As I look at the calendar and realize that school starts in only two weeks, I am taking a closer look at our time – who will sign up for what activities, who needs a carpool, how I will fit in work and driving three kids to their after-school activities, and what we should really be spending our time doing. Our lives are hectic. Everyone feels it and society almost expects it now. Last May, you could ask almost anyone how they have been and more than likely you would have heard, “I’ve been really busy” or “our life is crazy busy!” I know this was my answer most of the time. There are even articles written about how our culture has become a culture of being busy. Some think it is because smart phones allow people to work and be connected anywhere (I’ve literally heard people on work calls in the women’s public restroom.) Smart phones allow us to work or email while taking our kid to the park, sitting in carpool line, waiting at the doctor’s office, or waiting for soccer practice to end. Sometimes that is helpful, because the children of working parents may not be able to go to soccer otherwise. But most of the time it enables us constantly multitask and rarely give our full attention to anything or anyone. There are many theories on what makes us so busy. Some experts suggest that the culture of being busy stems from our generation of parents feeling the drive of “competitive parenting” where parents feel that their children need to have full resumes by the age of 12 so that they don’t fall behind their peers or fail to get into a good college.
Personally, I think that we are all busy because there are so many interesting and important things to choose from for ourselves and for our kids. And we end up choosing too many of those good things. This results in us racing around, constantly feeling late and over-stretched. It drives our kids to be over-scheduled, and not have the downtime necessary to daydream, look for bugs in the backyard, or play with neighborhood kids, like we used to do after school. When we are busy and over-scheduled, especially with multiple kids, we have to “divide and conquer” more often, with one parent driving one child to dance class while the other drives to soccer, and a neighbor drives the third child to swimming. Siblings are rarely doing activities together, and the parents are frequently driving all over town trying to get everyone where they need to go after school or on the weekend. Everyone in the family is going in different directions all week long, and there is rarely time to just be together.
This observation was one of my inspirations to create Austin Families in Nature back in 2008. I saw that as my own children got older, we were getting exponentially busier and constantly running in different directions. I saw our friends and neighbors doing the same thing. I felt that what my own family needed was scheduled time for the whole family, a time when we could all be together without the distractions of screens, phone calls, laundry, work, school, homework, and all of the other things that pull at us all week long. We needed to create a specific scheduled time together and actively protect that time from our busy lives encroaching upon it.
Along with needing regular time together, we all also needed to get out into nature more often. It is well documented that time spent in nature reduces stress and increases health and happiness. Our own kids range from 5 to 14 years old, so there are not many activities out there that we can all do together. So I decided to create one. I wanted Families in Nature to be inclusive of all parents and all kinds of kids – young, old, boys, girls, teens, babies – everyone, regardless of age, race, income, or family make-up. Initially, my goal was to engage kids of all ages in nature using my background as a science teacher. This has been achieved, but so much more has grown out of our Family Nature Club over the past 7 years that I could have ever foreseen. Families have formed a sense of community, dads get to be dads together, boys get to see their moms and sisters hiking, camping and catching fish, sisters get to see their brothers creating art, parents get to see their kids paddling their own kayak or even teaching a lesson to younger kids. And families get to be with other families. Time together as a family, out in nature, is a very valuable and an increasingly rare opportunity.
As parents, we have lots of opportunities to take one more class, go to one more soccer game, stay at work a little later, answer one more email, add one more instrument to our child’s repertoire, or check Facebook one more time. All of these activities have value – they give kids strength, coordination, higher math scores, keep you in touch with friends and colleagues. But there are just too many of them. We are simply too busy. We rarely leave time for our brains to unwind or time for our family to reconnect at the end of a busy week. So, as you are deciding how you want to spend this weekend, or what activities you will sign your kids up for this fall, think about those choices for what they are: choices. You could choose to take one kid to a soccer game while taking another to karate and spend your weekend on the freeway driving everyone around, or, you could join your friends (or meet new friends) and get outside together with your whole family and have a memorable adventure together. Memories of outdoor adventures will last a lifetime for you and for your kids. Whether you have that adventure with Families in Nature, or you just go to the park closest to your house, make a choice to spend time together out in nature, reconnecting with each other in this increasingly busy, disconnected world.
A special note to parents of older children and teenagers….
I have a rising 5th grader and a rising 9th grader (and a Kindergartner). I also taught middle and high school. I know that middle/high school kids have lots of important commitments of their own. I constantly have to remind myself that very few things are so important that you can’t opt out once or twice per month (or even once or twice per year) to take time to reconnect as a family and create shared memories together that will last a lifetime. I’m not saying that your child should quit football or swim team, just let them miss a practice once in a while to spend time together with their family and take a break from their busy schedule.
Research shows that it is even MORE important to involve adolescents in family activities – it keeps them connected when they need that emotional support the most (and that connection makes it a whole loteasier to parent them through the teenage years). Their brains and bodies are changing quickly during adolescence, and they need bonding time with parents now more than ever. Time with family and with younger kids gives adolescents opportunities for leadership. It allows them to feel a sense of pride and achievement in being an expert when teaching others. Just think of how much a teenager – who doesn’t have younger siblings – can learn from simply helping a toddler walk down a trail, or figure out what kind of bug a younger child has found. That small moment can be profoundly meaningful for both the toddler and the teenager. Taking adolescents outside together gives them a community of friends to do outdoor activities with, and this sets them up to kayak, camp, fish, hike, explore, travel, exercise, and learn with their friends when they are young adults. (This is now a major initiative of REI – to teach young adults to find a way to be active for life). It also gives teenagers friends of different ages and genders. Environmental education programs like Families in Nature’s Junior Ecologist program gives adolescents job experience and the sought-after “resume-building” when they help teach activities or volunteer. They are getting field science experience, and exposure to different types of careers. There are so many personal, familial, and educational advantages to creating time for family, together, outdoors, even (and especially) with busy adolescent and young adults.
On the health benefits of family time spent in nature:
“We also look to nature to help families spend quality time with each other. The best conditions to reduce childhood stress are those where young people can feel safe and connected to others and to the world around them; spending time with a loving adults builds resilience in children. Opportunities for quality time increase when families are outdoors. We have observed many distraction-free moments of quiet, tenderness, and laughter between parents, grandparents, and siblings in nature.” – http://instituteatgoldengate.org/blog/children-and-resilience-healing-by-being-together-in-nature
On the choice to be busy:
On the health benefits of more family time for teenagers:
Books that address these subjects:
Perfect madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety by Judith Warner
The Nature principle by Richard Louv
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
The Wonder of Boys by Michael Gurian
Sites to help you get outside with your family: