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Written by:  Karen Lewis Taylor
Date: September 1, 2009

It's a late summer afternoon in a subdivision where a group of kids plays a loosely organized game of street hockey. Their shouts ring out as they chase the ball, laughing, vying for the chance to score the winning goal.

This, you think, is what it means to be young.

Then a cell phone rings, and a child steps out of the game to answer it. He heads home, called away to his piano lesson. Another player checks her text messages and is reminded that her sister has a swim meet after dinner. The goalie uses the break to practice a few soccer moves for upcoming tryouts. Everyone eventually scatters, not because they have been summoned home to a family dinner at precisely 6 p.m., but because it's time for the next activity.

This, too, is what it means to be young today.

Experts debate whether such intensity is good or bad for society, but parents are likely to agree this much is true: Our children are much busier than we were as kids. Balancing school demands with sports, community service and the arts - with friends and "screen time" thrown in - means many of them lead highly scheduled lives. And in a day that's still only 24 hours long, that prized commodity from our own childhoods - family time - can get pushed aside.

But it's worth making time for, says Eve Fontaine, a licensed psychologist in the Triangle who specializes in child, adolescent and family issues. "Having time together can foster closeness, positive regard, support, understanding and improved communication among family members," she says. "It is important for parents to ... make spending quality family time together a priority."

Not sure how to squeeze in more when your calendar is already filled with your kids' activities and those seemingly endless errands? Carolina Parent consulted with some busy families and gleaned these tips to help you make the most of your time with your kids.

1. Look for simple solutions.
It can be easy to feel defeated by schedule changes or last-minute glitches, but don't give up on your goal for family time. Parents say that being flexible with the details allows them to maintain their priorities while keeping up with other commitments. For example, if having a regular family dinner is important to you, you might have to think beyond the 6 p.m. sit-down once your kids are involved in after-school activities.

Duane Strothers, a single parent living in Durham, juggles a full-time job and his children's busy calendar, but he makes a point of sitting down with Xavier, 14, and Madison, 11, "four or five times a week" for meals. He notes that, over the last few years, Xavier's late-afternoon football practices have made it nearly impossible to eat dinner at the regular time, so he has simply moved it to a later hour.

Gordon and Lisa Brown of Raleigh and their four children, ages 3 to 13, stay on the go with children's soccer games and other activities. Lisa often packs dinner on a busy night and the family eats while cheering on a team.

2. Make the most of daily tasks.
Feeling too overwhelmed by your to-do list to plan a family event? Turn the list itself into a family event. Engage your children while you go about your day, and you can nurture closeness without adding to your schedule.

Wendy Alfieri of Chapel Hill often involves her children - Adam, 11, Gabrielle, 9, and Evan, 5 - in meal preparation, or she sits nearby while they practice their instruments to exchange news and feel connected despite the hectic schedules. "We satisfy those necessary tasks, but with a sense of togetherness," Alfieri explains.

Cara Harman of Cary makes the most of time spent shuttling Allyson, 14, and Mackenzie, 10, to and from their activities, using drive time to connect. In fact, she says Mackenzie "likes the days we don't carpool because she enjoys the downtime in the car and the freedom to speak openly when others aren't listening."

You can also squeeze in quality time during your children's activities. Mary Henderson, director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources for the Town of Cary, suggests that parents and younger siblings take advantage of nearby play areas while the older children are busy on the field. Linger at the park afterwards, reviewing skills or discussing the game, to reinforce that you're interested in their recent activity. Go one step farther, she says, by participating instead of sitting on the sidelines. Take a parent-child theater or art class or sign up to help run the activities your child is interested in.

3. Divide and conquer.
If you have a large family, or if your kids' age span or varying interests make it hard to do one thing together, consider periodically breaking into groups. When one parent does something special with one or two of the children, connections can deepen while staving off sibling competition. One-on-one time also engages a teenager who might resist joining other family plans.

Wendy Alfieri and her husband, Bob, faced the numbers challenge when Adam was competing at an elite level in golf, and Gabrielle and Evan struggled with having one parent away with him at tournaments. Wendy and Bob started alternating duties so that each parent spent quality time with each child. Now, with the widening gap in the children's interests, Wendy notes, they recognize that "doing something near each other and actually getting along" still fosters togetherness.

Similarly, Strothers reports that Xavier and Madison's different interests can present challenges to their family-centered weekends. While they still enjoy watching sports together, he says, many Saturdays "it might be me playing video games with Xavier and then later watching a movie with Madison."

4. Take it outside.
Another way to handle a range of interests or ages is to head into the great outdoors. Activities such as camping and hiking are great options for the whole family, and scavenger hunts or geo-caching can add an element of organized fun that brings the group together. There's the added bonus, Fontaine notes, of "leaving behind the distractions of the computer and television and getting fresh air and exercise."

The Harmans are big fans of outdoor recreation, taking family ski vacations, spending weekends at the lake and biking around neighborhood trails. With Will's frequent business travel during the week, outdoor weekend activities provide time away from the bustle of their everyday lives.

But you don't need to travel or invest in equipment to enjoy nature. Henderson points out that local parks and recreation divisions have put a great deal of thought into creating public spaces that encourage spontaneous play, impromptu nature walks, or team-building activities such as climbing walls or ropes courses. Facilities are typically free to the public, and families can have fun being active close to home, even on the spur of the moment.

5. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Some parents may find that even when they manage to get older children to join family activities, they stay busy texting friends or tune out conversation with portable music players. Sometimes parents feel that they must draw the line on such distractions, but it may also be possible to make technology work for you as you seek to strengthen the family bond.

If your child loves computer games, for example, take time to learn a favorite game and enjoy a 21st-century version of game night, a new tradition for your family. Include their friends in a tournament, either online or in person, and you'll score points in more ways than one. You'll also get to know your kids' friends better.

And it doesn't have to stop with video games. Wendy and Bob turned Adam's interest in listening to his iPod - especially during car rides with his siblings - into an opportunity to talk about new artists he might enjoy. And Strothers, whose carefully constructed schedule can be thrown into disarray by a last-minute addition, plans to use his teenagers' desire for smart phones to keep everyone linked up on the same online calendar.

It's significant to note that all of these parents - while acknowledging that they and their children have very busy schedules - rate their satisfaction with their family life as high. So, whatever your calendar looks like, however you squeeze in time as a family, you'll know it's working by how you feel.

"When I ask parents how they can tell if they are spending quality time with their families," Fontaine concludes, "they often tell me that it is based on a feeling ... that they know and understand each other well. They look forward to getting to spend [more] time together."

That's a whole different kind of squeeze - the tight squeeze of a family bond.

Karen Lewis Taylor is a freelance writer and editor living in Apex with her husband and two daughters. They enjoy quality family time together in the summer by playing at the neighborhood pool and knocking over towers on Wii's Boom Blox.

SIGNS THAT YOUR CHILD IS OVERSCHEDULED
Kids can become overwhelmed by their commitments even if they enjoy all of them. Licensed psychologist Eve Fontaine offers these signs that your child may be stressed out by a full calendar of activities:

- Flare-up of mood symptoms such as irritability or hostility.
- Withdrawal from family or friends.
- Abandonment of other interests.
- Increased conflict with family members.
- Sudden drop in grades.
- Avoidance of practices, rehearsals, etc.

If you're seeing these signs, Fontaine recommends talking to your child, warmly and supportively, about his or her feelings and wishes before making any changes. Some children will welcome new limits on their activities, while others may just need help coping with stress or managing their calendars.

- Karen Taylor



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