Slowing down & enjoying family time

When I look back at my childhood memories, the ones that stick out most revolve around some slow-paced daily making up silly songs to make my brother crazy as I dried the dinner dishes.

Yesterday I posted that one of my favorite ways to enjoy my family–one of my broad goals for 2011–is by traveling with them. But while travel and other special occasions are wonderful opportunities to get closer as a family, I think it’s also important to look at the way we spend our average, ordinary, every-day lives together.

It’s so easy to just fall into the routine of rushing through the morning send-off, rushing through homework, rushing through dinner,  rushing to get the kitchen cleaned up, rushing to get jammies on, rushing tuck-in so you can finally get five minutes to yourself…are you sensing a pattern here?

I was thinking about this last night at dinner. By the time Jon and I got all the food on the table the bigger kids had plowed through most of theirs and five minutes later, were asking to be excused. I hadn’t even started eating yet! Sure, we technically had experienced that mythical silver bullet of family happiness–The Family Dinner. But did it really count if we didn’t take the time to enjoy it?

Our rushed dinners were on my mind this morning when I read Minimalist Mom’s post about slowing down her eating. This quote:

“If it took me 40 minutes to prepare dinner shouldn’t it take more than 12 minutes for it to be eaten?”

resonated with me quite a bit. Not necessarily because I personally eat too fast, but because our family dinners–the time we set aside every day to sit around and connect with each other–move at light speed. They obviously are not highly valued by anyone in the family except me, and that’s probably because I’m the one cooking most of the meals. Everyone starts vying to leave the table as soon as possible, and often I let them so I can eat in peace. By the time I finish the last few bites of my meal alone and finish hosing the toddler down, I have to go round them all up again to delegate after-dinner duties.

But if there had there been a predictable structure in place–first you set the table, then you wait for everyone to be served, then you eat, and when you’re done you sit and wait–the kids would naturally know what to do. They might not like it the first few times, but they’d deal with it, and eventually the whole thing would go a lot more smoothly.

Do you remember dinner time when you were a child? I sure do. We sat down at promptly 6 PM every day and did not get up until at least 6:30. During that time you did not answer the phone, you did not watch television, you did not even answer the door unless it was the sort of urgent, persistent knocking associated with a neighborly emergency or a visit from the police. After dinner there was no point trying to wander away from the table. It was well known that my brother would wash and I would dry, just as we had every evening before and just as we would every evening into the future for as long as we could predict. Why bother arguing or trying to pass the buck to another sibling? The routine was so embedded in our family culture it was as natural as breathing.

It’s funny to me that when I look back at my childhood memories, I have very few of novel events like parties or weddings or family dramas. Instead, the memories that stick out in my mind generally revolve around some slow-paced daily routine. Like shuffling through the leaves on my walk home from school. Or making up silly songs to make my brother crazy as I dried the dishes. Or talking around the table as we sat down to another pot roast. And I actually have a lot more memories from the times in my life when things were slow, stable and routine than I do from our more disorganized times. My purely un-scientific theory is that the slow predictability of routine helps our brains really take in and absorb details because we aren’t operating in catastrophe mode or trying to guess what’s going to happen next.

So I’m taking this opportunity to brainstorm ways to re-inject some purpose, routine, and slow stability into our daily lives. And since the key to making resolutions and goals stick is by creating specific, doable goals, I’m going to focus on one SIMPLE change: creating a cornerstone event to give our daily lives shape and force us to slow down, linger, and connect instead of always moving on to the next “thing.”

For us, the most obvious event to focus in on is dinner time. We usually sit down to dinner in some fashion anyway, so my goal is to give it more structure and specialness–but in a very doable way. We’ve had long, leisurely family dinners in the past, but my mistake was trying to replicate something complicated (you know: an hour-long fancy meal with candles and a special tablecloth and scheduled activities) instead of creating something easy to do night after night.

This time, I’m not going to aim for perfection: I know our lives won’t allow for an hour-long sit-down family meal with a centerpiece, dessert and scintillating conversation seven days a week. Instead, I’m going to shoot for 30 minutes at the table, come as you are, four nights a week.

Other families have different needs. Maybe your schedule doesn’t really allow for a regular family dinner or your baby has been waking up at 5 AM and you’re so exhausted by 6 PM that you aren’t exactly at your best. Could you set aside some other time of day, depending on your lifestyle and energy levels?

Maybe you’ll get up a little earlier so you can enjoy breakfast together before the kids head off to school. Or create an after-school ritual of hot cocoa, graham crackers and a game of Yahtzee. Or you can make walking to the bus stop your special time of day. Even ten minutes will do. Just choose a time that you’ll deliberately slow down, turn off your phone, ignore your email, linger, and enjoy.

What is one time of day that you can reclaim: to slow down, to connect, to depend on? What kind of simple, predictable and easily-repeatable routine could you create?

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