Two simple ways to nourish family life

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Once upon a time, before my life began to revolve around naps and then homework and now carpools, I studied some fascinating stuff about families while pursuing my Masters degree at Harvard (that diploma on my wall is mostly useful these days for reminding my kids that I actually DO know a thing or two…).

Recently I decided it would be interesting to re-read one of my favorite books from that period of my life. It’s called The Shelter of Each Other and it’s by NYTimes bestselling author Mary Pipher (she also wrote a great book called Reviving Ophelia about raising adolescent girls – it was a big deal back in the 90′s). The Shelter of Each Other offers lots of great insights into how to build a happy family or create a happy family out of an unhappy one. The book was really interesting to me when I first read it. But the book means much more to me now that I’m actually in the midst of trying to build my own family.

In the book, the author shares case studies of families a couple generations ago and modern-day families. It’s  interesting to see some of the things our society seems to have lost (a strong and quite universal sense of what is right and wrong, a strong sense of responsibility, acceptance that hard things are part of life, the slowness and peace of a world with very little technology, etc.) and some of the things we’ve gained (greater openness, more understanding and acceptance, etc.). It’s also interesting to compare the big hard issues main-stream families dealt with long ago (sickness, poverty, deaths of loved ones, hard physical labor, too much responsibility put on children, too few choices) with the big hard issues main-stream families face today (drugs, alcohol, monitoring what kids have access to and how much time they spend in front of screens, lack of tangible work and tangible results, too many choices, etc.)

But the part of the book that struck me the most was this part:

Pipher is meeting with a family in crisis. The mom is depressed and works long hours. The dad seems addicted to the Internet and can’t seem to kick his smoking habit. Their 18-year-old daughter is a perfectionist recovering from anorexia. Their 14-year-old daughter is downright mean to everyone in the family and has problems with drugs and alcohol. Their 10-year-old son is lonely and mercilessly teased at school and wants to play video games constantly.  They don’t feel at all connected with each other and consider themselves a totally dysfunctional family. They have the desire for a strong, happy family. But they don’t really know how to get from where they are to where they want to be. So they’re willing to try just about anything that Pipher suggests.

In thinking about how this family could heal itself, Pipher says, “This family needed more nourishing activities. As adults, people remember three kinds of family events with great pleasure – meals, vacations and time outdoors. I wanted this family to have some memories.”

Based on this need she identified, Pipher said this to the family:

“I”m going to make a couple of radical suggestions here. One is that you turn off the television and computer for at least a couple of nights a week, and two, that the family do something out of doors every week together. Watch a sunset, go for a walk, or take a trip to a wilderness area.”

Turning off TV’s and computers isn’t really a radical suggestion for families these days. In the 15 years since Pipher wrote this book, it seems that our society has started to face the real issues involved in too much screen/technology time and many families have learned the necessity of declaring and protecting “screen-free” time in their lives. Of course, actually implementing what we know is right can be a challenge . . .

On the other hand, the suggestion of spending time outdoors isn’t something our society seems to be thinking as much about. Pipher goes on to explain this further: “I think the natural world has great power to heal and restore families. Children need contact with the natural world. It’s an antidote to advertising and gives them a different perspective on the universe. Looking at the Milky Way makes most of us feel small and yet a part of something vast. Television, with its emphasis on meeting every need, makes people feel self-important and yet unconnected to anything greater than themselves.”

The family in the book took Pipher’s suggestions. They went on walks and hikes (even though some people hated it at first) and found that conversations came naturally and the fresh air and varied scenery just felt good. They played board games, read and actually talked to each other during their no-screen evenings. Over the next few months, while they still had plenty of issues to work through, their relationships were strengthened, they started to enjoy being around each other, and some of their problems seemed to dissipate.

In our family, we work hard to maintain screen-time boundaries for our kids. They can have a little computer time after finishing homework and family work (chores) and they only watch some limited TV on weekends. But I’m realizing my husband and I need to have some screen-free evenings after the kids are in bed to enhance our relationship (after a long day, it’s so easy to get sucked into emails or TV shows). So we’ve decided to keep two evenings a week screen-free from here on out.

As far as outdoor time, we’ve always loved hiking and biking together on weekends and after-dinner walks around the neighborhood were part of our routine for quite a while. But I’ve realized that lately, as we’ve had more extracurricular activities to get to in the evenings, our after-dinner walks have dwindled to nothing. And as our weekends have been filled up with soccer games and home-improvement projects, hiking and biking excursions haven’t happened much.

Last week, after reading Pipher’s advice, we went on a family hike and made it out on a couple quick after-dinner walks. Getting people out the door isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. Everyone’s just a little nicer and life feels better when we get some outdoor time – even a quick walk around the block seems to help.

Whether our families are in crisis or not, Pipher’s simple do-able ideas for nourishing our relationships and building memories can be applied with real success.

QUESTION: Do you prioritize screen-free time and outdoor time in your family? What works for you?

CHALLENGE: Follow Pipher’s advice!

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