Ah, family life. Dirty socks on the floor, that empty toilet paper roll (again!)they can become sources of stress that build into real discontent. Add juggling your kids, parents, partner, and joball during a recessionand it’s no wonder we’re short on fun. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Our simple do-it-today steps will help you build a strong, happy, healthier family.
1. Eat, play, love
These easy ways to reconnect with your family can help create a really positive dynamic.
Fun up family meals. We know that eating together can boost achievement in children, lower the chance for eating disorders in girls, and lower depression rates in both girls and boys. But that doesn’t mean meals have to be serious, formal affairs. Simple, humorous rituals are what children remember as adults. Try a monthly “backward day,” serving breakfast for dinner and vice versa, or watch Saturday-morning cartoons together over breakfast. “Silly things that don’t cost a dime will bring you closer together,” says Michele Borba, EdD, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.
Stay home, stay together. Tape a note to the telephone that says “No!” to remind you not to spread yourself too thin, especially during the holidays. It’s fine to make cupcakes for the school party, but do it with your child. And staying home for a night of reading Christmas books or watching movies may be a lot more meaningful to your family than a flurry of parties or caroling. “Reading aloud, in particular, is a great way to stimulate family conversation,” Borba says.
Be the cool parents. Creating a welcoming space for your kids and their friends is one of the smartest things you can do, so install a basketball goal and stock up on board and video games and healthy snacks. “As your kids get older, they tend to befriend others with similar values and interests,“ Borba says. “You can find out a lot about your child by who they hang with.”
Create (and uphold) boundaries. Families that set strict, clear expectations for their children are happier, according to Scott Haltzman, MD, author of The Secrets of Happy Families. “Kids may tell you they want to be free, but the idea is actually frightening to them,” he says. Make sure your children know and understand family rules.
Have an adventure. A vacation breaks down the traditional way of doing things. In fact, being in a new place increases dopamine (feel-good chemicals) in the brain, which helps bring everyone closer together, Dr. Haltzman says. Research also shows that people who give (time or money) are happier, he says: “It’s important that children learn that they are not the center of the universe and that they can have an impact on the world around them.” Volunteer at a local soup kitchen or shelter, Dr. Haltzman says. If time is tight, ask your children to donate a portion of their allowance to a charity of their choice, and tell them you’ll match it.
Celebrate your history. Sharing details from your family tree will help your kids feel like they belong to something greater than themselves and make them feel more grounded says David Niven, PhD, author of The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families. If your kids don’t have the opportunity to talk to their grandparents, look through old photo albums with them and share family memories, stories, and adventures.
Start texting. Although your first inkling may be to skip any technology you don’t quite know how to use (or that you think might get in the way of family closeness), there’s one trend you should jump on: texting. “It’s one of the best ways to stay plugged in to your kid’s life,” Borba says. “A simple, short ‘How are you?’ keeps you in their mind.” And it’s an easy way to say, “I love you” without embarrassment. It may not be the text your kid shows around to his or her friends, but this modern-day version of the note in the lunchbox can help keep your family connected.