can’t, you’re in good—and big—company. A full 96 percent of parents say they’d love to have even one more hour a week with their kids, according to a recent survey by Disney. What’s more, moms and dads say that to get it they’d be willing to give up sleeping late, a favorite hobby or TV show, the internet—even coffee.
We could all use more free family time. indeed, experts suggest that while quality time is great, the amount of time matters, too. “The myth of quality time assumes your child is on the same clock as you, that when you finish whatever else you’re doing and are ready to engage with him, he’ll be ready to engage with you, without any resentment,” says Ronald Levant, EdD, professor of psychology at the university of Akron and past president of the American Psychological Association. “But that’s often not the case. If you can carve out extra, unstructured time, you let him know you enjoy being with him. Plus, he may even use some of that time to talk to you.”
And yet we all know that real life can get real busy. To help, we’ve homed in on five biggest working-family time sappers and found ways to manage them—to gain more time for the ones you love most.
Time Sapper No. 1: Technology
American kids spend about eight hours a day with media—TV, computers, smart- phones, iPods, video games—about 10 times more than they do with their parents, according to the nonprofit Global Children’s Fund. And parents are perpetrators, too. “It’s unrealistic to expect people to unplug completely, but anyone who has spent a day away from electronics knows how good it feels,” says pediatrician Gwenn O’Keeffe, MD, author of CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media. “The downside of tech is we’re not interacting as much with the real world. We can’t go back to a Norman Rockwellian existence, but we can manage the electronics in our lives to find a balance.” How?
Set uninterruptible time. When your kids are young, bathtime and bedtime may be when you unplug and focus exclusively on them. As they get older, family meals should be uninterruptible “time when kids regroup and families rebond,” says Dr. O’Keeffe. Out to dinner with older kids? Play the phone-stacking game: All family members stack their phones on the table, and anyone who grabs a phone during dinner pays the bill (for parents) or does chores (for kids).
Adjust your settings. Do you need to be alerted in the middle of a conversation with your child that your Cousin Zelda has updated her Facebook page? Minimize distractions like this by silencing your phone during family times, unsubscribing from unnecessary email lists and opting out of social media notifications. Have your kids do the same.
Limit screen time. A whopping 90 percent of parents report that their toddlers watch some form of electronic media, according to research by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). By age 3, almost one third of kids have a TV in their bedroom. And studies show that under-5s who watch TV spend less time in creative play and interacting with family members.
Top tips from the AAP: no TV for kids 2 and younger, and no TVs in kids’ rooms.
Marry screen time and green time. The average American kid barely gets seven daily minutes outdoors in unstructured play, though studies show that outdoor play relaxes both kids and parents and may enhance children’s social interactions, intellect and physical health. If gadgets are more enticing than greenery, the National Wildlife Federation suggests grabbing a smartphone or tablet for some family “geocaching ”: On a nature hike or scavenger hunt, have your kids snap pictures of what they see and then look up info about it. Find more family outdoor activities at nwf.org/ activity-finder.aspx.
Let tech bring you closer. “If my kids get a good grade, they’ll text me a picture of it,” says Dr. O’Keeffe. “If they have something big going on at school, I’ll text them an emoticon to root them on. Texting shouldn’t replace face-to-face time, but it can let your kids know you’re thinking of them while you work.”
Time Sapper No. 2: 24/7 Work Hours
Take an 8-plus-hour workday, plus an average commute of 25 minutes, then add in the fact that most of us add another 4 to 10 more hours working at home each week, and you already have one jam-packed day. But this isn’t about feeling guilty; it’s about getting proactive.
Take 10. Once at home, counter workplace stress by taking a moment to decompress. “Even 10 minutes to change clothes, meditate, exercise or whatever helps,” says Dr. Levant. “Then transition into some time with your kids, and you’ll be more able to engage fully.”
Simplify. Family time, especially after a long workday, doesn’t have to mean vigorous activities. Maybe your child quietly does homework in the kitchen as you fix dinner, or you talk about your day while sharing a snack or taking a walk—anything that allows you to be together in a relaxed, happy way.
Know when to stop. “This can be especially hard when you work at home,” says Dr. O’Keeffe. “Set up your work space and hours so that your children know when you’re working and when you are not. When you are with them, be in the moment.”
Time Sapper No. 3: Kids’ Activities
Does it seem like you spend all your free time schlepping young doers from baseball and ballet to tai chi and tutoring? Slow down.
Don’t overbook. “The kids who do best aren’t overscheduled,” says Dr. O’Keeffe. “You don’t need to stockpile them with extra stuff. Sometimes they need less of that and more family time.” A good rule: one or two afterschool activities per week per child.
Just say no. Your child’s soccer league has scheduled an away tournament on Thanksgiving weekend. Play rehearsals are seeping into school vacation. New rule: Set times of the year—holidays and vacations, perhaps—that are nonnegotiable family time. “Assess situation by situation, realizing that even if your kids become professional athletes, musicians or actors, one thanksgiving won’t make or break them,” suggests Dr. O’Keeffe. “But their sense of self and family relationships may be made or broken by those together times. And once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Time Sapper No. 4: Housekeeping
It’s the working-mom plight—arriving home only to be greeted by hungry offspring, unwashed laundry, unopened mail and a messy house. So much for fun family time. what to do?
Hand over the sponge. When kids pitch in with housework, they feel they’re contributing to the family. And working side by side might open them up to talk to you. “Boys and men especially find it more comfortable to converse side by side rather than face to face,” says Dr. Levant. “During an activity like raking leaves or washing dishes you can have great talks.”
Shake it up. If your family needs a meal makeover, let the kids download recipe apps and choose new ones. Then prepare them together. “That shows kids that out of necessity you develop skills, pull together as a family and have fun,” explains Dr. O’Keeffe. Ditto laundry, garbage removal, dishwashing and other chores. And keep your tone positive. If you say, “Do your own laundry now,” they’ll run for the hills, but if you say, “I think you’re old enough to do your own laundry. Want to learn?” They’ll feel good that you’re trusting them.
Accept a few dust bunnies. your kids probably won’t clean everything to your specs right away. it takes times to learn the best ways to do things. if the dishes make it to the sink, be happy with that for a while.
Time Sapper No. 5: Homework Overload
Are your nights and weekends crammed with school assignments? Here are a few tips to lighten the load.
Talk to the teacher. Research suggests 10 minutes per grade per night is optimum for helping kids achieve academic success. So first graders do 10 minutes, third graders 30 minutes and so on. “After that you reach a point of diminishing returns,” says Harris Cooper, PhD, chair of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. If your fourth grader works at home for hours and hours, check in with her teacher about lessening the load or helping her manage her time better.
Let siblings help. “When my daughter was studying pre-calc, her older brother assisted,” says Dr. Cooper. “Later, when she wrote an essay about something important in her life, she discussed how, when her big brother went to college, he wasn’t there to help her with math anymore. Homework can strengthen bonds between siblings.”
Plan ahead. Log on to the school’s website or talk to your child’s teacher and note which weeks (finals, midterms) might demand extra homework; plan family get-togethers around these times.
More family time doesn’t have to mean scheduling expensive vacations or complicated get-togethers. The most memorable moments often occur in day-to-day doings: The big laugh you all have over a joke no one but your family would understand. the surprise you get from your child’s insightful comment. The satisfaction you feel when you help your kid work through a problem. These moments add up to a stronger family, closer relationships and greater parent-child trust. And you don’t even have to give up coffee!
Featured Video: Family time tips from Working Mother editors