Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Family Life: It Takes Time

July 26, 2011

We live in a time-centered, child-centered culture where the standard middle class lifestyle is expensive.

We live in a culture of aspiration and accomplishment. Self-worth and material well-being are tied to work and income. Along with Japan, our pace of living and the amount of time spent living is extreme when compared to other countries and cultures.

Production oriented work. Time is a convenient measure of how much was done instead of how well it was done or how it felt. Time on the job has clear boundaries and well-defined limits. Time on the job can be controlled and scheduled. The clock helps measure our progress.

Task-oriented work. There is a certain kind of work that disregards time constraints. Examples of this might include feeding livestock, reacting to emergencies, or creating a painting.

This happens when we are absorbed in a creative effort or when the task itself is so compelling that we can’t quit until it is finished or until a natural breaking point occurs.

Some jobs have to be done now. It is not time that controls success but meeting the demands or requirements at hand.

Relationships and time. Relationships are needs-oriented. Needs can’t be ignored or put off. Satisfaction is judged by whether they are met or how it felt.

Meeting needs depends on a quality of being on call, available, approachable, able to set aside one’s personal agenda and devote one's interest and energy to another’s well-being.

This is not scheduled, structured time - time used to further personal goals. This is "wasted" time, time to nurture and sustain the human spirit. When it comes to relationships, quantity of time makes the difference.

Time is prerequisite for genuine human interaction. Instant relationships don’t happen. It takes time to build intimacy. Trust, commitment, genuine listening, serving others - all these things take time.

Children get short-changed. Our accelerated lifestyles and workstyles are taking a toll on the quality of our family life. By living at too frantic a pace, we develop a habit of not giving anything, or anyone, our full attention.

It is hard to meet needs when we are feeling rushed and have so many things on our mind. Do we allow enough time for relationships to develop, to unfold, to meet needs?

How available are we? Quality time spent with children is "wasted" time. This requires a looser schedule and a radically different tempo than when we are engaged in productive work.

Children are busy, too. Children's lives are becoming over programmed and over scheduled. Combine that with the busy time-pressured lives of their parents and you eliminate unstructured family time where common interests, values, ideas and fun can be shared. The best part of family life is scheduled out of existence.

Parents look at their children’s activity-driven schedules and compare them unfavorably with their own less organized childhood. Despite this, here are some reasons why parents plunge ahead and involve their children in so many activities.

Higher aspirations. We want the best for our children and go out of our way to provide them with experiences, opportunities and skills that were unheard of just two or three decades ago. Older children raised in a different era can’t believe the amount of opportunities the youngest have compared to their own childhoods. Team sports, private lessons, specialized camps, music, drama, leadership, church youth groups, extra-curricular activities - you name it, it is all there.

Safety and social life. Activities provide constructive care in a secure context. Neighborhoods are less safe than in times past. Years ago there were more at-home mothers available to provide a safe haven and semi-supervision for neighborhood play.

The more children who are involved in organized, structured activities mean fewer playmates available on the streets. This becomes self-fulfilling as even more parents turn to organized activities as their only choice for after school companionship. Parents often feel that if their children to have any kind of social life, it has to be planned.

Organized activities have advantages. Instead of reading a book, exploring a stream or organizing an impromptu neighborhood game, children now gravitate to video games, trashy TV or other activities of questionable value. Organized activities look good in comparison.

Kids don’t like haggling about rules that go with pickup games. Being picked as a teammate near the end is a major blow to self-esteem that makes unstructured games a traumatic experience. Coaches, rules, and referees help remove the unfairness and hassle that are a part of unsupervised games. Children are becoming as involved and time-pressured as adults. They internalize time pressures, deadlines and schedule.

Doing more by doing less. The problem in having a family life is not getting more done in less time. It is loosening up one’s schedule so that important personal and family needs are being met.

This goes against our "do everything," "have everything," "get everything done" culture. To be free of the tyranny of the clock, we have to reign in our ambitions and make hard choices.

With children, there needs to be time for play, time for relaxation and time to rest. Parents need to be present in their lives, have time for impromptu fun, time to be compassionate, time to meet an important need. By doing a little less, as parents, we can achieve more of what we really want and give children more of what they really need.