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Movement to reclaim family time goes national

Monday, August 19, 2002

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A group of frazzled parents in Wayzata, Minn., made national headlines two years ago when they called for a community-wide "time out" to the incessant demands of their children's extracurricular activities.

Trying to figure out a way to slow down their lives, the parents formed an organization called "Putting Family First." They also created a "seal of approval" to be awarded to extracurricular organizations -- football leagues, school bands, etc. -- that agreed to structure activities so families could spend more time together.

The organization recently formed a partnership with area churches and synagogues, and the organization will soon mail every family in Wayzata its first "consumer's guide," outlining the time demands of nearly every local youth activity.

Now the group hopes to find a national audience via a new book written by two of its leaders, Bill Doherty and Barbara Carlson.

In "Putting Family First" (Owl/Henry Holt, $14), Doherty and Carlson discuss the problem of over-scheduled families and offer realistic solutions to those who want to carve out more time to be together as a family.

"We are hoping to make people acutely aware of how important family time is to children," Carlson said. "Right now, families fill in their schedules with various activities and then try to find some family time somewhere in that schedule. It should be the other way around."

Some families contend that they do spend a lot of time together as they drive children to and from activities, as well as cheer them on at games. Doherty and Carlson agree that such time spent together can be important.

But they also argue that to truly connect, family members must have time spent just hanging out together, without time pressures or outside distractions.

"Many of us are spending every available non-working, non-sleeping moment doing things for and with our children," Carlson and Doherty write. "What most of us need ... is more unhurried time with our children and more personal connection."

Blueprint designed for togetherness

Carlson and Doherty outline a clear and workable blueprint for families who want to find more time together, although they stress that the solution will be different for each family.

The first step is for families to make one change in their schedule. Some people may make a big change -- taking a summer-long sabbatical from all organized activities, for example. Others may start small by creating one special family night a week when outside activities are not allowed.

The second step can be a bit harder, Doherty and Carlson say. Parents must persevere in making the change. Children may object, pout and be cranky, at least at the start. Families who stick with it, however, will likely see their children begin to enjoy and even look forward to the time together.

"We have learned from a lot of parents that if you have decided you want to reclaim your family time and use it well, it will take discipline, vigilance and long-range planning.... You have to say no to many good opportunities because they will interfere with the best opportunity you can give your child -- a close family," Doherty and Carlson write.

Both authors are familiar with what they call the fast-paced "merry-go-round" of modern family life. Doherty, a well-known family therapist, college professor and author, has two grown children. Carlson, a teacher and community leader, has four grown children.

Family schedules are even more frenetic today than they were when Carlson and Doherty raised their children, they acknowledge. They cite a national survey conducted by the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center, which shows that since the late 1970s, children have lost 12 hours a week in free time, including a 25 percent drop in playing and a 50 percent drop in unstructured outdoor activities.

During the same period, time in structured sports has doubled, and passive spectator leisure (including watching television) has increased from 30 minutes per week to more than three hours, the survey shows. In addition, many schools, struggling to ensure their students do well on standardized tests, have increased the amount of homework children are given.

"It isn't just that children are busier; families spend much less time together," Doherty and Carlson write. "According to the same survey, household conversations between parents and children -- time for just talking -- have dropped nearly off the radar screen, and there has been a 28 percent decline in the number of families taking vacations."

Parents generally mean well when they allow their children to get involved in so many extra-curricular activities, Doherty says. They want to enrich their child's lives with sports and other activities, and boost their child's chances for admission to college.

And extracurricular activities have become more intense. Sports used to be seasonal, and now many are year-round. Many sports now offer traveling teams, unheard of 25 years ago. Practices for all kinds of activities -- even for young children -- often occur several times a week, with competitions or games on the weekend, Doherty said.

"The parade is moving in a certain direction -- towards increased speed, increased competitiveness and hyper-involvement in activities at younger and younger ages," he added. "The parade is moving fast and it's picking up speed. To step out of it, to say, 'I want my family to live a more sane life,' is difficult. In fact, it's countercultural."

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