Jerry Seinfeld famously said, "There's no such thing as 'fun for the family.'" True? We don't think so. When Steve and I were dating our pastor talked about the importance of teaching his kids how to have genuine fun. He wanted them to so enjoy their time together as a family that when friends would come along to invite his offspring to go carousing, breaking windows and other unlawful things, they'd recognize the sham and say so: "Fun? That's not fun! I've had fun and that's not it!" Fun is skiing for the weekend, reading a good book or going to a ball game with mom, dad and siblings.
If membership in your family is fun, challenging and important — something valuable — your kids will be less likely to pull away.
Family Identity Matters
Kids need to belong. If they don't feel like important members of your family, they'll look for other ways to play that role. The most obvious alternative to family membership is the peer group, the extreme example being gangs.
On the website gangsandkids.com, ex-gang members serving long prison sentences tell their stories in an attempt to discourage a new generation of teens from making the same mistakes. Among the top reasons they say kids join is "Some find a feeling of caring and attention in a gang. It becomes almost a family to them."
A 15-year-old boy looking for advice writes, "I would like to ask a prisoner why he/she joined a gang besides respect or love. I was wondering if there are other reasons why people today are joining. I was thinking about joining because I feel like a misfit in my family. I am the only one in my family that makes bad grades, does drugs, drinks etc. No one else in my family has done them."
One of my friends with grown kids says they embraced camping, mountaineering and rock climbing as a family. Her kids remember their outdoor adventures as an antidote to the teen culture. Looking back they say, "We were never tempted to drugs or drinking because we had tasted the high of nature and the mountains in the context of family love." When kids identify with their family they have:
- Security from knowing they belong to a group.
- Strength It's easier to resist peer pressure when they know other people beyond their friends are counting on them.
- Perspective Life is about more than the issues discussed in the locker room.
Hitting the Trail
What if you don't have any interesting hobbies that are fun for the whole family? Don't be afraid to try something new. Do it for the kids. Let this be your moment to break out of the mold. We figured if we raised two kids in Colorado and never got out in nature, they'd never let us live it down. So we bought some hiking boots and a guide to the Pikes Peak region and started walking.
Whether it's hiking or something totally different, look for an activity the whole family can do, something that's:
Age Appropriate Kids as young as two and three can join in all forms of recreation and babies can be toted in a backpack. Just remember to go for versions of your favorite activities that your kids can enjoy. If you're a distance swimmer, think kiddie pool when the family is along. If an activity is too advanced, the risks of boredom, irritability and injury are greater.
Scalable Look for activities that are enjoyable for those starting out, with room to grow more advanced: sports, music and art come to mind. We're happy to complete short, easy hikes right now — while the kids take three steps to our one — knowing that someday, when everyone's older and more experienced, we'll still have lots of challenging terrain to cover.
Repeatable Some activities are events: trips to the circus, getaways to Disney, even a local amusement park. Hobbies aren't like that. They're activities you can fit into your schedule as often as once a week. By choosing something you can do regularly, throughout the year, it has the potential to become part of your family's identity.
Affordable Hobbies range in price and there are family activities that fit the range of family budgets. Though the gear available for serious hikers can run into serious money, getting started required little more than some boots (we got ours on sale for around $35), a map and some water bottles. Most of what we take on the trail was already lying around the house. Whatever activity you decide on, be sure it's not beyond your means to keep doing it. Although we hope to add skiing to our lives when the kids are older, we know we'll need to increase the activities budget to do so.
Fun Encouraging a four year old to keep going to the end of a two-mile hike can be a chore. But when he knows there's a root beer float waiting for him at the end of the trail he's more likely to embrace the challenge. And when his little legs get tired and he starts begging for someone to carry him, we often divert his attention by singing songs or practicing his letters ("What does apple start with?", "How about baseball?", etc.)
When the kids get older and a root beer float and the alphabet song no longer motivate, the promise of a parent-sponsored outing — doing something they've grown to love — may be enough to keep teens involved in family life.
It's turns out it is possible to learn something new and actually enjoy it. Doing it for the benefit of your kids, both now and in the future, is great motivation.
What's So Great About Hiking
Getting out in nature was never habitual till we had kids. Now that we've been doing it, we realize outdoor physical activities are loaded with benefits.
Directed activity It takes a good two or three hours from the time we load up the Jeep and head out, till the time we lift our sleepy hikers from their car seats. That's three hours of directed activity where the kids are focused on something, excited and generally not bored and whiney.
Focused attention occupy the kids' attention more than just running around the house. They're a lot more likely to let us carry on semi-uninterrupted conversations. We do some of our best connecting as a couple during family outings.
Guilt-free chocolate They say Snickers are among the best trail snacks. Who wouldn't love a reason to eat some favorite high-energy snacks, knowing the exercise involved will burn those calories?!
Thrill of discovery There's something inspiring about a child discovering God's creation for the first time. A new bird, a bubbling stream, an elusive butterfly, all these and more provide lots of oohs and ahhs on the trail while instilling wonder at God's design.
Confidence boost Realizing "they can do it" is a big deal for little ones. Each step taken over rough terrain, each trail completed, even the occasional scraped knee can build maturity in kids.
Little kids are cute, funny, sometimes angelic (especially when they're sleeping) and provide a steady stream of quotables for their baby books. But somewhere between potty training and the prom, communication can break down. Maybe that's why moms stop writing down all the things their kids say as they get older. It could be that the phrases they utter are no longer novel. But it might also be that they're no longer heartwarming.
Something to Talk About
Family hobbies can help maintain the communication that flows between parent and child, even when kids hit puberty. My friend with grown kids describes their family hobbies as "a thread of continuity throughout the changes."
Opportunities for open communication will arise from:
Shared Accomplishments Finally conquering the double black diamond, scaling a challenging rock or even finishing a 1,000 page novel can be an emotional high that acts like relational glue.
Shared Memories Engaging in activities that have been part of your routine for years has the potential to bring back good memories and feelings from days that were less complicated. I suspect we'll always make reference to the time I almost stepped on a snake during one memorable hike. The kids talked about my reaction for days and still bring it up whenever we're on the trail.
Stories There's nothing better than going to school with a good story. That snake encounter was the first thing out of my son's mouth when he got to preschool the following day. For the teen, being able to talk about his accomplishments in the context of family — "my dad and I ran a marathon together over the weekend" — is a mark of identity and pride not common among today's youth.
When family activities are built around mutual interests and mutual accomplishments, they create opportunities for affirming, positive, relationship-building conversations that build bonds of trust.
I wrote this article when we had two kids, ages five and three. You can see the original at www.focusonthefamily.com. Copyright 2005, Focus on the Family. Used with permission.