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Keeping the Family Schedule on Track

Find The Best Ways To Be Flexible With Your Schedule so that everyone in the family benefits

When my daughter was 10, I was offered an opportunity to attend a conference in New Orleans. It was my first business trip – and to a city I wanted to visit, no less – and my husband and I decided to make a little holiday out of it. But when we looked at the calendar, we saw a major conflict on the schedule – our daughter's spring dance recital.

We were torn. Her dance lessons were a priority for her and our family, but my job was a priority for me. It was the first time we had encountered a direct conflict like this.

In the end, my husband and I went to New Orleans. My daughter gave us her blessing, saying that there would be more recitals in her future. We found a compromise. We got permission to attend the normally closed-to-parents dress rehearsal. Before we left, we arranged for flowers to be delivered for the performance, and she had a large extended-family fan group in attendance.

Stretched to the Limits

Most times, family conflicts aren't as drastic as that one. In our own household, the conflicts tend to be smaller and on a regular basis: a football banquet at the same time as church school; an invitation to a birthday party after other plans have been made; a late dance rehearsal the night before midterm exams at school.

When I was a kid, setting priorities within the household was simple. School work always came first, and activities second. All of our activities were somehow involved with school, so the schedules fell into place naturally. The kids who held after-school jobs simply dropped their other activities. Weekends were family and social times.

That, of course, is ancient history. Not only are most families overwhelmed with daily schedules, but the children are in more accelerated academic situations. It is not unusual to find families stretched to the limits, trying to make sure their children do everything and get everywhere. Everything is important, or so it seems.

Calming the Chaos

Setting priorities helps keep scheduling (and life) from falling into complete chaos. But sometimes it seems impossible to establish priorities, especially when everyone in the family seems to have different ideas on what should come first. How can parents effectively set priorities and keep the household running smoothly?

The first thing to do is figure out what is most important to your family. "List 10 values you live by and write them down," says Mimi Donaldson, co-author of Bless Your Stress: It Means You're Still Alive (Forthcoming February 2006). By identifying your values, you can begin to sort out where different priorities are within the household.

These values will be different for each family. For example, for Cindy Buchanan, a mother in Alabama, family priorities are children's health, parents' health, car, home, children's education and parents' jobs. The priority list for Amy Racina, a single mother in Healdsburg, Calif., is much different. She lists her family's priorities as empathy, communication, consciousness/awareness, creativity, intelligence, flexibility and intuitive understanding.

Deciding on the priorities should be the result of a family discussion. Parents may be surprised to find that their children agree with responsibilities – education, religious instruction and chores – being at the top of the list. However, parents benefit by listening to what their child does not consider a priority.

Suzanne Forman, a teacher and senior associate for secondary education at Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc., says that too often parents push their children into activities that do not interest the kids.

"Parents don't let the kids make their own choices," says Forman. "They are setting up schedules for their kids based on what other families are doing. Students at the high school level are burned out and miserable."

Once the priorities are established within the family, it is up to the parents to enforce them. When Donaldson's stepdaughter wanted to go out with friends on school nights, Donaldson put her foot down. Education was the No. 1 priority in her house, while friendships came further down the list. "When you want good grades, you don't go out the night before a test," says Donaldson.

Hugh Bases, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, says that it is important for families to make sure there is plenty of unstructured time in their lives. "Time set aside just for family lowers stress," he says.

Bases also suggests that parents develop priorities within their own family unit. "Make the strategy known by using consistency," he says. "For example, have dinner together every night without the television on and no phone interruptions. Everyone has to eat, and it is a social activity."

Learning to adapt to small priorities like that makes it easier for families to adapt when it seems like life is pushing at all directions and the calendar is completely booked.

Finding Flexibility

However, it is also important for families to be flexible.

"I believe that change is the only certainty in life, and I want to prepare my son to deal well with any situation in which he may find himself," says Racina. "Pre-arranging a schedule can be important but often does not take into account the likelihood that circumstances will change, and does not prepare a child to have the flexibility to make intelligent decisions on his own."

Forman agrees. There are times when it is better to let children, especially older children, develop their own set of priorities. "Let the kids make their own choices, and let them figure out what they want to do," she says. "And let them face the consequences."

"It can be difficult juggling it all, but I just do it on a day-to-day basis," says Buchanan. "That's really all anyone can handle."

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